A Personal Take on Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

Note: This post will the first post under a new category I have created which I dedicate to researching and then sharing with readers on environmental impacts of fast fashion and the materials used in the fashion industry. I will try to include present-day solutions to these problems that some organisations have already come up with, as well as my own everyday work-around to contribute to the effort to ultimately reduce what I would call ‘fashion waste’.

Perhaps it was in September that I saw this pair of pants from MANGO that I fell instantly in love with. I knew right then and there that I wanted it. The only thing I had to do was save up enough money to purchase it — it cost $89.90, but despite the seemingly low price, it will still be a pinch in my wallet. And because of this initial desire to obtain this pair of pants, I went on YouTube and watched a few budgeting videos, including one by Daria Andronescu on budgeting specifically with clothes shopping in mind. I mentioned Daria because she specifically works with ethical brand clothing as a personal shopper. Fast forward a week later (which was last week), with  Daria Andronescu’s background as an ethical personal shopper, YouTube decided to throw on my dashboard more videos on ethical clothing brands, as well as the ‘ethics’ of clothes in the environment.

And one of these videos was a video on fast fashion and its impact on the environment on CBC News. I watched that video about a week ago or so, perhaps sometime before Black Friday. That was my first semi-conscious encounter with fast fashion and the environment and my second encounter with being mindful of the materials that are in the clothes you buy, but even then, it only piqued my interest in the subject and didn’t do anything more. But I’m going to be real here: it did make me want to learn more about environmental issues surrounding the fast fashion industry, and this video was definitely a good place to start, having posited a number of questions linked from one point of wonder to another until it became a full-fledged 30-minute documentary. I will summarise a little about the video and highlight parts of the videos or questions that made me think of my own questions while watching it.

Summary of Video: How fast fashion adds to the world’s clothing waste problem (Marketplace)

The video started with the hostess Charlsie Agro visiting a few fast-fashion stores with a bag full of old clothes, not to buy new ones, but to donate her old ones into donation bins. Following this scene, several questions came up and for which she explored and searched for answers as the video went on. Here are the Q&As.

#1 What do fast-fashion stores do with donated textiles and where do they go, ultimately? Most of them end up in landfills, and only a small percentage (in the video, one of the interviewees said 1%) are recycled. Why? Because the materials the clothes are made up of cannot degrade naturally (or more like take an extremely long time to degrade naturally that it could very well just be said to not be degradable). These fibres that are used to make the clothes are also blended together, making it difficult to separate the different fibres from one another, which unfortunately becomes waste. Chemicals and inks used to treat and dye these textile wastes are also contributors to the un-degradability of textile wastes, because what they ultimately do is to prolong its lifetime and durability, making it consequently difficult to break down naturally and quickly. End point: the fashion/environmental/recycling industry do not yet have the technology to break down and separate these fibres/materials for them to be fully recycled.

#2 From the start of the process of giving old textiles to collection bins (i.e. like in H&M) to before these clothes end up in landfills, where do they go? They are thought to be sent to shelters or people in need of these clothes, but in reality, two things happen, and one of them is bigger than the other. First, the old textiles are shredded to make other materials, such as insulation or even mops, but the rest, which is the second thing that happens, are sold to a middleman who would then sell them to other countries, such as developing countries like Kenya, and then sold to the people at cheaper prices. Basically, these old clothes are not given but are sold from one hand to another, until finally, when the leftovers are not wanted by anyone at all, the last handlers burn them. This happens in Kenya, based on the video where they did their documentary. (My theory is that, this may be one of the many ways that unwanted clothes and textiles are handed off from the person who does not want it anymore i.e. you and I and the retailers that collect them.)

