There have been huge changes in the fashion industry in the last 70 years and the changes are coming faster.
  1. Manufacturing.
In the 1950s, Americans wore clothes made in America when trade unions were strong so clothes cost relatively more. People had small collection of tailored clothes that they held onto for years, caring for them gently, altering and repairing them, passing them onto the next generation. Fashions changed slowly because most people didn’t have the money to buy new clothes every month. 30yrs ago, manufacturing shifted overseas to developing countries for two reasons: easy, cheap labor (no trade unions) and no environmental regulations. Clothes became mass produced and fashion became a huge industry focused on maximizing profits.Clothes became cheap so people could afford more clothes than ever.In the past 15yrs, production has doubled and the amount of time an article is worn has fallen by 40%. Fast fashion is getting faster.
  1. Marketing.
The sales pitch was the same – you will be more beautiful, popular and attractive if you buy the latest fashions but now marketing is very sophisticated (especially with the advent of TV shopping channels, social media influencers, targeted popup ads) and fashion trends change rapidly. Online shopping makes it really easy. ‘’Retail therapy’ got added to our lexicon. Clothing is so cheap you can buy and toss just to improve your mood.
  1. Materials.
Then, most clothing materials were natural. The plastic industry was just beginning to blossom so most clothes did not have synthetic fibers until 1960s – now 60% of our clothes have synthetics. GMO cotton didn’t start until 1990s. Now 90% of cotton grown in America is GMO cotton.
How does fast fashion affect the environment?
  • Water intensive -Fashion industry is the second biggest user of water after agriculture. It takes 10K liters of water to make one pair of jeans.
  • Energy intensive -- fashion industry produces 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Demand and emissions from textiles are projected to skyrocket in the future.
  • Immensely wasteful – Clothing waste tripled in the last 20 years – Now: average American throws out 80 pounds of clothing a year. Most natural fabrics take 200 years to degrade and synthetics 1000s of years. 90% of what we donate to charity in the US goes to waste - landfills (10 mil tons/yr), burned (3mil tons/yr) or is shipped overseas (1mil tons/yrs). Very little (2mil tons/yr) gets worn again here or recycled into another product.
  • Polluting – 43 million tons of dyes and chemicals are needed each year that often end up in our oceans. World wide, cotton is doused with more chemicals than any other crop. Half million tons of microfibers end up in our oceans each year because of textiles with microfibers.
  • Human toll – many workers in developing countries work in deplorable conditions and are paid a small fraction of a living wage. They put their health at risk and their communities are at risk from the environmental hazards from industry.
What should we do?
  • The usual environmental mantra – refuse, reduce, repair, repurpose, recycle. Swap with friends or Buy Nothing groups.
  • Care for your clothes better so they last longer. Reduce microfiber pollution by washing synthetics in bags (Guppyfriend).
  • Shop smarter. Use resale and rental shops. Try more natural organic fabrics – try hemp, Tencel or bamboo. When buying retail, consider B corporations (certified for high standards for social and environmental welfare practices) but watch for greenwashing always. Be prepared to spend more money. It costs more for clothes when protecting the environment.
  • Donate responsibly. Only donate clean clothes in good condition and in season. Iron, repair clothes and remove stains first. Never donate used undergarments or bathing suits. There are a few companies that recycle fabric if the garment is not wearable or consider donating to an animal shelter.
  • Educate yourself and talk about this with others. Watch The True Cost Documentary on Prime. More below.
  • Write business and representatives. Economic benefits to both the companies and consumers is a strong driving force fueling fast fashion. When profit is the only bottom line, fashion won’t change. We need government incentives and probably regulation of labor and environmental impacts. Advocate for more recycling and a circular economy in fashion.
Extra reading:
Ways to care for clothing better so they last longer and shed less microfiber
New options in sustainable fabric
Clothing companies trying to beat Fast Fashion and it’s environmental impacts
Clothing Retailer B Corps – a small sampling
  • Patagonia
  • Allbirds
  • Bombas
  • Eileen Fisher
  • Athleta