From Fast Fashion to Conscious Consumer - SIREN MEDIA
The impact of the fast fashion industry and five ways to build a more ethical wardrobe Which brands are doing the most harm (hint: you’re probably shopping at them) How fast fashion evolved into the crisis we have today The damage being done to the environment by processing synthetic fabrics Hazards and violations of sweatshops including child labor How many millions of tons of textiles are being sent to landfills a year Why clothing is the #1 export from the US Companies that are changing their standards to include sustainable practices How to build an ethical closet and ways to participate in slow fashion
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From Fast Fashion to Conscious Consumer

By Jasmine Simone

Since World War II, the fashion industry has shifted from the long-wearing, high-quality couture of Parian ateliers to an industry of cheap, polyester clothing that has grown to have a detrimental effect on the environment, landfills, and human rights.

“Clothes–and the people who design them, make them, wear them, and love them–can be a revolutionary tool for social change.”

–Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet

Everytime I needed something new to wear, I knew exactly which stores to go to that sold the cheapest, trendiest clothes I could get my hands on.  I could easily sort through the racks to find something new to satisfy my latest craving.  Sometimes I wouldn’t even try things on before I purchased them.  I thought, “This is so cheap!  It doesn’t even matter if I don’t wear it.”

I was contributing to a global problem that was harmful to the environment and violated human rights.

It didn’t take long until I had piles of clothes in my closet that I just wasn’t interested in anymore or things I had only worn once or twice, or not at all.  When I finally rounded up a few bags to take to a consignment store it was clear that they didn’t want the out-of-style fast fashion pieces either.  Besides, there were already three of the same shirt in different colors already on the racks not being sold.  I knew I was wasting my money buying clothes that I only wore a few times and were out of style as quickly as they were in, but I didn’t know how else to shop.  I was addicted to fast fashion.

In my first year of college, I took a Global Women’s Studies class where I learned about the high cost of the fast fashion industry and its harmful effects on the environment, women’s and human rights, and my own pocket.  As I looked into the industry of cheap, polyester clothing I was shocked at how I was unknowingly contributing to global issues that my personal values were adamantly against.  Finding ways to combat fast fashion is a passion of mine that I have addressed head-on and I have never looked back.

In this piece we will uncover:
  • Which brands are doing the most harm (hint: you’re probably shopping at them)
  • How fast fashion evolved into the crisis we have today
  • The damage being done to the environment by processing synthetic fabrics
  • Hazards and violations of sweatshops including child labor
  • How many millions of tons of textiles are being sent to landfills a year
  • Why clothing is the #1 export from the US
  • Companies that are changing their standards to include sustainable practices
  • How to build an ethical closet and ways to participate in slow fashion
The industry of cheap, polyester clothing

Every shopping mall in America and Europe is filled with department stores and discounted clothing stores that have survived the last few decades of competitive changes in the apparel industry.  The stores that remain produce clothing at previously unheard of prices and are mostly considered “fast fashion” retailers. Fast fashion can be identified by modern retailers that have streamlined their production pipeline to bring in a constant supply of new styles to display on salesfloors every week. Examples of the most popular fast fashion stores include H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Gap, Express, Walmart, and Target.

Fast fashion can be identified as modern retailers that have streamlined their production pipeline to bring in a constant supply of new styles to display on salesfloors every week. Examples of the most popular fast fashion stores include H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Gap, Express, Walmart, and Target.

The fast fashion industry claims that they have responded to consumer demand for cheaper and ultra-trendy apparel, but in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline explains, “Retailers have one of two ways to earning their profits: They can either sell fewer goods with a higher markup or more goods with a lower markup.  A local boutique or an independent department store is a good example of the markup strategy.”  This approach of cheaply made fashion wasn’t always the norm.

Before World War II, most middle and low-class families had a handful of clothing items that were repaired and repurposed to grow with each individual and slow-changing trends. Wealthy families had their clothing personally designed by dressmakers and couturiers.  Teri Agins points out in The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business, that as the trends changed in the 1960s to introduce the freedom offered by the mini skirt and ready-to-wear collections, the fashion industry shifted from the long-wearing, high-quality couture of Parian ateliers to an industry of cheap, polyester clothing that has grown to have a detrimental effect on the environment, landfills, and human rights.

