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Sustainable Fashion vs. Fast Fashion: Taking Care of the Planet

Sustainable Fashion vs. Fast Fashion: Taking Care of the Planet

Caretaking the planet and its finite resources should be everyone’s business. And that includes fashionistas.

Recent news stories report that heaps of discarded fast fashion clothing are clogging up beaches and overwhelming salvage markets in Ghana in West Africa, creating an environmental crisis. 

Ghana is not alone. Many of the developed world's favorite fashion brands are disposed of in northern Chile's Atacama Desert, which stretches from the Pacific to the Andes across a vast expanse of dramatic rock canyons.

According to a report in Forbes earlier this year, fast fashion, a relatively new concept, “has been popularized by high-street brands selling in-vogue trends at record speeds for affordable prices. These ready-to-wear items are made cheaply in bulk to cater to the frequent purchasing habits of middle-class consumers with disposable incomes.”

The U.S., which exports more second-hand clothing than any other nation on earth, is the biggest culprit. Over the past three decades, there’s been a five-fold increase in the amount of clothing Americans buy. The industry estimates that each item is only worn an average of seven times. Fast fashion’s throwaway mentality has resulted in more discarded clothing than ever.

According to the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the impact of fast fashion on the environment is dire. Sadly, the fashion industry is the second-most-polluting business after the oil industry.

Many Americans donate their used clothing to charities under the assumption that it will be reused. But the growing volume of discarded items, coupled with fast fashion’s poor quality standards, means that fewer items can be repurposed. 

For example, more than 100 tons of clothing from the West is brought every day to the city of Accra in Ghana, one of the world’s largest secondhand clothing markets. Mountainous piles of unwanted clothing have resulted in an environmental catastrophe in Ghana. Items unfit for resale end up in landfills or, worse, the sea. When rejected apparel makes its way to the sea, it invariably creates clothing tentacles that destroy marine life and threaten the livelihoods of fishermen. The OR Foundation, a human rights and environmental NGO in the U.S., estimates that it takes roughly 200 years for textile waste to decompose. 

How to solve the problem? By endorsing the concept of sustainable fashion. Conscientious industries worldwide have adapted their production systems to minimize harm to the planet. When it comes to clothing, consumers can modify their purchasing habits to reduce waste.

More and more fashion houses now recognize that a sustainable product that minimizes its impacts to the environment is a positive trend that stands apart from the negative impacts of fast fashion.

What is sustainable fashion? Also known as slow fashion, it’s the exact opposite of fast fashion, which traffics in low-quality products that are thrown out quickly, setting up a vicious circle of overproduction fueled by consumerism.

Sustainable fashion, on the hand, favors products of better quality. Their life cycle is longer and, due to the quality of their materials, they are more likely to be reused.

Slow fashion has three main objectives:

  • Reduce the clothing industry’s impact on the environment
  • Guarantee labor rights throughout the life cycle of a garment
  • Place quality ahead of quantity in the circular economy

It’s easy to differentiate between sustainable fashion and fast fashion clothing. Investigate the places where you buy clothes as well as the brands you patronize. 

A few points to consider:

Design. Ask yourself if the garment is a passing fad, or if you would really wear it next season. Set aside the creativity and originality that each fashion firm adds to its collections. Focus instead on the garment’s life cycle.

Manufacturing. You may not be able to inspect actual production processes, but when you pick up a garment, analyze the origin of its fabrics. Ideally, they should be natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo or hemp.

Packaging. If you’ve purchased clothing online, observe how the product is delivered to you. Companies must be committed to reducing the environmental impact of their packaging as part of the garment’s life cycle. 

If you’re in the fast fashion lane, click on your blinker and move to the sustainable, slow fashion lane. The world will be a better place for your decision.