Fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry, only coming in behind the oil industry in terms of pollution. They use harsh chemicals and pollutants to produce and dye clothes, and many textile producers are known for dumping those chemicals back into the local water supply without treating the runoff first. Fast fashion companies get their impossibly cheap prices by outsourcing labor to developing countries. These countries often have fewer regulations regarding pollution, so factories can worry less about meeting environmental restrictions and focus more on making ultra cheap clothes, even if the practices to produce them are terrible for the environment. Another factor that outsourcing includes is the cost of transportation. In the past, as Americans, a much larger percentage of our clothes were made domestically than there are now. This in itself isn’t inherently a negative thing, but when a shirt produced in China needs to be flown overseas to be sold in the US, the pollution from that mode of transportation also affects the environment. Multiply this over and over for each shipment of t-shirts, and the effect adds up to a lot of extra greenhouse gases being released into the air. Not only the processes, but also the materials commonly used in fast fashion are toxic to the environment. As our rate of purchases increases, our need for raw materials for fibers to make clothes increases as well. Large amounts of pesticides are used to grow the cotton many of our clothes are made from, and the plant, organic or not, uses vast quantities of water for it to be able to be turned into a t-shrit. Furthermore, we now wear polyester and other synthetic cloth derived from oil more than we ever have in the past.
As consumers become more aware of these practices and climate change becomes an increasingly important issue for the general population, major fast fashion behemoths such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 use greenwashed marketing ploys to distract consumers and detract from the real destructive effects of their production. For example, Zara recently started an initiative to make their stores more green and opened the first flagship store of that kind this year. They say it uses 30% less energy and 50% less water to operate than a conventional store space. This is great, but it masks the fact that many of their production practices cause major pollution. Other examples of similar practices are H&M’s recycling program, or Forever 21 building the largest solar powered system in LA. Objectively, these are great programs and it’s encouraging to see major clothing companies take steps and set an example of being “green,” but the issue is that these steps barely begin to scratch the surface of what these companies actually contribute to global climate change. They are practicing greenwashing, rather than just becoming more environmentally responsible because these policies are meant to look eco-friendly to consumers on the surface, but the companies do not actually having to change or improve their production methods to make an environmentally sustainable difference in the areas that matter the most.
While “green” initiatives and programs in themselves are progress in the right direction, it is vital that we as consumers continue to think critically about the motives behind them and question whether a company is truly being environmentally responsible, or if it is meant as a distraction from a larger issue.
Example of an ad from H&M’s recycling campaign
Some interesting sources to check out: