Fighting Fast Fashion's Impacts

When people think of terms such as plastic waste, pollution, and climate change, fashion is often the furthest thing from their minds.

Slipping under the world’s radar for years, the fashion industry managed to quietly place itself as one of the top five polluters in the world. With major retail companies globally opting for a model which relies on cheap fabrics and cheap labour overseas, the fashion industry is certainly far from innocent.

The damage is further increased by the influence of mass marketing on the general population’s shopping habits, resulting in excess shopping, an increased susceptibility to temporary trends, and a lack of awareness toward sustainable practices.

The Environmental Impact

The fashion industry is tied for the fifth most polluting industry in the world next to livestock. Both emit about 5.4 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report conducted by the Global Fashion Agenda.

Compared to electricity and heat (24.9 per cent), agriculture (13.8 per cent), road transportation (10.5 per cent), and oil/gas production (6.4 per cent), that number may not seem so high, but when translated to 1,715 million tons of carbon emissions, it becomes an alarming amount.

Part of why the fashion industry is so destructive is its rapid production rate. Garments are produced at almost double the amount today as compared to the year 2000. With an average overturn rate of one week, clothes are frequently replaced by similarly trendy items. This leaves consumers with an unprecedented amount of selections when they go shopping.

“This fast fashion thing started when I was a teenager,” said Bridget Remai, designer and co-owner of the sustainable Flock and Workshop Boutiques in Ottawa.

“Prior to that, there wasn’t the same kind of accessibility. You couldn’t just buy a 10-dollar t-shirt at Loblaws or have your choice of a million different things. Now that everything is so cheap and disposable, people don’t think when they buy. They go, ‘It’s not exactly what I want but it’s eight bucks, I’m going to buy it.’”

The most common fabrics used by the fast fashion model are often made of synthetic materials consisting of plastic fibers such as polyester, elastane, rayon, and viscose. 

Remai said these fibers are used to cut costs for manufacturers and are responsible for a significant amount of textile waste and the subsequent discovery of microplastics in waterways.

An added consequence of these cheap synthetic materials is their tendency to break down much faster, resulting in the constant need for consumers to find replacements.

“Fast fashion exists because they want their clothes to become obsolete,” said Remai.

“It’s not fast fashion if you can wear that shirt for three years. They’re purposefully using fibers that will break down and shirts that will get holes in them so you can go buy another shirt.”

According to a textile waste report conducted by Waste Reduction Canada, the average person throws away 37 kilograms of textiles annually. When applied to all North Americans, that number spikes to 10 million tons of clothing sent to landfills each year, where they take up to 200 years to biodegrade.

The numbers get worse.

British charity Barnardo’s conducted a survey in 2015 of almost 2,000 women over the age of 16. Their study found a single garment was worn an average of seven times before being chucked away. According Y Closet, a Beijing-based rental platform, that average drops to three wears in China.

“If you think about how many billions of people are doing this, it’s terrifying,” said Remai.

“None of this would happen if people made more conscious decisions about clothes. You have to think about it, try it on, make sure it’s high quality, try to buy used, and give what you don’t want away to a friend. All of these things could super-easily reduce the impact of fashion on the environment, on workers, on the world. But that’s just not what’s happening right now.”

The Mental Health Impact

Not only have the trends of fast fashion negatively impacted the environment, but they have also impacted people’s perceptions of themselves in a serious way.

About two-thirds of shoppers have a history of anxiety or depression, according to Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City.

With modern marketing strategies geared to making consumers feel inferior or unworthy without certain products in their possession, shoppers feel a significant amount of pressure to stay up to date.

Remai thinks there is a definite link between shopping and feeling unfulfilled. She wishes more women would get to know themselves and support each other so marketing pressures don’t affect their confidence.

“Somewhere along the way, stuff started to replace relationships and I think we need to dial it back a little bit. There are so many things that are so much more important than stuff, and the first thing I suggest doing is to get outside and see friends,” said Remai.

Christie Ressel, a personal stylist and owner of the Toronto image-consulting firm Fashion Translated, believes chasing happiness through shopping is a need that will never be met.

“By focusing solely on trends and what’s new without giving thought to personal style, you’ll always feel dated when it comes to your closet,” Ressel said.

“Our society motto seems to be ‘more is more,’ which is a shame. It can really trigger people. There’s this subliminal message that indicates you’re not worthy if you can’t keep up.”

The Journal of Consumer Research found that valuing material possessions as a measure of success and as a medicine for happiness are associated with increases in loneliness over time, and loneliness in turn is associated with increases in these types of materialism. This forms a materialism-loneliness cycle that perpetuates once it is formed.

