Student Opinion: The Harmful Effects of Fast Fashion

By Katharine Cusack '21 | July 28, 2021

Shopper in a Shopping Mall

This blog entry is offered by Katharine Cusack (Saint Anselm College Class of 2021), an intern at the Center for Ethics in Society.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with notifications from fashion brands about the newest trends, clothing items, and sales. When the clothes are so cheap it becomes easy to believe that the cost of buying these goods is low, but this is not the whole story. There are environmental, ethical, and economic costs of purchasing clothing items. Our water and air are being polluted, workers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are being exploited, toxins are poisoning local manufacturing workers and product wearers, and consumers are becoming poorer. Consumers have been taught to believe that owning more things will make us feel more fulfilled, but this is false advertising. 

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, following only behind the oil industry. The production of clothing items comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions. This production drains and pollutes water sources, which includes drinking water. Rainforests are being outright destroyed for their raw materials. And yet the pollution doesn't end with the production of the clothing items; once purchased, 85% of all textiles end up in landfills each year. Even the process of washing already purchased clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year. If the fast fashion industry harms the environment at every stage of the clothing’s life cycle, why do we continue to exploit nature? Consumerism and capitalism may provide the answer. While capitalism and consumerism must continue to expand infinitely in order to survive, Mother Nature is finite. 

This problem of consumerism extends outside of just the clothing industry. We constantly “need” the newest phone, or the fanciest car, or the most state-of-the-art household appliances. And when a newer, fancier, ‘better’ model is released, we purchase the new item and toss out our old version. These “old” discarded items end up in landfills where they pollute the environment and release toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Additionally, the process of making new items exploits workers in low-income countries. From the forced cotton labor of Chinese Uighurs and the firing of Cambodian factory workers for not working overtime, to the deaths of more than 100 Bangladeshis factory workers, these blatant human rights violations need to end. 

Large fast fashion clothing manufactures like H&M and ZARA are aware of the consequences of their actions, but continue to exploit consumers, the environment, and workers anyways. But what can be done? Consumers need to become more aware of their purchases and demand that big businesses do more. The consumer is manipulated into believing they need more than they do which results in them becoming poorer while the large clothing brands are becoming richer. So, while a wealth tax on shareholders, the capture of greenhouse gas emissions, and organic cotton farming might provide temporary solutions, it will not tackle the root causes of the issue: materialism. Our system of capitalism encourages these big businesses to increase their profits and as long as the consumers continue to buy their products, these businesses have no incentive to change. As consumers, it is our responsibility to use less and encourage others to do the same. When we do need a new item, we should purchase a sustainably sourced one that will last. And when we are done using it, we should extend its life cycle by repurposing it or donating it. The consumer needs to become more cognizant of their purchasing habits. This can only be done by learning “the true cost” of the fashion industry.