#3 Why do the last handlers burn these clothes? What makes it hard to sell them in their countries? People (Kenyans in this case) recognise the low quality of the clothes that were sent to them from Canada/North America, and so, when they put them up for sale in their stores, they don’t sell well. The last resort to getting rid of them is to burn them. So this goes back to the main problem that was highlighted early in the video by one of the interviewees: these clothes are made with low quality and they are sold too cheap. This means that people would buy them just because of the fashionability of those items even if they were low quality. And low quality meant that they were cheap — for the shoppers who buy them and for the manufacturers who make them. It’s a vicious cycle: the manufacturers are ‘encouraged’ to make low-quality clothes that are sold cheap because people want cheap clothes, and so these people buy them and manufacturers make more of them. Also, the same interviewee said something very spot-on: “The producer of the clothing is responsible from cradle to grave” and “They have to recycle that t-shirt, they can’t put it in a third-world country”. I downright agree with it. With this shopping-cheap-clothes situation going on, people are not going to stop until the producers spend a little more to make biodegradable clothing or at least ethical ones to slow this mess down (which we all hope would totally stop, and that would mean all clothes are 100% biodegradable. Honestly, even I find that hard to think of, but I have a thought which I’ll share in a moment…) On a side note, apart from the environmental issue at hand, the sanitary issue comes up too. Exactly how do we stop this mad cycle..? Someone has got to have an answer, it’s 2019 in a month.

#4 With all that has been said above, what should we do with our old clothes? Do we still donate them to thrift stores which will go back to recycling companies, sold off to developing countries and ultimately the landfill? Their answer: swap clothing with family and friends, donate them to a reputable charity (whom you feel/know will handle your old clothes with care and give them to people in need), and don’t buy so much clothing YES.

After watching this video, I was impressed by the information I felt I should have known a long time ago but was never introduced to or even been directed to until recently. But at that point of time when I watched the video, the impact of fast fashion and particularly the materials used in clothing have not fully sunk into my mind yet. Perhaps because I was still thinking about that pair of pants I wanted to get from MANGO.

Back to Reality: the Pants or the Dress?

Now here’s the thing: I initially wanted those pants, but when I went back to MANGO a few days before Black Friday (and totally unaware that it was coming my way), I found another piece of clothing which struck me in my eyes and heart. It literally looked like the pants, but dress version. It was superb. And the price was, fortunately, the same price (I was glad that it didn’t cost more than $89.90 but would have appreciated it being $59.90 like all the other pieces of a lower calibre were. Guess this dress isn’t so low after all. Heh.) And when Black Friday came, I was met with a new dilemma, semi-monetary, but still, this one is bigger. I didn’t want to get both pants and dress. Only one would go home with me that day because, let’s face it, two articles of clothing of the same pattern? Even I’m not crazy. So only one. And on the spot, I picked up that dress I had seen the previous week, went into the fitting room, tried it, made sure it looked fabulous on me because I’m too small in size to look easily fabulous in standard sizing but luckily this XS was fine, and I walked out the store with it instead of the pants. I should also mention that I met my mom by accident at MANGO and she helped me see if the dress was all right, and it was. With her definite assurance, I knew the dress was the one to take home, and till today, I’m still in love with it. Well, except for the fact that, after I bought the dress, I found out the amount of chemical amount that was used to make it.

MANGO dark navy cotton check trousersnavy buttoned molly dress
Also, the pair of pants is almost 83% cotton including lining and pockets.
Isn’t that marvellous?

The Environmental Price of the Dress

The dress is 64% polyester (synthetic), 32% viscose (manufactured from natural fibres) and 4% elastane (synthetic), and its pockets are 80% polyester and 20% cotton (natural fibre but not organic). My infatuation with that dress isn’t simmering anytime soon, just that the percentages of undegradable fibre used to manufacture it troubles me. On the one hand, I can keep the dress longer, hence, it will remain in good condition for a long period of time albeit with proper caring, but after it’s done for me, the earth is going to be the one to take the chemical blow. I’m saddened.