Aimless purchases of this nature can often result in cluttered, incohesive wardrobes that are known to overwhelm people and give them the feeling they have nothing to wear despite evidence to the contrary.

“It’s simply because most people are not intentional when it comes to their closets or style,” Ressel said.

“In other aspects of our lives we’re so strategic in our approach to health, finances, and jobs, but for some reason that doesn’t translate to our spending habits with our closets.”

Benefits of Minimalism

Minimalism is a lifestyle which varies from person to person. One might choose to cut out luxuries such as TVs and cars, while another might simply restrict their total belongings to what they need.

The gist of this philosophy is to simply live with less, rid yourself of excess items, and draw happiness from experiences rather than possessions.

Paige Leslie, an environmental activist, said she felt overwhelmed by the number of things she owned before adopting minimalism, and believes more people should try the same lifestyle.

“Some think about minimalism in the extreme and go, ‘what? I can only have one shirt and one pair of pants?’ which isn’t what we’re saying at all. It’s just cutting back and not buying new things all the time,” Leslie said.

“It’s nice having less things. You have less to worry about. I only have a few options now and they’re all clothes I love wearing. I don’t feel forced to wear anything I hate or feel obligated to wear just because I own it.”

The best way to maintain a minimalist closet is to invest in the few items you have so they last and give you your money’s worth.

Remai revamped her closet 14 years ago and now cycles through 12 outfits in total. She said investment pieces must be versatile basics of quality.

“I could wear the same plain black dress five days a week and you could never know, because today I can wear it with a jean jacket and scarf, but tomorrow I can wear it with a red blazer and big hoop earrings,” Remai said.

“If you invest in two or three pieces like that, you will see that basics paired with some accessories can last you a whole week.”

Fast fashion items may comparatively seem affordable, but that is far from the truth. The fact of the matter is going for a cheaper piece for its price without considering quality will not only mean your clothes will frequently require replacing (and more shopping), but it also means you are gradually losing more money.

“It’s more a choice game than a budget game,” said Remai.

“Minimalist purchasing decisions on pieces that are better and will last longer is the same budgetary choice. It’s going to cost you the same over time as purchasing throwaway items.”

Another benefit of minimalism is it encourages you to pay for less items which can be diversified into many more outfits.

Ressel believes being strategic and intentional with our wardrobes can make a big difference in waste reduction and the quality people put in their closets and style.

“Your closet can expand and provide you with massive outfit possibilities that resonate with who you are. I often show my clients how to take 18 pieces and turn that into 216 outfit options,” Ressel said.

When considering a garment, Ressel asks herself three questions. Can she wear this piece three ways? Does this represent her highest and best self? Will she love it in a year? These are the questions most people often do not ask themselves, and why they find themselves looking at wardrobes full of clothes saying they have nothing to wear.

“If people ask themselves the same questions I do when shopping and spend more time getting creative in their closets instead of going shopping the second they get bored, people wouldn’t be saying this,” Ressel said. “You have to be picky about what you’re willing to pay for.”

Minimalism is also a great way to reduce the stress of selecting what to wear in the morning or before a night out. It minimizes your clutter and encourages you to focus on conscientious habits.

Erin Elizabeth, a sustainable lifestyle blogger and YouTuber in Ottawa, said she used to be a shopaholic who only wore items once or simply let them sit unworn in her closet with the tags still on.

“One day I realized how overwhelming it all was and decided to take a step back to re-evaluate how I wanted my closet to be,” Elizabeth said.

“I was constantly worried about my content and trying to come up with new outfits with new clothing all the time, which made me realize how unsustainable it all was. It can be tricky being a blogger and trying to strike the right balance with old and new, but I’ve got a much better handle on it.”

Elizabeth said she is now more mindful about her clothing consumption. Trimming down the size of her wardrobe has allowed her to get more wear out of the pieces she owned and learn what she gravitates to most.

“I don’t shop nearly as often as I used to. I used to be at the mall weekly. Now, I honestly can’t remember the last time I went there,” she said.

What Else You Can Do

Opt for Thrifiting

Buying second-hand spares a lot of environmental damage while also being budget friendly.

Value Village, for instance, is one of largest clothing recyclers in the world, diverting more than 650 million pounds of goods from landfills annually.

According to its eco-stats, Value Village has repurposed 329 million tops, 114 million pairs of pants, 59 million pairs of shoes, and 28 million coats within a single year. That is enough to supply an average person’s closet nearly 145,000 times over.

