Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion

The fashion industry is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, 5% of the global CO2 output. The carbon footprint of the fashion industry is something to think about before you fill up space under your Christmas Tree with fast fashion.

A 2017 report for the World Resources Institute revealed there are 20 garments manufactured per person in the world, per year and 60% of those garments end up in a landfill. Kathy Friend, president and founder of the Style & Image Institute explains, “Fast Fashion pieces are designed with a ‘throw-away’ attitude; which is where the term disposable fashion was coined.”

“Fast Fashion brands like H&M, Zara, Mango, and Forever 21 are designed to quickly bring runway designs to the consumer in record time. In doing this, they sacrifice quality. The fabrics used are not made to be laundered over and over again,” Friend says. She points to research showing most fast fashion garments are made from synthetic fibers. Polyester is the most commonly used fabric in the garment industry. Polyester and other synthetic materials are produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. As a result, emissions from these synthetic fibers are much higher than from natural fibers like cotton.

Kansas City, MO based apparel brand, Charlie Hustle says the quality of their garments helps with sustainability. Charlie Hustle Chief Operating Officer, Greg Moore explains, “We truly believe in the quality of our garment. By investing in a quality garment (or canvas as our designers call them), we’re ensuring that our apparel isn’t an impulse purchase. Instead, it’s a walking billboard for our company that people will wear time and time again… We pay a premium for top-notch fabric. It’s worth every penny because it ensures our customers are getting a product that will be with them for decades.”

Friend explains quality is the reason many fast fashion garments end up in the landfill. “Many consumers turn to fast fashion because of the price point. They are fooled into thinking what they are purchasing is a good deal. Because of the way these pieces are made, after a few times worn-and-washed, the item is no longer wearable. Because of quality the pieces have a great shrinkage rate and do not launder well, in other words, you can’t iron out the wrinkles and many other reasons.”

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is pushing consumers and fashion industry leaders to adopt a more circular economy where the value of fashion items is maintained for as long as possible and waste is reduced. The Foundation says second-hand retailers and garment rental services can make fashion more sustainable. Friend points to online, second-hand retailers like Poshmark for buying and selling high-quality garments. “When buying second-hand online, the consumer needs to ask a lot of questions about the piece they want to purchase. Know if it has signs of wear or if it has been altered before you hit the buy button.  It’s also smart to buy only brands you know to be sure the fit is right before investing your money.”

“Rental can be risky because you can’t try anything on. But (clothing rental) allows you to wear couture designer clothing for a fraction of the price,” Friend says. “I think it’s a great option for a special occasion.”

Both the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and Kathry Friend urge consumers to consider economics when shopping for new clothing. Friend has a general rule of thumb for her clients. “I use a cost-per-wear equation for determining a garments affordability. The first time you wear something, you are paying full price for it. The second time you are paying 50% of what you paid for it.  The third time, 50% less…and so on. How many times do you need to wear something before it is paid for? The goal is to get that number as high as you can.” 

Friend explains cheaper, synthetic garments may not be worth the money. “With Fast Fashion, you will likely only be able to wear something a few times, basically leaving money on the table. 

The more you can afford to spend on key pieces, the longer they will last simply because they are made from higher-quality fabrics that were designed to hold up over time.”

Friend explains that consignment or thrift store shopping is a great option for your budget and the environment.  She has some tips for shopping second-hand:  “If your budget can’t afford a $3,000 suit, head to a local consignment store or thrift store. You don’t have to be a fashion or brand expert to find quality pieces. Does the fabric feel expensive? Is the stitching in-tact and looks sturdy? Also, look at the label. Higher-end designers will have higher-end labels in their clothing. Is the label stitched on by a few threads on the ends or is the label an embroidered piece that is skillfully stitched on all 4 sides into the garment?”

Another way that businesses can make clothes last longer is to create designs that don’t go out of style. For Charlie Hustle, creating timeless designs is just as important as using high-quality materials. Timeless fashions influence your decision to wear a garment for years instead of weeks. “Our goal is to create designs and apparel that can be passed down through generations. While the designs are nostalgic (vintage made fresh), they’re always something that is memorable and exciting no matter your age. Sometimes that hint of nostalgia or good feeling comes from our design. Other times it’s the fabric. Other times it’s because it’s associated with a good cause,” says Greg Moore.

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