When we think about reducing waste, many of us will focus on buying products with less packaging, doing recycling, using reusable grocery bags, and maybe even composting, but we probably don’t give any thought to our closets. We don’t tend to consider clothes as disposable when we buy them, so most of us don’t really think about how we will eventually dispose of them. But, discarded clothes are a very real problem and the fast fashion industry is quickly making that problem worse.
Fast fashion is the phenomenon where catwalk trends are mass-produced and rolled out to retailers rapidly - sometimes in the space of just a few weeks. Zara, H&M, ASOS and Primark are the biggest fast fashion retailers operating today. These companies, and many smaller fast fashion brands introduce new looks in their store each week in a calculated effort to keep consumers coming back frequently and spending more. But anything that comes into style fast is bound to go out of style pretty rapidly too (we’re looking at you leggings printed with kittens or cheeseburgers. Or both.) So we end up getting rid of fast fashion pieces just as quickly as we got hold of them.
This culture of disposable style is fairly recent. For much of human history clothes were an investment. In the past, shoes, a jacket, or a pair of trousers could easily be expected to last a decade or more. Even more delicate items like a shirt or dress could be worn for at least several years if well taken care of. Unfortunately, today the clothes we wear are made, sold, and bought less like long-term purchases and more like consumables.
There are a lot of complicated social and economic reasons for this shift. Many families now require at least two incomes to get by, and many individuals work much more than a standard week. For a lot of people this means that their spare time is precious and they don’t want to spend it doing something like patching holes in their sweaters or darning their old socks. Also, globalization and the economy of scale enable big corporations like H&M or Primark to buy materials for a fraction of what it would cost a regular consumer, so even if you did want to darn your socks it may end up being cheaper to just buy new socks than it is to buy thread or yarn. Today knitting may be a considered a cool hobby, but most of us wouldn’t count it as an essential life skill for an adult the way it may have been for older generations. These changes in how we think and feel about the value of our time, and the value of fixing our clothes, aren’t just reflected in each generation’s knitting and darning abilities, but in our spending habits as well.
In the U.S. Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, and Millennials all spend thousands of dollars each year on clothing, compared to older generations who currently spend just a few hundred dollars annually on clothes. And American Millennials buy between twice as much and three times as much apparel each year as other age groups. In the last several years fast fashion’s percentage of that spending has been growing significantly faster than other types of clothing. That is great for the fast fashion supply chain, but not so great for the waste stream.
In many countries the garbage system is already geared towards waste ending up in landfills rather than being recycled, composted, or used for energy. Even for items that can easily be recycled such as bottles, it can be hard to divert them away from the garbage dump. Clothes have even fewer recycling options in the U.S. especially; once they become trash they are almost guaranteed to end up as part of the ever-increasing stockpile of garbage stored in landfills.
It can be tempting to rely on donating our clothes in order to give them a new life, maybe help someone, and steer them away from the dump. However for fast fashion apparel this is often not a realistic option. The first problem is that fast fashion styles change rapidly. What is super trendy now can be completely dated a year from now. So unfortunately by the time you decide to get rid of that collared shirt with the shoulders cut out there is a good chance that no one else is going to want it either. Thrift stores and second hand shops know this and they won’t waste valuable rack space on things that won’t sell, so if that bag of clothes you donate is a bunch of fast fashion it may get sorted right into the garbage bin of your favourite second hand store.
For any fast fashion items that are still on trend, or have become retro or ironic enough to be sold second hand, there is another problem; fast fashion is not manufactured to last. The companies that make fast fashion generally aren’t going to waste money making clothes to stand the test of time in styles that are just for the moment. Fast fashion tends to use less expensive materials and faster, cheaper processes, such as not lining garments, single stitching, and inexpensive dyes. This means the clothes are cheap enough for people to buy a whole new wardrobe every season, but after a season or two of wearing and washing (sometimes just a month or two) you’re likely to find your fast fashion pieces are rapidly falling apart. Clothes with blown seams, unintentional holes, and faded colours aren’t useful to anyone so once again, rather than hitting the racks of the thrift store, broken down fast fashion ends up in the rubbish bin.
Throwing away a few clothes here and there is bound to happen to everyone and it may not seem like a big deal and it may not seem like it’s just the fault of the fast fashion industry. After all, slow, timeless, high quality clothes will also rip or get stained or fall apart eventually and have to be chucked. Even the biggest fast fashion devotees probably aren’t shopping every day, nor are they throwing clothes away every day. So it could be easy to ignore this problem or discount the size of it but that would be a mistake. In recent years North American landfills take in over 10.5 million tons of clothes annually, or more than 80lbs per person, and this amount has increased dramatically in the last two decades. And while the U.K. manages to recycle a greater percentage of the clothing waste, 300,000 tonnes of old clothes still ended up in landfills there in 2016. Not all of that is fast fashion, but the higher turnover rate and shorter lifespan of fast fashion means that it is definitely exacerbating the already staggering international problem of clothes in landfills.
While individual fast fashion garments may seem cheap, this phenomenon is actually very expensive, in more ways than one. Spending money on fast fashion is costly for consumers, it’s costly for the environment, and it can also take a big toll on the people whose undervalued labour goes into making these cheap clothes. Just as many of us have started to put more thought into how long we’re going to use a grocery bag, or where our drink bottle is going to end up when we’re done with it, we need to start giving some thought to how many years of wear we’re going to get out of a romper, or where that jumper is headed in the end. And we need to consider this before we buy clothes, not after. We can all choose to spend a little more on a classic well-made items, buy fewer of them, and take care of them so we can enjoy them for years, rather than stuffing our closets with fast fashion which is already on the fast track to the garbage pile.