Going back to the #3 on the Q&A from the video, I mentioned that I was going to spill my thoughts on what we could do to lessen the environmental damage fast fashion has done. Firstly, I have to say clearly that I love clothes. I don’t necessarily buy into fast fads and trends, but I love clothes and I’ve always had my own style, so, new designs are awesome things for me when I want to develop my style. Unfortunately for me at this point of my discovery, there will a lot of more clothes made up of synthetic/manufactured fibres than there will be natural ones. But I have a workable solution, and it’s simple: still buy the clothes that I want, even if they are made from synthetic material, mostly polyester, but choose pieces that are on the neutral or basic range so that I can use them for a longer period of time and can be matched with different types of clothing.

One Solution: Use Long-lasting Classic Pieces

An example would be to get a pair of black dress pants (I’m thinking there would be polyester, viscose and elastane in it) that goes well with more than half or even three-quarter of the clothes you own, make sure it fits right on your body, make sure it’s in the classic style, that means no fashionable frills, have minimal out-of-the-ordinary buttons and strange cuts on the pant cuffs, that sort of thing, and, by your own instinct, make sure that the pants will last you more than several washes and wears before you finally need to get a new pair (I’m talking years here). Also, I am assuming you don’t change in waist or leg size i.e. gain or lose weight. If you do, then give this pair of classic-cut dress pants to someone who would benefit from it, then get yourself a new/secondhand one or swap your dress pants with someone with your current size who also happens to want yours in exchange (not the easiest situation here, what are the chances this would happen?).

A New Shopping Mindset

The above is just one of many ways to reduce fashion waste. I will have to do more research on recycling old textiles to share with you in the future. But as of now, my stand is as clear as I have stated it: I will still continue to shop for clothes as I normally do i.e. buy whatever clothes that is I want, but with several changes to my mindset when purchasing them:

  1. Be an environment-conscious shopper. I will look at the composition tag of the piece of clothing before purchasing, then think about the pain I would have to put up with knowing that it is made up of a high level of polyester (always the culprit), then assess whether the piece of clothing, having been made up of more 60% polyester, would last me close to seven years of wear and wash (that’s my personal aim; yours may be different, depending on how often you shop, which I hope would be greatly reduced after having educated yourself on this fashion waste issue). If I feel it would and if I feel that the piece could stand the test of fashion-trend time i.e. not go out of style that I may become bored of it, then I will purchase it. (As for the clothes that I already own, I will have to make them work into the next five years of my future.)
  2. Spend less. Knowing that great-quality clothing are expensive, I would have to ultimately spend less. Also, if I do buy these pieces, they will very likely be made up of polyester, and, like #1, this polyester had better be great-quality polyester. And if you ask me how does one know if a piece of clothing consisting polyester is a good-quality one, I would say, you would have to have a lot of experience dealing with clothing, always looking at them, touching them, seeing them in real time, and touching them is a must. That’s the only way to know if it’s good and would last you easily for more than five years (of course with good caring). Luckily for me, I’m a retail assistant and I deal with clothes every single day. As for you who is not one, you will have to love clothes enough to want to bring yourself to a retail store to check out some good and bad quality clothes to learn how to tell the difference between them. You could google some fabric quality guides to help you out as well so that you would know what to look out for before you dive in into fashion world.
  3. Look around more and scout for pieces which are made from recycled polyester and organic cotton. The easiest one here is organic cotton. MUJI, one of the brands which I buy a lot of clothes from, have most of their clothes made from 100% organic cotton. During the cold seasons, they have products made from silk- and yak-wool blends, 100% wool and 100% cashmere. I’m glad MUJI exists.

That’s all from me at the moment. I had a great time researching this subject in the early stages of my getting to know more about it and learning it, particularly because I realise how applicable it is to me in my life and how much damage one person can do to the environment because of personal choices (and hence it would also take one person to lead this mess in the right direction — I can do this). I would like to explore the types of fibres used to make clothing in the next post. Until then.

Lots of love,
Dane ♥