Ethical Fashion and Its Environmental Cost

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Imagine yourself going out with your friends, all wearing colour-coordinated outfits. You fit in seamlessly with your group of friends even though you spent only $40 on the entire outfit. However, what if I told you that behind the production of the clothes you have mindlessly purchased on TaoBao, communities are suffering due to contamination of water supply and lead exposure, what if I told you that entire ecosystems are destroyed because of improper disposal of chemical dyes? How comfortable do you feel wearing those clothes now?

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Fast fashion. As the demand for latest trends increases, fast fashion has become more prevalent, with clothing being produced on shorter timeframes and new designs appearing on the market every few weeks. While it may seem like a simple term, fast fashion is a dire social problem that covers a range of issues. From sustainability and environmental problems to humanitarian issues and business ethics, fast fashion involves stakeholders from various sectors and is a significant social issue that requires attention. Today I’ll be focusing on the environmental issues caused by fast fashion.

Many clothes from fast fashion brands are sold cheaply but they came at a price that we, the consumers, did not pay. Certain sacrifices have to be made to achieve the low prices that many clothing items are sold at. According to the Institute of Sustainable Communication, the clothing industry is the second-highest polluter of clean water globally. Retailers of fast fashion dump untreated, toxic chemicals into clean water bodies to cut environmental corners and increase their profit margins. Not only that, the textile industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas per year, emitting more greenhouse gases than maritime shipping and international aviation combined, based on findings by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The mass production of clothing in countries such as China and India requires a lot of coal power as well. Hence, the apparel industry is, according to Forbes, responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions globally.

Fast fashion is not just about fashion brands, but also about the consumers. The Huffington Post once stated that 80 billion pieces of clothing are being consumed globally each year. It has been estimated that we, the consumers, are buying 60% more clothes than we were in 2000. However, fast fashion is often low in quality and not made to last. As such, each clothing item is being worn less before being disposed of. According to the sustainability consulting group Eco-Age, people view fast fashion like disposable clothing, wearing fast-fashion clothing and accessories less than five times on average before throwing them away. More often than not, the disposed clothes end up in landfills where they are either incinerated or left for decades to biodegrade, both of which are harmful to the environment.

So what kind of change is needed and what can we as consumers do? To counter the problems caused by fast fashion, the most practical thing to do is to stop supporting fast fashion. When the demand for fast fashion decreases, when we begin to show companies that we demand higher quality clothing, they will be forced to make changes. 

Turning from fast fashion to slow fashion overnight is near impossible. However, it is extremely important to start somewhere and gradually make a change to make our wardrobes a sustainable one. One way we can achieve such a change is to stop patronising fast fashion brands and support companies that produce sustainable fashion instead. Rather than making out purchases from fast fashion brands whose clothes are made up of cheap materials such as polyesters, choose sustainable brands that use sustainably-sourced natural and organic materials such as cotton and linen. Though such clothes will come at a higher price tag, they are of higher quality and will last longer, posing less harm to the environment. 

If you are unable to give up on fast fashion immediately, an alternative to purchasing new trendy clothing from stores is to thrift for clothes. Instead of watching the clothes that no longer spark joy in their previous owners go to landfills for incineration, you can give such old clothes new love by thrifting and shopping at second-hand stores. In doing so, you are recycling existing clothes, minimising waste, cutting down on the use of new resources and cutting down the demand for fast fashion.

Finally, start thinking of your clothes as an investment. In this day and age where clothing has become disposable rather than something to be cherished, it is important to rethink what our clothes mean to us. Marketing trends are tailored to whet our desire to shop, to compel us to continuously purchase cheap clothing and accessories. However, is that truly necessary? If you begin to think of your clothing as an investment, it will change the quality of the clothing you are willing to buy and reduce the demand for fast fashion. 


Now, imagine yourself once again hanging out with your friends, all wearing colour-coordinated outfits. However, this time, you know that your clothes are from an ethical fashion brand, a brand that looks beyond profits, a brand that pays attention to quality and sustainability and a brand that makes the effort to protect the environment we live in. I am certain that your clothes will now feel much lighter and more comfortable on you, knowing that the environment was not put at stake in the production process.

WIth us partaking in fashion everyday, fast fashion is an issue that can no longer be overlooked. I hope that all of you would do your part and make the change. Start making conscious decisions and help raise awareness about this issue. Together, we can begin to change the conversation about fashion. Thank you.  

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