“Retailers have one of two ways to earning their profits: They can either sell fewer goods with a higher markup or more goods with a lower markup. A local boutique or an independent department store is a good example of the markup strategy.”

sustainable ethical fashion
the high cost of producing synthetic materials

The modern approach to the mass-production of clothing comes with an extraordinary downside and unprecedented damage to the environment. The increase in clothing made from polyester fabric, which has the advantages of being wrinkle-resistant and is an easily washable fabric, comes with the high cost of producing synthetic materials. 

Processing raw materials into fabric and clothing requires a massive amount of hazardous chemicals, including nonylphenol, a hormone disruptor, which then ends up in the wastewater that is being illegally dumped into the ocean.

Made from raw petroleum, polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET, is the polymer used to make soda bottles and polyester fabric, and is the most-used fiber in the textile industry.  Polyester accounts for over 55% of all fibers produced, now surpassing cotton production by twice as much, according to a recent Textile Exchange report. Naturally made fibers seem like a sensible solution, but even conventionally grown cotton ranks among one of the most toxic fabrics to produce, requiring a quarter of all insecticides and pesticides used in farming and demands the highest use of water in the agricultural industry, according to the “Living Waters Report” by the WWF.

Processing raw materials into fabric and clothing requires a massive amount of hazardous chemicals, including nonylphenol, a hormone disruptor, which then ends up in the wastewater that is being illegally dumped into the ocean.  A particular incident has been reported by Greenpeace about the Wubao Dyeing Industrial zone in Shishi, China, where research shows that discharge pipes from the city released “a huge black plume of wastewater around the size of 50 Olympic swimming pools on the sea’s surface; a large dark scar on the water easily visible via satellite imagery.” Unfortunately, there are many more illegal dumping situations similar to this one around the globe on a daily basis.

sustainable ethical fashion
A particular incident has been reported by Greenpeace about the Wubao Dyeing Industrial zone in Shishi, China, where research shows that discharge pipes from the city released “a huge black plume of wastewater around the size of 50 Olympic swimming pools on the sea’s surface; a large dark scar on the water easily visible via satellite imagery.”
sweatshops and cheap labor

The process of manufacturing fast fashion apparel is just as difficult for the environment as it is on the workers that make the clothes. The majority of today’s mass-produced clothes are created in sweatshops across Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2013, the deadliest incident in the fashion industry took place in Bangladesh when an eight-story building filled with shops, apartments, and clothing factories collapsed killing 1,134 workers, mostly women, and leaving over 2,500 injured.

As defined by the United States General Accounting Office, a sweatshop is a factory that violates 2 or more labor laws such as: “failure to keep required records of wages, hours worked, and injuries; incorrect wages, both below the minimum wage and without overtime compensation; illegal work by minors; fire hazards; and work procedures that cause crippling illness.” The fast fashion industry is notoriously known for its use of sweatshops and cheap labor, including child labor.

In 2013, the deadliest incident in the fashion industry took place in Bangladesh when an eight-story building filled with shops, apartments, and clothing factories collapsed killing 1,134 workers, mostly women, and leaving over 2,500 injured.  Among the multiple brands that were being manufactured, there were Walmart and The Children’s Place. This incident was a huge wake-up call for the fast fashion industry and corporations, but money still seems to be the deciding factor over human lives, even by the consumers of the “cheaply” produced clothing.

sustainable fashion sweatshop
Female sweatshop worker. The fast fashion industry is notoriously known for its use of sweatshops and cheap labor, including child labor.
five Tons of unwanted clothes every day

The constant availability and low cost of mass-produced clothing mean that these factory-produced items don’t carry much value in the minds of the many consumers, who make purchases from Zara an average of 17 times per year, according to Cline in Overdressed. Garments are often discarded after only a few uses, or sometimes are never even worn by the buyer.

Second-hand stores are overflowing with unwanted, low-quality clothing that they can’t sell.

When getting rid of unwanted clothes, one option could be to donate or sell them to thrift stores, but these days, most second-hand stores are overflowing with unwanted, low-quality clothing that they can’t sell.  Elizabeth Cline, explains what happens to clothes at donation centers.  One Salvation Army center in Brooklyn processes 5 tons of clothing every day of the year, selecting 11,200 of the best items to be distributed across their 8 storefronts daily.  Once on the racks, each previously owned garment has exactly one month to be sold before it is returned to a processing room where the undesirable pieces are compressed into half-ton cubes.  One of those 8 Salvation Army stores “builds a completed wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales, of unwanted clothing every three days. And this is just a small portion of the cast-offs of one single Salvation Army location in one city in the United States,” explains Cline. 

