Fast Fashion vs. Climate Action

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

“Climate Strike 2019, New York City, NY.” (Photo by Kerry Shanahan, 2019)

Do you own clothing from Forever 21? What about H&M or Zara? If the answer is yes then you have actively contributed to the success of the fast fashion industry. Granted, I am no saint myself, a few years ago Forever 21 was my go-to when it came to finding trendy, up-to-date looks. But as I learned more about the environmental repercussions of the fast fashion industry, I decided to start supporting a different cause.

The Climate Strike

On September 20th, 2019, Kerry and I traveled to New York City, NY to participate in the 2019 Climate Strike. It was just the two of us in a crowd of thousands of civilians, and we could feel a motivated yet angry energy in the air.

The global strike was spearheaded by numerous grassroots organizations across the world such as Greenpeace, Fridays For The Future, and 350. Millions of individuals and organizations were inspired to strike by Swedish youth activist, Greta Thunberg. Thunberg’s rise to fame began in May of 2018 after she won a writing competition about the environment held by Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper (see Greta’s personal Facebook post for more info), and soon became the face of the newest effort to confront climate disruption. In August of 2018, Thunberg held the now iconic sign stating “SCHOOL STRIKE FOR CLIMATE,” outside of the Swedish parliament. This became a rallying call for many other students and with the help of her classmates Greta formed the organization Fridays For The Future. Greta and other members of Fridays For the Future then went on to strike every Friday for the past year to fight for climate justice. Following in Greta’s lead, much of the crowd in NYC was comprised of high school students striking from school for the day.

The main goal of the Climate Strike was to raise attention for a “Green New Deal.” The policy was proposed in February of 2019 by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the wake of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit happening in New York the Monday following the strike (See Thunberg’s full speech at the Summit). Some activists and politicians such as Bernie Sanders believe that the Green New Deal should be enacted in its entirety, and measures should be taken beyond what it recommends. But according to Axios, most see the Green New Deal as more of a rallying call than a strict policy proposal. Nonetheless, it proposes a strong intersectional approach to tackling the issues of global inequality and climate change.

As we continued to march through the streets of New York on our way to Battery Park, I looked around me and was suddenly overcome with a sense of irony. Here we were occupying the streets to fight for environmental protection, only to be directly surrounded by commercial companies and fast fashion giants.

Fast Fashion

During our walk from Penn Station to Battery Park we passed three H&Ms, one Express, three Forever 21s, three Zaras, and three Urban Outfitters. All of these companies describe themselves as offering “on-trend” styles. But let’s define what on-trend means in fashion vs. fast fashion.

In recent years the fashion industry has moved towards a practice called “fast fashion,” where clothing is no longer produced for the two traditional trend seasons of spring and fall. Instead, trends are constantly changing with up to 50 cycles per year, or almost a new cycle every week. In order to accommodate these accelerated trend cycles, companies must make sacrifices when it comes to the quality of their clothing and the standards by which their factories operate. Zara, Forever21, and H&M are known as the world's biggest fast fashion giants, producing cheaply made clothing from synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and rayon in addition to natural fibers. This cheap and quick process allows products to be sold to consumers at incredibly low prices, encouraging the public to buy more clothes, more often.

The fast fashion appeal is so enticing that a few years ago, I even found myself working at a local Forever 21 as a sales associate the summer after my freshman year of college just to save up some extra cash. I can tell you first hand that we were constantly putting out new inventory every day and completely rearranging the store about every two weeks. While some people came in already looking for specific items, much of the crowd was simply stocking their closets to keep up with that week’s trend.

Fast Fashion Production

With this change in the timeline of fashion cycles, it’s not only consumers who have to keep up with trends, but the industries themselves that must produce products to meet demand. This pressure on the industry is leading to increasingly unsustainable practices along the fashion industry supply chain.

