A customer browses clothes at a Zara store in China, on June 24, 2014.
Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg/Getty

Analysis: Fast fashion comes at a steep price for the environment

There are few industries fickler than fashion, changing annually and swapping seasonally. The good news is that fashion can, in theory, change more quickly than the energy or agricultural industries, for example. And when it comes to tackling climate change, agility and the ability to rapidly retool practices will be essential attributes of the most resilient and sustainable industries.

This is how Emma Watson’s recent take on waste — she appeared at a red carpet New York City gala wearing a dress made entirely of trash — could herald a new trend for fashion. Or at least, it should, because we’re rapidly approaching “peak stuff” with bursting consumer closets that are unsustainable by any measure.

Most clothes are worn, on average, only seven times before they’re discarded, forcing an astonishing 150 billion new clothing items to be made annually. Thank “fast fashion,” a business model based on the fabrication of hyper trends and clothing that doesn’t last for consumers to accumulate. But given limited natural resources and the urgent need to protect what remains from further apparel-driven pollution, the cutting edge in fashion will soon need to trend and tack towards something more people- and planet-friendly. 

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Getting clothing cheap enough for the fashion industry’s disposable model has required massive amounts of cheap material and cheap labor — both of which came with devastatingly high and unaccounted-for costs.

First, the push for low prices led to cheap material. Polyester is the worst: It’s a plastic made from fossil fuels and found in 50 percent of all clothing. It’s enormously energy intensive and doesn’t bio-degrade, making for a catastrophic carbon and environmental footprint. In outsourcing production, a process greased by decades of trade deals, we simultaneously outsourced pollution to countries with even dirtier power grids. Now, 10 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint comes from the apparel industry, and apparel is the second largest polluter of fresh water globally. These are devastating stats, and we’re wearing them on our sleeves.

Second, the push for low prices also led to cheap labor. The apparel industry’s race for the cheapest inputs relied on laborers at the very lowest end of the wage spectrum in countries with few protections for workers. While the industry has created jobs and lifted some people out of poverty, the hard truth remains that low wages, forced labor, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, and child labor are now rampant throughout apparel supply chains. Children are working in appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery.

The good news is that consumers are reaching their limit with all of this. And there’s a realization in the post-Paris climate world and in the U.N.’s recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals that we must put an end to polluting factors and worker abuse. Even the Vatican is connecting the dots between the apparel industry’s modern day slavery and climate change. To ignore any of this is to remain regressively retro.  

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While we still have a broken apparel industry, we do have a consumer base that is hungry for change, which is why Emma Watson’s trash stunt got so much traction on social and traditional media. People want something better, they want something different and they want it to be sustainable. They don’t want what they wear to worsen the planet or people’s lives. This means that all of us have an opportunity — an opportunity to create a different future.

All across the fashion ecosystem, we’ll need progressive leadership and a willingness by multilateral institutions, from the United Nations to the World Bank, to make the connection between apparel and the environment and economic development. The connections are obvious. Thus, we can no longer ignore the final (fashion) frontier in our efforts to clean up the planet and our dirty practices. The U.N.’s newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals, for example, are all about social inclusion, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability — three pillars that aren’t, at present, at the epicenter of the apparel industry.

That must change. And it’ll require some new patterns by non-apparel types. Journalists exposing the adverse social-environmental impacts of apparel production, guiding readers towards possible solutions and avoiding “greenwashing.” Brands adopting sustainable practices, from design through production, within their own businesses. Influencers, some of today’s best storytellers, showcasing the beauty and benefits of living simply. Educational institutions teaching the next generation the skills needed to identify industry-specific problems in fashion and improve its sustainability.

We can do this. It does mean that we’ll need more Watson-type moments when people break the red carpet mold to speak out for the planet and for people’s livelihood. But Watson is not alone. Nor are we. It’s time to start wearing a different world. 

Michael Shank is adjunct assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. Maxine Bédat is the CEO and co-founder of Zady.

Environment, Labor and Sustainability

Analysis: Fast fashion comes at a steep price for the environment