Environmental Justice Resources Waste

Rethinking the Way we Dress

Being stuck indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic has made many of us realize something tremendously important: Our closets are too big. The scheme of fast fashion, cheap and trendy clothing that are quick to produce and quick to become unstylish, has caused us to simultaneously buy and throw away at an increasingly quicker pace. In fact, clothing production has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

However, researchers, experts, and influencers are anticipating that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to end fast fashion, as new populations of consumers are striving to deliberately align their purchasing practices with their values.

As the globe is mobilizing against systems of oppression and inequalities, we find it timely to take a close look at the social and environmental costs that extreme consumerism and materialism have on our world. What you buy, or don’t buy, can change a life.

Fast fashion means labor exploitation

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took Americans by storm. A preventable accident, the fire killed 149 factory workers of mostly immigrant girls, becoming one of the most devastating industrial disasters in American history. Since then, activism for factory safety has led to better working conditions for textile workers in the United States.

However, the 2013 Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh is a shocking illustration that the exploitation of labor has only grown over the past century. As fast fashion companies moved production overseas to drive costs and prices down while maximizing profits, the trends of rock-bottom wages, unsafe working conditions, and poorly constructed factories exploded.

When the Rana Plaza collapsed a day after architects urged for it to be condemned, more than 1,100 of mostly Bangladeshi women and girls died, and approximately 2,500 were injured. Rana Plaza, along with thousands of similar ready-made textile factories in Bangladesh, produced clothing for well-known western brands such as Zara, Mango, Walmart, and J.C. Penny. What western countries thought resolved after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was only moved somewhere less visible to them, hidden like a dirty secret.

The environmental costs of fast fashion

According to the UN Environment Program, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and 20% of global wastewater. Especially harmful, textile dyeing is responsible for inundating rivers, streams, and lakes with highly toxic wastewater, threatening public health and agriculture alike.

And that’s only the production.

After the clothing lands in consumers’ hands, the washing of synthetic textiles releases microfibers like polyester. It is estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean are from laundering plastic textiles like polyester. At the current rate at which consumers throw away their clothes, an equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes are incinerated or dumped in a landfill every second.

How did we get here?

We live in a consumer society

While consumers buy 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000, they only keep clothes half as long. As fast fashion companies bring out new collections of clothing every season, they spread the belief that one must buy new pieces every season to remain in fashion.

Advertising is driven by perceived obsolescence, which convinces consumers to throw away and replace things that are still perfectly usable, by changing the way they look. Being aware of these marketing tactics helps us resisting them when they are presented, allowing us to make an active decision to not fall into those traps, turning instead to sustainable and ethical fashion.

Fight fast fashion: you can do it!

Criticism against consumerism appeared early on, first with the hippie movement in the 60s and later with the Punk and Goth movements of the 70s and 80s. The late 20th century then saw a growing demand for brand accountability and transparency about production methods and policies. Organized movements and efforts such as the Clean Clothes Campaign (since 1989) and Fashion Revolution (since 2013) have been effectively influencing the fashion industry, inciting brands to adopt more sustainable and ethical practices.

As consumers, we have the power to change the fashion industry. Knowing where our clothes come from and how they were made is often an enlightenment that can help drive the desire to do more. Today, options to procure clothing in ways that do not support the harmful fast fashion model are countless.

  1. Thrifting, or buying second-hand clothes, keeps more pieces of clothing from going into the landfill while also adding affordable, unique pieces into our wardrobes. That being said, keep in mind that the gentrification of thrift stores can be a serious problem, so try  to find thrift stores that cater to your financial abilities to not take away resources from lower income communities.
  2. Swapping clothes with friends is also a fun and free option for refreshing and adding new options to your closet. It is especially easy for roommates or students living on-campus, but if you don’t know anyone to swap with, there are many online platforms specifically designed for clothes-swapping.
  3. At WashU, student groups Sharing With A Purpose (SWAP) and WUpcycle collect and redistribute clothing from and to the WashU community. SWAP’s Trading Post, a free thrift store on the South 40, is great place for donating unwanted items as well as shopping for free. WUpcycle is all about upcycling used clothing to create unique, original pieces!
  4. Minimalism (“buy less, buy better”), means choosing pieces that are better quality, longer lasting, and versatile. Avoid buying “trendy” garments, and instead opt for pieces that you are likely to enjoy forever and will fit your ever-evolving body.
  5. Maintain your clothes and repair them whenever is needed! Patching a hole, replacing a button, or sewing a cuff on too-long pants are much easier than you may think. If you want to develop your seamstress talents, local nonprofit Perennial STL offers many classes for all levels. Also, to increase the life of your clothes, wash them in cold water and don’t wash too frequently. You’ll also save on water and energy!
  6. When you have a piece of clothing that either doesn’t fit or you no longer like, consider altering it yourself. From quick fixes like changing a length or a shape, to full upcycling into a new garment, use your creativity! This requires a bit more skills, but SWAP and WUPcycle regularly offer classes and resources for those who want to get into this.
  7. Buy from fair-fashion brands that are specified to have ensured fair wages and healthy and safe working conditions. Fair fashion labels and certifications to look for include Fair Trade Certified, Ethical Trade Initiative, and Fair Wear Foundation.
  8. NEVER throw away usable textiles. Donate the clothing you no longer need to thrift stores and charities to support your local community while giving your clothes another life. Make sure you are actually helping the organization you are donating to! Check out this page for responsible donation tips.

Further Learning

This article was written by Jarea Fang, Communication Associate at the Office of Sustainability.