Many products in the United States and in other countries around the world are created in facilities that practice unsafe production processes. According to the EPA, the top waste producing industries include:

“construction, demolition and renovation, dry cleaning, educational and vocational shops, equipment repair, furniture manufacturing and refinishing, laboratories, leather manufacturing, motor freight and railroad transportation, pesticide end users and application services, photo processing, printing, textile manufacturing, and vehicle maintenance.”

Many of these industries use chemicals that are harmful to the environment and can pollute the water, air and even make workers sick.

Among this list, fashion is an industry that we directly contribute to as consumers because at the end of the day everyone needs clothing. But the fashion industry is a large offender in supporting poor conditions for workers and pumping toxins into the atmosphere. The fashion supply chain is typically very long and complex and utilizes many different materials ranging from organic to synthetic fibers to make products. These materials are sourced from around the world and require many steps to get from raw substance to finished product.

“Cotton Field”

Impact on the Environment

The fast fashion process begins with agriculture when raw materials such as cotton, hemp, ramie, linen, lyocell, wool, and silk are farmed and extracted to become clothing fibers. The most common natural fiber used for clothing is cotton, a comfortable material that is durable and great for moisture control. Cotton is the fabric of choice for many consumers for obvious reasons but according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it can take up to 2,700 liters of water to produce the amount of cotton needed for a single t-shirt.

Cotton is considered one of the many “thirsty crops” among other crops such as soy, palm oil, sugarcane, and rice that require large amounts of water to grow. Many environmental organizations urge for a change to more sustainable water irrigation systems on farms to reduce water loss and increase efficiency when farming these products.

“Shipping Containers”

After being farmed, these raw products are then transported via truck, ship, train or plane to a factory, filled with thousands of employees and machines who work with the materials. The raw materials are then treated using a series of chemicals and are turned into textiles, fabrics and yarns. These textiles are often then transported to another factory where they are sewn to become the finished product. The product is then packaged and shipped to stores or warehouses where it will either be sold in-store or shipped once again to customers’ homes.

The material journey that resources such as cotton take to go from plant to product is extensive and uses an excessive amount of energy and resources along the way. The production phases in combination with the transportation phases of the fashion cycle result in vast amounts of toxins and CO2 being released into the atmosphere and ultimately harming the environment.

“Forever 21,” Haruka Sakaguchi for the New York Times

Interestingly enough, Forever 21 recently declared bankruptcy in September of 2019 and the executive board announced that they would be closing up to 178 stores in the United States and 350 overall. Executive Vice President, Linda Chang, believes that the company is suffering from a mixture of declining mall traffic and a diminishing consumer interest in fast fashion as a whole. Even still the company plans to continue growing their business online to maintain profits.

Other companies such as H&M however have begun addressing the matter and are claiming to be moving in a more sustainable direction by using more recycled fabrics and reducing their CO2 emissions.

If you walk into any H&M store right now you will see that they have begun marketing these practices with posters throughout their stores describing the sustainable sourcing of their cotton. If these sustainability efforts are true, this is good news for the environment because any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste is a step in the right direction. However, the fast fashion model remains unsustainable. Even if companies like H&M pledge to use recycled and sustainably sourced materials, they are still reinforcing an unsustainable culture.

Some argue that it is up the fashion companies themselves to initiate this change, while others argue that the responsibility falls more on the consumer. I would have to argue that both are true. As a consumer myself, I am highly skeptical of large corporations and their intentions. Time and time again the actions taken by companies prove to us that money is their main motivator. And so, consumers must get educated on sustainability and take action to create a demand for environmental protection through acts such as the Climate Strike. However, igniting true systemic change on a global scale is not possible unless major financial and political players are on board. Thus, our approach must span from bottom-up to top-down across the consumer industries in addition to horizontally across the educational system.

By educating people on the effects of climate change and the behaviors that cause it, we can foster others’ own sense of urgency to shift towards more sustainable practices. For the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, let's make real changes on both a cultural and individual level that will help prevent potential climate catastrophes.

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