A Materials Chemistry Student’s Take on Fast Fashion

By Hana El-Haddad, Secretary for the GCI

It is April 2020 and you are scrolling through your endless TikTok “for you” page when you stumble across a video informing you about so-called “fast fashion”. The words “affordable” and “toxic” stick with you because they are not used to describe or advertise fashion, and yet you wonder how you have never heard of that side of the fashion industry.

Hi, my name is Hana and I will provide you with a quick perspective on what I think is one of the most overlooked environmental problems of our modern world.

What is Fast Fashion?

In the past decade, brands have taken to widening their production lines by mass-producing clothes and continuously cycling fashion trends through the use of cheap labour and cheap materials. In simpler terms, mass-production can be defined by the shipment of new styles received daily (e.g. H&M and Forever 21) or when a retailer introduces 400 styles a week on its website (e.g. Topshop). Fast fashion is mainly aimed at young women whose dependence on social media can persuade them to think that they are behind on trends as soon as they see styles being worn by influencers and celebrities. An example of a fast fashion brand boosted by social media is Shein, so trendy and yet so unbelievably cheap. The need to shop for the latest trend is facilitated by the garment’s affordability, thus catering to young people’s disposable income. One of the most alarming concerns associated with fast fashion and the rapid cycling of trends is the incredibly high yield of textile waste, which often ends up in a landfill. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, the average American disposes of up to 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year.1 Want a better picture? If the population of the United States is comprised of 328 million individuals, the theoretical annual number of textile waste going to the landfill would rise to a whopping 22300 million pounds – the weight of 2 million adult elephants!

Figure 1. A non-comprehensive list of fast fashion retailers2.

The double-edged sword of democratization

As journalist Lucy Siegle puts it, “fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.”3 Siegle is not wrong: Chinese workers make as little as 12-18 cents per hour, according to figures from the U.S. Labour Committee. With the increasing competition between emerging economies, these workers will be receiving lower wages and will start working in even poorer conditions, resulting in a net decrease in production costs. Fast fashion brands hold their manufacturing factories in low to middle-income countries which significantly lowers production costs. As a result, low to middle-income countries produce 90% of the world’s clothing.1

A bit of the chemistry explained

As a materials science student, I find that a big part of this problem lies in the chemistry of the textiles used. On one hand, antibacterial agents that are added to textiles can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, according to a Swedish Chemicals agency. On the other hand, dyes contain toxic chemicals that bio-accumulate, causing the spread of diseases and increase the risk of cancer among individuals in various communities (and that is not considering these chemicals’ effects on factory workers)!4 Brian Tsui, a fellow GCI member, further discusses the chemical aspect of this problem in his blog post titled, “Textiles True Colours: How Sustainable are they?” I would highly recommend giving it a read if you wish to know more about the fashion industry’s use of chemicals in dyes.5 Although there are numerous ways to approach this, a good way to start would be ensuring that the materials safety data sheets of industrial chemicals be more comprehensive and catered to the non-chemist so that the general public, as well as manufacturers, have a better understanding of the chemicals and textiles used. More importantly, meaningful communication between materials chemists, governments, and retail giants should be practiced to ensure strict and uncompromising regulations for textile production.6

Figure 2. Environmental impacts of different textiles7.

What is slow fashion?

This concept is likely intuitive now after I explained fast fashion; but to reiterate, slow fashion is the decrease in clothing consumption as a consequence of an increase in garment lifetime. You might be asking yourself whether the solution lies in the hands of luxury brands since we can check off the aspect of an increase in garment lifetime. Surprisingly, this not the case! Luxury retailers have very similar shortcomings to other fast fashion chains, where some manufacturers are based in low to middle-income countries and labourers work under questionable environments. Some luxury retailers also hold large unsold inventories that go to (you guessed it!) landfills. The advantageous side of shopping luxury brands, however, is that they typically provide longer-lasting items by using higher quality fabrics, second-hand sales, and viable repair services.8

So, what can you do?

When I was first researching this topic, I was quite overwhelmed by how deeply entrenched consumerist patterns are in our societies. I have noticed, though, that the solution to the problem of fast fashion really does lie within the hands of a more environmentally conscious consumer. If this weren’t the case, Patagonia would not have switched to recycling plastics bottles to use them in fabrics and Versace would not have used corn by-products to make Ingeo, a more sustainable fabric.1 I have compiled a list of small and easy steps we could all take towards building a more sustainable wardrobe:

  1. Buy less!
    A rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you are head-over-heels in love with the clothing item you are contemplating buying. If you are, great! Now ask yourself if you will have the opportunity to wear it on a biweekly basis!
  2. Wash your clothing items less
    That is not to say that you should not wash a dirty clothing item! Wash garments only when needed and according to their clothing label. Not only will this allow your clothes to last longer, but it will also reduce your carbon footprint.
  3. Shop second-hand!
    I cannot stress this enough. I always take my friends thrift-shopping whenever possible. Thrifting saves clothes from landfills and reduces your carbon footprint. If you are concerned with its trendiness, you can rest assured that thrifting gives you timeless elegance (fashion trends also do cycle, as I mentioned earlier!).
  4. Shop local
    Many have been preaching supporting local businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and you are probably sick of it, but try to give it a shot! Most local businesses actually sell sustainable clothing items that do not take advantage of cheap labour and do not rely on heavily manufactured dyes. Not only is this an easy way to prevent your local family-owned business from closing down, but you would also be saving the environment.
  5. Shop luxury brands for “essentials”
    Seems counterintuitive but splurging on that one designer piece that would last you 10-20 years is definitely more worthwhile than spending on a garment you would be paying more money to replace every few years.
  6. Donate/ Sell your clothes!
    By donating, you are increasing the lifetime of your garment and allowing someone else to flaunt a unique garment with its very own pre-loved charm. Selling your clothes is also a great way to start your own business by selling your more expensive clothing items. A great way to start selling clothes is through apps like Depop where you can list your clothing items and price them as you want.

If you have read through my blog post thus far, thank you and I trust that you have learned something new! I also hope you realize that it is now your responsibility to carry this message forward by practicing sustainable consumption and spreading awareness about sustainable fashion in your community.

References

  1. Claudio, L. Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives 2007115(9). 
  2. Segura, A. Mass-market fashion retailers. https://fashionretail.blog/2019/04/22/mass-market-fashion-retailers/.
  3. Stanton, A. What Is Fast Fashion, Anyway? https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/what-is-fast-fashion.
  4. KEMI Swedish Chemicals Agency. Chemicals in textiles – Risks to human health and the environment. Report from a government assignment. Report 6/14. kemi.se https://www.kemi.se/global/rapporter/2014/rapport- 6-14-chemicals-in-textiles.pdf
  5. GreenChemUofT. Textiles True Colours: How Sustainable are they? https://greenchemuoft.wordpress.com/2020/03/24/textiles-true-colours-how-sustainable-are-they/.
  6. Wang, Z.; Cousins, I. T.; Scheringer, M.; Hungerbühler, K. Fluorinated Alternatives to Long-Chain Perfluoroalkyl Carboxylic Acids (PFCAs), Perfluoroalkane Sulfonic Acids (PFSAs) and Their Potential Precursors. Environment International 201360, 242–248. 
  7. Niinimäki, K.; Peters, G.; Dahlbo, H.; Perry, P.; Rissanen, T.; Gwilt, A. The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment 20201 (4), 189–200. 
  8. Ducasse, P.; Finet, L.; Gardet, C.; Gasc, M.; Salaire, S. Why Luxury Brands Should Celebrate the Preowned Boom. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/luxury-brands-should-celebrate-preowned-boom.aspx.