Fast fashion damages the environment: how ASU students and staff are fighting it

The environment is dying and fast fashion is not helping

Racks of identical crop tops and jeans crowd your vision. Haphazardly tracing the hangers and snatching an occasional find, the small plastic cart at your feet begins to fill. You’re in a daze. An array of patterns and textures clash as each shirt falls into the bin. Head spinning, overwhelmed by the swirl of clothing, closing in on your field of vision, you black out.

And in a flash, you come to. Facing the cashier, you watch as each item passes along the scanner and falls into a large plastic yellow bag. Had you bothered to try them on? Or even check the size? Or the price? 

Probably not.

As you pay for your goods and leave the store, you realize it doesn’t really matter. The clothes, hanging heavy in your hand, will deteriorate within weeks and fall to the wayside of your closet. No harm, no foul. Shopping adrenaline carries you to the next store.

In frequenting stores like Forever 21, H&M and Zara, there is an undeniable shopping high. Luxury doppelgangers come at a fraction of the price, and by staying on trend, one can fulfill the constant desire for the new and shiny.

“I feel like there are pieces in those stores that I put on my mood boards or look books, and I can find them in Forever 21. They’re affordable, so why not?” Jasmine Riley, a junior psychology major said.

These stores are havens for the starving, fashion-savvy student — but a place of nightmares for the planet. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that a United Nations-appointed counsel of scientists concluded that humanity has just over 20 years to save the planet. As Collin Jost of Saturday Night Live put it, “scientists basically published an obituary for the earth.”

In response, most of the planet's population remains in denial. But, regardless of the time it takes to emotionally process this information, the clock continues to tick. 

Since the publication of the Times article, many took to the internet to point fingers at the different corporations and industries behind greenhouse gas emissions. Others posted suggestions on how to reduce one's personal carbon footprint. Though helpful, the discussion about climate change overlooks this one potential industry.

Nate Aden, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, estimated during a September 2017 climate change panel at Climate Week that the fashion industry is responsible for about five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this number may seem small, by comparison, it exceeds the emission rates of international flights, maritime shipping and the entire country of Russia.

The perpetrator in most of this emission is a specific component of the fashion industry — fast fashion. Fast fashion, born out of rapid consumerism, has been cited as the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to big oil.

The components that make fast fashion so ecologically toxic are linked to the culture surrounding clothing. In the past, companies put out lines naturally fitting into the four seasons. But, as a keep-up mentality began placing more emphasis on being constantly on trend, cheap fashion moguls like Forever 21, Zara and H&M began putting out new clothes at a rapid pace. There are nearly 52 micro-seasons today, reports HuffPost.

The appeal of these big companies is seemingly the lion's share of their environmental drawback. In constantly pumping out cheap, new styles every week, the clothes considered out-of-trend go to landfills or incinerators where they create methane, carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses.

In creating new clothing, large corporations often outsource their labor to other countries that still use coal to run manufacturing plants. Aside from the potent pollutants, workers at factories are typically underpaid and overworked.

In the grander scheme of things, a true change requires serious rehauls of large fashion corporations. As the face of fast fashion has reared its head, some companies responsible for the waste and pollution are taking steps to run more sustainably. H&M, one of the biggest offenders, pledged to seek out more sustainable ways to operate.

Currently, the company released its eighth line of clothing made completely out of recycled textiles. However, some flaws have been pointed out in their plan.

“Sustainability can sometimes become a trend with them. These fast fashion corporations need to realize that sustainability is not a trend, it’s a lifestyle. So, if they’re going to start, they’re going to have to start from square one,” Sophia Toomb, a senior supply chain management major, president of Business of Fashion and Buffalo Exchange employee, said.

And starting from square one may be impossible.

“Those companies have to start fading into the background. I just don’t see them being able to adjust. They are fast fashion. For them to support sustainable practices would be the opposite of what they do,” Lorena Witte, a sophomore fashion major and fellow Buffalo Exchange employee said. 

If adjustments come in the future, they would most likely not be from the corporations themselves. The New York Times reports that upwards of 40 governments have created carbon taxes or related legislation.

Though California passed carbon legislation and Washington and Oregon are considering the possibility, the federal government has yet to take similar action to its international counterparts.

“If that were implemented, they would be forced to create more sustainable practices because the way they create clothes releases carbon dioxide into the environment. So I think it’ll have to do with greater policy change that will force their hand,” Witte said. 

In the face of this seemingly unbeatable phenomenon, many turn to the shopping habits of the individual consumer.

The craze for cheap, trendy clothing rages on, and college students are fanning the fire. Forever 21, H&M, and Zara sales continue to dominate the middle class fashion market thanks to Generation Z. This is not to say this idea is bred out of indifference for the environment. It’s usually just a lack of education.

“Only since I’ve started college have I really thought about what my consumer habits are doing for the environment, especially in fashion. I used to buy a lot of clothes from the fast fashion industry before I actually started thinking about my own ethics,” said Valerie Luyckx, a junior fashion major.

ASU follows suit when it comes to environmental ethics. In an effort to educate aspiring fashion designers and entrepreneurs, the fashion program through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts began integrating sustainable practices into classes.

“Sustainability is one of the biggest issues in the fashion industry today," said Naomi Ellis, a faculty associate professor at the fashion school. "Students need to be prepared to help their future companies move toward more sustainable practices. They need to understand the impact they are making on the planet and how they can be part of the solution."

Though the program is only two years old, many professors entered the program bearing the issue of sustainability in mind and implemented into the curriculum. 

“In Survey of Fashion (FSH125) and Personal Style & Wardrobe (FSH 394), I encourage students to shop responsibly," Ellis said. "Consumers have a lot of control over how the industry operates. If we stop buying fast fashion and focus on investing in quality clothing, we are already reducing waste." 

Fashion students also work with brands like F.AB.R.I.C. Tempe, a local fashion and business incubator. ASU’s Business of Fashion club collaborates closely with this non-profit for events like Arizona Eco Fashion Week, an event dedicated to sustainable fashion.

Many students look to other outlets for cheap and sustainable clothing. The market for secondhand clothing boomed alongside its fast fashion counterparts. Thrift shopping ascended from a campy Macklemore reference to a high trend activity among young adults.

“What I really think is interesting about thrifting and going to resale stores like Buffalo Exchange is that you can still find designer pieces, fast fashion pieces, and even really cool vintage finds for a great price, and you’re not having to go buy directly through those large corporations,” Toomb said.

The combination of YouTube hauls, user-friendly resale apps and the glorification of Goodwill sent a shockwave across the resale market. According to a study done by Thred Up, 40 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds shopped resale last year.

Resale apps and stores provide a great starting point for students looking to make sustainable choices for their closet. Buffalo Exchange and My Sister's Closet provide in-person retail while apps like Depop, ThreadUp, and Poshmark specialize in online exchanges. By avoiding fast fashion corporations, the individual can make a small dent.

“There’s already too many clothes in the world, fashion is really saturated right now so I say just recycle clothes, stay away from the mall and don’t support big corporations,” Vincent Nguyen, a junior design management major and Buffalo Exchange employee said.

This has proved to be effective. The same study also cited that buying a used garment extends its lifetime by about two years, which reduces carbon, waste and water footprints by 73 percent.

So, next time you find yourself in a consumerist daze, prowling the aisles of your local Forever 21, take a minute to reconsider where the floral print crop top in your shopping cart will end up in a year — failing to decompose in an already overcrowded landfill.


Reach the reporter at kiera10riley@gmail.com or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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