Fast Fashion: The Negative Impacts on Society and the Environment

[May 2019] Fast fashion is the second-most polluting industry in the world after oil drilling. Gillian Innes, Cristina Toapanta, and Sabrina Southwick are working to bring transparency to fashion supply chains and spread awareness to consumers about their impact on the environment.

What is “fast fashion” and why is it a problem?

Sabrina: Fast fashion is designing, creating, and marketing low cost clothing. It is basically driving down costs on the supply chain in order to get new styles to consumers practically every week.

Cristina: New styles are based on following artists. Brands copy trends, producing products cheaply, and then have them delivered to the consumer within weeks.

Gillian: The problem with this is that a lot of companies are outsourcing their production to the global south. They are using that to drive down their production costs by paying people less, using child labor, using cheaper materials, and having unsafe working conditions. There are not many regulations and in our video you can see that they have many people in bleaching vats where they are not wearing shoes when using detergents. The fact is that brands are trying to speed up production and pump out a lot of clothing, and they are neglecting many of the environmental and human issues that are going on with the production.

Cristina: This is the second most polluting industry. The first is oil drilling. Fast fashion is not one single problem but more of a cascade of problems because there are no regulations. The people working in these poor conditions have been exposed to the pollution and industrial waste that is likely to be dumped into bodies of water. The problem is that we are producing more clothes than we need and most of it fill landfills. So now we are left with these companies causing damage, stepping on the workers rights, and then encouraging us to consume things we may not need. It is something that we will likely use once or twice because it is made of cheap material. We are simply creating more and more trash. Consumers are getting products that are cheap and also made with chemicals that are bad for their skin. Every single time that we place these pieces of clothing into the washing machine, we are releasing microfibers of plastic into the water because most of the clothes are made of polyester. These microfibers of plastic are likely to be producing a negative effect on the ecosystems through the food chain. Fish and shellfish have been found with high amounts of microplastics, and we and other animals end up consuming them.

Gillian: [GCC 3032/5032] is tackling the intersection of humans and these issues. It is sort of a holistic view and does not focus on just one specific population in the ecosystem, because everything is interconnected. If you focus on one thing, you have to focus on other things as well.

What do you want to change?

Sabrina: Our professors would ask us this question as well; they would say, “You have picked such a complex issue. You are going to have to pull a string somewhere.” We recognized that we were not going to have a blanket solution that would fix it all, but I think that we want to change the way consumers are thinking about where they purchase clothing. This can be difficult because consumerism is rampant in this country. Also, from the top down, we wanted to focus on what retailers are putting into the market.

Cristina: When we were putting our video together, we said that consumers not only have the right to know what is in their clothing, but also where the clothing comes from and how it was produced. Sabrina said it best about how these low-cost clothes are being purchased by people who cannot afford anything else. So we thought, “What if people could actually afford clothes that were sustainable?” We want to inform people of the options that they have so they can make decisions based on truth and knowledge.

What is your proposed solution?

Gillian: We wanted to do a compound solution, because supply and demand around clothing are so tightly knit. If you only try to change one, the other side might get in the way. On one side, we are creating a type of label that goes from one to five that is based on measurements that show how ethical and sustainable a manufacturer for a retailer is. One the other side, we could proportionally tax retailers based on their rating. For example, a five star would not be taxed very much because they have really good standards, whereas a one star would get taxed a lot for poorer practices. The bottom line for every company is “How much money are we going to make?” We thought that by incentivizing retailers, they would feel more inclined to become more sustainable and save money in the future by not having to pay that tax. An additional possibility would be a tax break for social media influencers who display a sustainability label on any of their pages, since they have a direct line to many of the consumers that look to them for fashion ideas and trends. We thought we would be able to promote our idea to more consumers faster which in turn would allow consumers to use their money more wisely.

Where will the ratings be visible?

Sabrina: Ideally, social media influencers would be including a link every time they advertise a certain brand. For example on Instagram, viewers could tap the link that would then bring them to a website that showed them the reviews for that brand. They would be able to see the rating as well as how it was broken down to determine that rating.

Gillian: We are using social media to promote a website. Consumers would be able to go to that website to look at the ratings of brands whenever they are shopping.

What kind of organizations would have to be involved to make this work?

Cristina: We would choose organizations that would help us collect the data we need to make the rankings.

Sabrina: We would ask retailers directly for this data that we could calculate into a rating. We would then have nongovernmental organizations also collect data that they could vet to us. The government would be involved by creating a tax that would have to go through the legislature. The label itself, however, would be independent from the government and something that we are making.

Are other industries policed like fashion?

Cristina: The policy is different for fashion. It involves fair trade but does not have anything regarding the transparency of the supply chain. The biggest problem of fast fashion is the lack of transparency in the supply chain.

Sabrina: I think an example of an industry that is policed would be the food industry with the food labels. It has made huge progress in the past century and the fashion industry has none of that yet.

Gillian: We were researching current regulations for our project and there were not many that we could find, specifically about clothing or the fashion industry.

Cristina: So when a label says, “100% Organic Cotton” we want to be able to prove that it came from an organic cotton farm. There is no transparency regarding any of that.

Gillian: This is also where outsourcing comes in because a lot of stuff takes place where retailers do not require regulation or transparency to say how their products are produced.

Cristina: We will be facing companies that have millions of dollars and if we give them a bad rating, who knows what backlash we might face.

Sabrina: Another concern that we have, based on our solution, would be if in response retailers actually drove down their costs even further to make up for that tax. This would definitely be the worst case scenario.

What are your steps right now?

Gillian: We have had a few people reach out to us after our presentation night and one person that is part of the fashion industry would like to meet with us. Our instructor is helping us look into an ACARA course to see if we can take our idea further and if it gets to a good point, we could potentially get funding.

Did this project transform into something bigger than expected?

Sabrina: For me, I came into this class thinking this would be just a class project. But now, I realize that this is bigger than that and I can be someone that can make a change. People actually think that this is a good idea and we came up with it in a study group in Magrath Library.

Gillian: Because we met so frequently and were able to talk so much, we fleshed out a lot of big issues. The amount of time we spent talking about fast fashion allowed us to think more about the impact we can make.

Cristina: The best part about this project was the collaboration and seeing how the compromise can result in solutions. It was satisfying to work closely with Sabrina and Gillian because I never experienced a group that worked like we did. We actually took the time to commit to the project, research on our own time, and simply respect each other’s ideas. None of us were afraid to speak up and it was nice to hear respectful feedback.

Have you learned anything from this experience so far?

Gillian: Learning the importance of collaboration and having that space to safely share ideas was important. Sometimes it is hard to move forward without constructive feedback and it was nice to have that safe space.

Sabrina: For me, this opened my eyes about how valuable group work can be because it was so rewarding.

Cristina: Our personalities are different but we are always respectful and kind to each other. It was great to work with Sabrina because she is a smart, pragmatic, and respectful person. As for Gillian, she is also smart and so helpful and good at finding compromise.

Sabrina: We are all leaders and we know how to give respect to each other.

Is there anything people can do to help combat fast fashion issues right now?

Gillian: Don’t buy an excess of what you need, wash less to reduce microplastic, buy second hand items, and go for higher quality clothing that will last longer.

Cristina: Recycle your clothing. If you have the opportunity to recycle, do it. Or exchange clothes with your friends.

Is there anything people can do to help your endeavor?

Cristina: Start spreading our news and sharing the video that we created. Showing it to the right person or association might help us bring our project to the next level.