What does the term “fast fashion” mean? Much like fast food, it is clothing that is made quickly and cheaply. Fast fashion is designed to follow trends and be replaced frequently. After too many washes, these cheap clothes can literally fall apart, leaving them to be sent to a landfill rather than donated or resold. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 13 million tons of clothes are sent to landfills each year in the United States alone, where they take over 200 years to degrade, releasing chemicals and dye into the Earth. In order to keep prices low, fast fashion companies produce their clothes in sweatshops, often utilizing child labor, where workers have long hours and many earn less than $3 a day.
Many companies have recognized the environmental impact of fast fashion and are working on ways to reduce their footprint through recycling programs. For example, H&M allows customers to bring back unwanted garments to be recycled into textile fibers for new products. These programs have both advantages and disadvantages, claims Zhai Yun Tan, an author for NPR. On one hand, fashion brands become more conscious of the quality and the biodegradability of the materials their clothing is made from. On the other hand, it may promote consumerism. For example, many retailers offer store credit when customers bring back their unwanted clothes, which only encourages them to patronize these fast fashion establishments.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are over 170 million children are engaged in child labor, the majority of whom work in the textile and garment industry. Fast fashion companies seek the cheapest labor available, which they find in children in countries like India and Bangladesh. Child labor is especially prevalent in this industry because textile manufacturing requires low-skilled labor, and many jobs are performed more easily by children than adults. Although child labor is illegal nearly everywhere in the world, it still occurs due to the complexity of the fashion supply chain. There are many stages of production involved, and big companies and consumers may never find out that their clothes are the fruits of child labor. Even if brands have strict guidelines regarding their suppliers, the system is so complex that labor may be subcontracted to other factories without their knowledge. This is not an issue that can be easily mended. Child labor is so deeply ingrained in these countries that the only way to truly eliminate it is to eliminate the thing that allows it to persist: poverty.
So what exactly can we as consumers do to make a difference? It has been shown that investing in fewer, higher-quality articles of clothing is actually less expensive in the long run than buying cheap clothes. Other ways to reduce textile waste include shopping at thrift, consignment, and vintage stores. Buying from brands accredited by the Fair Wear Foundation, the Fairtrade Label Organisation, the Global Organic Textile Standard, and the Ethical Trading Initiative ensures that your clothes were not produced through child labor. Every effort to reduce your individual footprint can help make an impact.