According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. The production of clothing heavily affects water and air quality by releasing greenhouse gases through the immense energy required to produce garments. The fast fashion industry is single-handedly responsible for the overpopulation of textiles. Therefore, brands such as H&M and Zara are shifting towards healthier, greener, and more sustainable practices in the industry.
To understand the impact fashion has on our environment today, we must understand how it has evolved over the past decades. Prior to the industrial revolution, the fashion industry was slow. Materials to create clothing were individually sourced, weaved, and created into clothing. Common materials used during the production process included cotton, wool, and leather.
During the industrial era, however, innovations such as the cotton gin, spinning jenny, and sewing machines enabled the spread of textile factories that changed the fashion industry once and for all. The movement initiated the popularity of garments as fashion statements, influencing people to purchase way more clothes than was typically needed.
The industrial revolution sparked the rise in fast fashion: the design, creation, and marketing of fashion trends at rapid, cheap, and accessible costs to consumers.
Today, fast fashion dominates the fashion industry. Brands such as H&M, Zara, Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing, and Shein are only a few on the overall market. Their affordable prices place a focus on quantity rather than quality, allowing consumers to keep purchasing more while staying on top of constantly changing trends.
The Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment: The Dry Facts
Although affordable clothing may seem like great options for consumers, as it allows them to purchase more for lower prices, the overproduction of poor-quality clothing has devastating effects on our environment.
Based on the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, the fashion industry consumes one-tenth of the water used in industrial factories around the world. It takes 3,000 liters of water to produce just one cotton shirt. 3,000! Now imagine the immense quantity of water it takes to fabricate the roughly 150 billion pieces of clothing produced every year.
The Wall Street Journal states that 80 billion garments are purchased each year. Out of which consumers wear an average of 7 times before tossing them away in the garbage. Based on GreenBiz, 85% of marketed clothing currently ends up in landfills, while only 1% is recycled.
On the other hand, slow fashion poses a greener and more eco-friendly alternative to the popular fast fashion trends. Slow fashion emphasizes the production of clothing in harmony with people, animals, and the environment. Although slow fashion may not be as affordable, purchasing higher quality clothes could drastically lower the fast-clothing turnover.
The fast production of garments has also introduced new synthetic materials in the manufacturing process that take less time to produce, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, and more. These materials are often made up of plastic. Yes, plastic! These synthetic materials currently produce 35% of microplastics in the oceans and generate three times the amount of carbon emissions.
Microplastics are hard to clean when they land in our oceans as they are not as easy to spot such as plastic bottles. Due to their minuscule size, it is also easier for marine life to digest microplastics – which then enter our water and food supply.
Brands Taking Action and Pushing for Change
To combat both climate change and consumers’ growing environmental concerns, some fast fashion brands are beginning to manufacture clothing from recycled materials to reduce their carbon footprint.
H&M: The Pioneers of Fast Fashion Using its Size to Set a New Course
The highly popular chain, H&M, has taken a turn towards a sustainable path. With their popularity has also come some hard-to-digest truths. As Fast Company highlighted, H&M is one of the highest polluting brands in the fashion industry. The chain has significant blame on the current environmental challenges arising from the clothing industry. It was one of the first brands to introduce and popularize the consent of fast fashion.
H&M began with a small shop in Sweden in 1947 and reached the United States around the 2000s. Due to their significant impact on the environment, H&M introduced a recycling program in 2013.
As explained in the video, most textiles recycled are from scraps found in the factory and not used clothes. Therefore, having brands such as H&M bring forth a movement of recycling used clothing could help alleviate the billions of garments found in landfills today.
In 2018, the H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) opened their first two recycling plants. One of the facilities is found inside a shopping mall where customers can pass by and see the process of recycling textiles. The transparency and openness to the public encourage by-passers to visualize the importance of recycling clothing and its effects on the environment.
The chain has also placed boxes near checkout registers in every store to encourage customers to bring in old clothes and fabrics of any brand. The garments would then be sent to the nearest recycling plant, where they would be turned into textiles and used to produce new clothing.
H&M encourages customers to bring in any form of textile, regardless of the condition they might be in. Textiles such as tops, pants, socks, and old sheets are some examples of welcomed items. To further inspire change, customers who bring in used textiles receive a 15% discount per bag on their next in-store purchase.
Zara: Promoting the Use of Secondhand Clothing
Following H&M’s lead, Zara followed the popular retailer’s path in the fast fashion industry and opened its first location in Spain in 1975. When Zara reached the United States, the term fast fashion was meant to describe the speed of producing garments. Zara surprised the world through its promise that garments would only require 15 days to move from the design period to the store.
Zara also has installed drop-off boxes at their stores and encourages customers to bring in used clothes. Zara’s approach to eliminating clothing disposal differs from that of H&M, as they donate the clothes to a few chosen non-profit organizations. Some organizations include The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Caritas, and China Environmental Protection Foundation.
The non-profit organizations use the donated clothes to recycle fabrics into new clothes or are given away to social projects. Zara’s secondhand approach differs from other sustainable brands and is arguably better for the environment. Donating clothes to people in need requires little to no energy consumption, unlike recycling textiles into new garments. The program also allows those in need to have access to clean clothing.
Shein: Encouraging Customers to Buy Recycled Clothing
Shein, the popular online discount store catering products from clothes, accessories, house decorations, and kitchen tools, is one of the biggest fast fashion companies. Unfortunately, Shein does not have an outstanding reputation when it comes to sustainable fashion, but that may soon take a turn for a change.
Although it is still not enough, Shein has recently introduced a new collection of clothing produced from recycled material, similar to H&M. The new line carries a few denims and top options. Customers can easily spot the recycled clothes through an icon of “Recycled denim” or “Recycled polyester” on the product’s image or description.
It is no secret that most fast fashion brands, including Shein, have a history of greenwashing and questioned ethics, but introducing clothing produced from recycled textiles could lessen the overpopulation of clothing in landfills.
Saving the Planet One Shirt at a Time
The societal dilemma of whether to purchase affordable clothing that negatively impacts the environment or buying expensive garments that are ethically and environmentally produced affects consumers all around the world.
Currently, the process of recycling clothing into new textiles requires a significant amount of time – there are not enough facilities and technology to keep up with the growing demand. However, as more fast fashion brands follow the recycling trend H&M has pioneered, more clothes will require recycling, creating opportunities for more recycling facilities around the world and better machinery that recycles clothes at faster rates.
Although it is important for brands to produce more sustainable and eco-friendly clothing, consumers can also do their own part. For example, consumers can reduce the overpopulation of clothing by donating used clothes to non-profits, trying thrift shopping, and researching brands that produce clothing ethically.
The unethical decisions of a few highly profitable brands affect the environment, our wellbeing, and the future of our existence. Therefore, consumers need to demand ethically produced clothing with their dollars spent to preserve Mother Earth.