“I love buying second-hand. It’s always an adventure and you never know what you’re going to find,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s way more sustainable. If people were mindful about what they were consuming then we could reduce a lot more waste, not to mention save consumers money.”

Buy Local

With an awareness of the damages of fast fashion as well as garment-worker struggles overseas, Remai has become a strict advocate of buying local, Canadian products because of the government’s enforcement of workers’ rights.

“Nobody’s being paid a dollar a day here in Ontario,” said Remai.

“We recently increased the minimum wage, but that system only works if we’re willing to purchase Ontario-made goods. If we’re still going to purchase from Amazon, Walmart, or big-box stores using overseas labour, not even 10 per cent of the money stays within your community and businesses will start closing.”

At the Flock Boutique, Remai and her staff provide ethical and organic high-quality fabrics made exclusively in Ontario, with each of their 120 designers paid according to Canada’s labour laws.

“I don’t need to sell one million dresses. I just need to sell a certain number of dresses to conscientious customers for all of my designers to be paid and have good lives producing in Canada, so they can pay their staff fairly and buy textiles that agree with their vision.”

Pay Attention to Fabrics

When it comes to fabrics, it is always best to choose natural, sustainably sourced materials. These include organic cotton, linen, hemp, cashmere, silk, wool, suede, and tweed. Make a habit out of checking clothing tags and avoid synthetics as much as possible.

According to Timo Rissanen, co-author of Zero Waste Fashion Design, checking the density of the weave is important – if it’s tightly packed, it will last significantly longer. This can be determined through touch or by holding the garment up to a light source and stretching it.

Next, assess the construction of the fabric. Are the stitches tidy and spaced evenly both inside and out? Are the button-holes sturdy? Consumers can often pick up on a hastily made piece if they train themselves to catch the right warning signs.

“This is something a lot of brands are skipping out on to make a bigger profit because the average consumer doesn't seem to know any better,” said Ressel.

“It's important that people educate themselves about fabrics and what things should look like, while understanding that there's no such thing as quality when you're paying under $50 for something. When I see hauls that talk about good quality from a fast fashion store, all I can do is roll my eyes. It's an oxymoron.”

Be Intentional 

Ressel believes it is important to bring people’s focus on what works for them and not trends. This takes the pressure off and allows people to shop more slowly.

Ressel’s advice to those looking to make a sustainable change to their wardrobes and shopping habits is to focus on what makes them feel “high-vibe” as individuals.

“The first thing to do is to get clear on what you want and how you want to feel when you get dressed,” Ressel said.

“What would your highest-self wear? What's her style like? How would she feel when putting on her clothing? From that place, try and create a mood or style board and bring that vision to life. Have fun with it. Compare your closet to that and adjust accordingly. Make a shopping list and work towards it slowly. Personal style doesn't happen with one shopping trip, it's something that evolves as you do.”

Elizabeth also suggests going on a no-buy month to take the spontaneity out of shopping.

“Don’t buy anything new for a whole month and work with the things you have,” she said.

“You’ll probably end up surprised by how creative you can get with your wardrobe. If the month goes well, then you can even extend it.”

Lead by Example

Leslie believes consumers are strong in numbers and banding together is the key to making big changes in damaging business models.

“Consumers control the market, and if they stopped consuming certain things the companies are going to have to change. That’s just the way it’s going to work,” Leslie said.

Leslie’s approach to positively influencing her peers is to have her lifestyle speak for itself. She believes people’s passion about how they live can be quietly inspiring to others.

“If you can change just one person’s mind about minimalism or thrifting, then you’ve impacted one person’s perspective and then they might impact someone else’s, and it’ll be a chain reaction,” she said.

Remai thinks people should also frequently demand better from their clothing suppliers.

“People are unaware of how much power they have. Until we start asking for something different, the status quo is going to rule. But when people start complaining that their pieces didn’t last and they want their money back, eventually with enough complaints, things will be made in a more sustainable, long-lasting way. You just can’t argue with customers.”

Remai has high hopes and thinks the sustainability mission has already set its roots in society.

“I can’t even tell you how great it makes me feel, so many people have come in saying, ‘I’m no longer going to buy cheap things on sale’ and are really taking their time to be conscientious with their purchases, telling us how amazing it all is.”

With young people at the forefront of the environmental revolution, Remai is happy about the example they set in pushing the eco-movement forward.

“I see the youth of today and I’m so proud of them. They’re stating their beliefs and living according to that and it’s inspiring. They made a big shift. We all have to, and fast. The environment is not just going to hang out and wait for us. It has to happen now and in a global way.”