Fast fashion has taken over the world in the past 20 years with 400% more clothes being produced now compared to the early 2000s. Ranging from companies like Shein to Forever 21 to H&M, these stores manufacture trendy, cheap, mass-produced clothes for high consumer demands at the expense of our climate. The fashion industry is the third largest polluter in the world; the oil industry comes in second. In many textile factories, toxic substances used to clean and dye fabrics, like alkylphenol ethoxylates, are dumped in bodies of water, causing 20% of the industrial water pollution to be derived from textile treatment and dyes. These toxic substances are harmful to organisms and ecosystems living in water and impact the health of humans as well. Cotton is a major consumption of water in the fashion industry with roughly 2,500 gallons of water needed to produce just two pounds of cotton. The cotton industry is just one influence to the 5 trillion liters of water used each year by fashion companies. 

Where is all of this mass-produced clothing being stored? Well, consumers on average only wear a clothing item about seven times before throwing it away. Since the quality of clothing has declined with fast fashion, clothes become faded and shapeless after a few wears. These disregarded clothing items end up in landfills, contributing to the percentage of textile waste in the United States being 85%. More than 60% of garment fabric fibers are synthetic from fossil fuels, and these synthetic fibers do not decay and release harmful microfibers into water. Zara has about 840 million garments ending up in landfills each year, leading consumers to buy new clothes and contributing to the cycle of production and lack of progress within environmental action. 

Shein has prided itself on their low-priced products, but there is a dark side behind the affordable price tag that catches the eye of a consumer. The fast fashion company Shein, exploits their workers in China by paying them meager wages and giving them long 18-hour work days. A typical worker gets paid just $556 per month to make 500 pieces of clothing per day. At another factory, workers were getting paid just four cents per item. Shein only gives their workers one day off per month, and women were found in one factory to be washing their hair during short lunch breaks. Along with low wages and long working hours, workers are exposed to harsh working conditions with high levels of toxic chemicals being released into the air with no ventilation systems. 

To reduce the impact of fast fashion on the environment, one can buy less, shop from sustainable brands, buy better quality clothes that will last longer or buy clothes second-hand.

Workers in Vietnam at a garment factory getting paid low wages with long working hours. PHOTO: ILO Asia-Pacific

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