The majority of donated clothing ends up being exported to Sub-Saharan Africa, making used clothing the number one export by volume from the U.S.  In Tanzania and Kenya, the clothing that arrives by ship is called mitumba, which is the word for “bales,” and is sold at mitumba markets. But Africa is changing; with access to the same affordable fast fashion clothing from China and the wide-spread use of the internet, the standard is rising on style and design in those countries making our discarded items even less valuable and reusable.

One Salvation Army center in Brooklyn processes 5 tons of clothing every day of the year and builds a completed wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales, of unwanted clothing every three days. And this is just a small portion of the cast-offs.

The majority of donated clothing ends up being exported to Sub-Saharan Africa, making used clothing the number one export by volume from the U.S.  In Tanzania and Kenya, the clothing that arrives by ship is called mitumba, which is the word for “bales,” and is sold at mitumba markets. But Africa is changing; with access to the same affordable fast fashion clothing from China and the wide-spread use of the internet, the standard is rising on style and design in those countries making our discarded items even less valuable and reusable.

sustainable fashion
The majority of donated clothing ends up being exported to Sub-Saharan Africa, making used clothing the number one export by volume from the U.S.
recycled textiles

While the demand for second-hand clothing is on the decline, recycling seems like the last good option. With numerous options for elements like glass, plastic, and aluminum, the processes for recycling textiles hasn’t been very well developed and the options that exist are unknown to most consumers. With the second-hand markets overflowing, and recycling as an obscure option, a large portion of garments makes their way to the trash.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 10 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills in 2015.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 10 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills in 2014.

While this is a discouraging statistic, there are a few companies that are working to develop products using recycled plastics and PET material. Eco-fashion brand Patagonia configured an innovative way to recycle PET fibers into fleece clothing and reports that they have saved over 85 million soda bottles from the landfill in a little over 20 years, as described in a report by Luz Claudio called “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” The same report discusses a trademarked material that is being created from corn by-products called Ingeo.  High-end fashion brands Versace, Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta have used Ingeo in some of their haute couture collections, which shows a good effort, but is this enough to offset the compounding waste of the fashion industry?

sustainable ethical fashion
Ingeo is created by making use of the carbon stored in plants by photosynthesis in the form of dextrose sugar. Plants like corn, cassava, sugar cane or beets are transformed by turning CO2 it into long-chain sugar molecules.
Slow Fashion

“One antidote to this high-speed style Armageddon is ‘slow fashion’— a concept, like ‘slow food,’ that is itself garnering trend-worthy status,” states Elizabeth Cline. The movement is growing and the largest fast fashion corporations are making moves to appeal to the informed consumer. 

“One antidote to this high-speed style Armageddon is ‘slow fashion’— a concept, like ‘slow food,’ that is itself garnering trend-worthy status,” states Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”

H&M is proud of their newly developed “Conscious Collection,” which is in its seventh season of production and is expanding to include sustainably sourced fibers such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, and organic linen. H&M states on their website, published in July 2018, that they have been praised by Greenpeace for their commitment to progressing the environmental impact of fashion production, and they disclose in their “Sustainability Summary 2018” that in 2019 customers will be able to trace most of their products to the factory they have been made in and find information to make conscious choices.  They report that 100% of their commercial business partners have signed their Code of Ethics.  In their Greenpeace Report, they go on to spell out their commitment and goals on water and chemical management: 

“Our vision to lead the change towards a toxic-free fashion future includes our commitment to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals and hence achieve zero discharge of such substances from the production of our products by 2020 and to achieve full traceability of input chemicals by 2030…Our aim is to only use recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and to become climate positive by 2040.” –H&M Group at Greenpeace Report

These commitments by H&M and their partners feel like huge strides in the fashion industry for consumers in the US and Europe, and also for the factory workers overseas, and for the environment on a global scale.  There is still a long way to go to create a truly sustainable fashion industry that may still be considered “fast” or may be a completely different approach like Cline pointed out in regard to “slow fashion.”  One thing is for sure, that we cannot continue as we have or we will exhaust the resources from this planet. It offers peace of mind to know that corporations are listening and consumers are becoming aware of the huge changes that are needed in the fashion industry.

“Transparency is the key to build trust and enable customers to make conscious choices.”

