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The pitfalls of fast fashion: assessing environmental harm

Updated: Mar 30

By Rider University Eco-Rep Kayley Tezbir

Originally Published: March 2, 2022

As the classic trope goes, most college students do not have much of a disposable income. So, where do many resort to when they need new clothes for a Friday outing, attire for the Cranberry and White affair or maybe just to spruce up their wardrobe? Most of us will opt to get cheap clothing items from big-name brands like Forever 21, Shein, ROMWE or any retailer that has trendy, affordable clothing. While these fast fashion companies may help a college student stay in line with the latest trends for less, they, in turn, create great environmental harm in the countries in which they are produced.

“Fast fashion” refers to clothing items that are rapidly produced in large volumes, that often only last a couple of wears. These items do not cost much to the consumer nor to the manufacturer, but they are not created to withstand regular and long-term use. To cut costs and maximize profits, fast fashion companies will often base their operations in developing countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia among others. Due to limited environmental regulations in these countries, emissions and pollution created by fast fashion companies’ operations there greatly affect the surrounding communities. According to a 2020 Borgen Magazine article by Grace Ganz, the combination of emissions and water pollution created by clothing dyes, chemicals and other waste from the operation of these companies leads to environmental poverty in those areas.

A 2012 ScienceDirect article by Lee Lie, defines environmental poverty as “the lack of the healthy environment needed for society’s survival and development as a direct result of human-induced environmental degradation.” Now, you may be wondering how the fast fashion industry contributes to environmental poverty. Take the Noyyal River, for example, which stretches over 3,500 square kilometers through India. Waste such as chemicals, dyes and other waste from the textiles industry pollute this river to such an extent that as it flows, it froths over with foam.

Despite this pollution, the river is meant to sustain at least two million people. This means that regardless of its condition, at least two million people rely on this river as a source of drinking water, cooking water, water for irrigation, water for bathing, water to feed their animals and so on. Looping back to the definition of environmental poverty, the Noyyal River is a prime example of the destruction that is possible. Due to cheap production costs, companies choose to base manufacturing here which in turn pollutes the local environment – furthering the divide between developed and developing countries.

In German media outlet Deutsche Welle’s YouTube video “India: How our clothes cause water pollution,” posted to the channel DW Planet A, social activist Prithiviraj Sinnathambi raised an important point. He said, “This dyeing and bleaching doesn’t exist in developed countries because they don’t want to pollute their water. If somebody raises the issue of pollution in Europe or North America, suddenly there will be a knee-jerk reaction from the corporations.” At what point does this stop being treated as an economic opportunity and start being viewed as a human rights issue?

As a college student, there are many ways that you can stop supporting these practices. Faith Patterson, a senior health sciences major said, “Sustainable clothes are rarely affordable, and affordable clothes are rarely sustainable. As a college student, I can’t afford expensive sustainable clothing, so I try to thrift as often as possible to promote sustainable and affordable practices.”

Speaking of thrift stores, Kerrie Sendall, a Rider professor who taught the course “Sustainable Fashion: Is It Possible?” said the following, “If you want to buy more sustainably from thrift stores, check the tags and try to buy clothing made from 100% cotton, linen and other non-synthetic materials. And [in general] if you are looking to invest in a sustainable wardrobe, you can use information from nonprofits such as Climate Neutral to research companies that are worth spending your hard-earned money on. Some of my new favorites are Ministry of Supply and Toad & Co, and I can’t forget my old standby Patagonia.”

Another easy way to avoid fast fashion is to be mindful of what you are purchasing. Opt for clothes that can be worn timelessly over very trendy clothes. Or say you really want that vibrant top– try waiting two weeks and if you still want to purchase, then go for it.

If you have some extra money to splurge, there are companies that are taking steps in the right direction. For example, Patagonia is a part of 1% for the Planet and donates 1% of its annual profits to grassroot organizations. The clothing brand Tentree plants ten trees for every item sold, and to date has planted over 72 million trees. Need new activewear? Check out the brand Girlfriend Collective which provides a sustainability report for every item on their site.

This week is clothing and textiles week in the Campus Race 2 Zero Waste, a nationwide campus recycling awareness program. Check out the @broncsgogreen Instagram and TikTok or @RiderLawEcoReps on Facebook for more facts about sustainable textiles.

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