–H&M

sustainable ethical fashion
The movement is growing and the largest fast fashion corporations are making moves to appeal to the informed consumer.
Becoming a Conscious Consumer

Creating a closet that is sustainably sourced and stylish doesn’t have to be difficult, but it’s important to get started now so the benefits of protecting the environment and human rights can begin immediately. There are a few simple things that you can do to begin building a more ethical closet starting now.

10 Tips to Building a More Ethical Wardrobe and Becoming a Conscious Consumer

  • Stop shopping at fast fashion retailers that don’t pay workers a fair wage and pollute the environment
  • Support sustainably-motivated brands that source fair-trade materials and are based in the US
  • Make wise decisions when shopping such as being aware of your triggers for impulse buying
  • Learn basic maintenance strategies by having a sewing kit on hand and learning how to sew buttons, patch jeans, repair a split seam, and remove stains
  • Have clothes tailored to fit you better and extend their wearability and functionality
  • Shop at consignment and second-hand stores for gently used pieces and unique vintage items.
  • Check labels for high-quality materials and follow care instructions to help your garments last longer
  • Rent or borrow clothes for special occasions or events
  • Host a clothing swap with your friends where you get to shop each other’s closets of any unwanted items.
  • Subscribe to a clothing rental services such as Le Tote or Rent The Runway
sustainable fashion slow fashion fast fashion
5 Ways to Build a More Ethical Wardrobe and Support Slow Fashion
Shop Ethical fashion brands

Ethical fashion brands originally posted on thegoodtrade.com

Reformation

Based In | California, USA
Ethics | Uses sustainable fabrics, purchases carbon offsets, pays living wages
Best For | On-trend eco-friendly clothing
Product Range | Women’s apparel, outerwear, bridal
Size Range | XXS–3X; up to US 24
Price Range | $$$

Shop Reformation

ABLE

Based In | Tennessee, USA
Ethics | Female artisan-made in Peru, fair labor practices, B Corp
Best For | Feminist brand supporting women
Product Range | Women’s apparel, shoes, accessories
Size Range | XS-XL; up to US 14
Price Range | $–$$

Shop ABLE

Thought Clothing

Based In | London, UK
Ethics | Organic cotton & sustainable fabrics
Best For | Affordable organic clothing
Product Range | Women’s & men’s apparel, accessories
Size Range | XS–XL; up to US 14
Price Range | $–$$

Shop Thought Clothing

Everlane

Based In | California, USA
Ethics | Ethical production process, radical transparency
Best For | Affordable ethical clothing
Product Range | Women’s & men’s apparel, accessories, shoes
Size Range | XXS–XL; up to US 16
Price Range | $–$$

Shop Everlane

Outdoor Voices

Based In | Texas, USA
Ethics | Uses recycled materials, ethical production
Best For | Sustainable athletic wear for men and women
Product Range | Women’s & men’s activewear
Size Range | XS–XL
Price Range | $$

Shop Outdoor Voices

PACT

Based In | Colorado, USA
Ethics | Fair Trade Certified, organic cotton, B Corp
Best For | Fair trade organic cotton basics
Product Range | Women’s, men’s, & children’s basics, activewear
Size Range | XS–XL
Price Range | $

Shop Pact

References

Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2016. 

Agins, Teri. The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever. Harper Collins, 1999.

Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” Environmental Health Perspectives, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2007.

Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Portfolio/Penguin, 2013.

Gainer, William J. “Sweatshops” in the U.S.: Opinions on Their Extent and Possible Enforcement Options.” United States General Accounting Office , Aug. 1988.

H&M Group Sustainability Report 2018.” H&M Group | Reports, 29 March 2019.

A Monstrous Mess: Toxic Water Pollution in China – Greenpeace International.” GREENPEACE New Zealand, Greenpeace International, Jan. 2014.

Living Waters: Conserving the Source of Life.” WWF.

Preferred Fiber Market Report 2016. Textile Exchange, Oct 2016. Accessed July 2018.

Sustainability Summary 2018.” H&M Group | Reports.

Jasmine Simone
jasmine@siren.media

Jasmine is a feminist at heart and a Women’s Studies major by degree. She has a sincere passion for helping women and families as a Certified Domestic Violence Counselor. It has been her experience working in social services and fashion that has inspired her to combine the two distinct industries to empower women to thrive by developing their own businesses.

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