Waste from fast fashion is one of the leading causes of textile pollution

Jan 29, 2024 | Culture, Life

The rise in clothing consumption and production in the last decade has led to a dramatic increase in textile waste around the world.

Fashionistas might be keeping up with the latest trends but microtrends have a big role to play in the fast-fashion problem because they are simply fads that experience a surge in popularity before often vanishing just as quickly.

Becca Kram, spokesperson at the David Suzuki Foundation, said fast fashion’s popularity stems from the ability of the industry to quickly produce “affordable and trendy garments.”

She said the impact of social media culture accelerated the swift turnover of trends so major fast fashion brands have capitalized on influencer culture and virality.

The fashion firms leverage “platforms like TikTok and Instagram for effective marketing campaigns that employ ‘time-bound’ discounts creating a sense of urgency, so people shop fast without thinking through their decisions,” Kram said.

Fast fashion brands like Shein or Forever21 consist of speedier manufacturing and shipping methods, increasing consumers’ demand for quick styles, she said.

“They often rely on cheap labour in developing countries, subjecting workers to low wages, poor working conditions and unregulated hours,” Kram said. “Fast fashion businesses also exploit underprivileged children caught in a cycle of poverty.

“Additionally, exposure to toxic chemicals in textile production poses grave health risks for factory workers,” Kram said.

She said efficient mass production using global sourcing strategies helps reduce labour and production costs and streamline the supply chains of fast fashion companies.

Kram said firms excel at copying trends and offering them at a low price. And to keep up with changing fashion tastes, they have teams who constantly observe these trends.

The United Nations Environment Program said the environmental impacts of the apparel industry supply chains cause soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution. From the dying of textiles, most of the negative impact comes in three stages, raw-material production, material preparation and processing, and end of life.

While there are many negative aspects to fast fashion, Jordan Foster, a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at U of T, said people sometimes work with the budget that they have.

“Someone gets to feel fantastic or confident about themselves because they were putting on a piece of clothing that they could purchase for not a lot of money, and with most young people, especially working with an income that’s relatively stretched, then this could be a plus,” Foster said.

Cheaper textiles like polyester are one of the most popular fabrics. But they are derived from fossil fuels, contributing to global warming, and could shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in oceans when washed or worn.

The average Canadian reportedly throws out about 37 kilograms of textiles annually, while North Americans send 10 million tonnes of clothing to the landfill every year, most of which could be reused or recycled, according to statistics by Waste Reduction Week in Canada.

By shifting to sustainable shopping practices like thrifting, lending programs, or checking the tags when purchasing an item from the store, shoppers are encouraging better shopping habits by ensuring the clothes are of good quality.

Darryl Green, a business professor at York University, founded the Green Campus Co-op to teach students how to run a sustainable business.

“We have Fairtrade certification and all our products are also organic, so it’s all organic cotton as well,” he said. “That’s what makes us different in terms of business we’re Fairtrade certified for small producers getting a guaranteed minimum price or getting a social premium.”

But beware not all companies’ practices are what they say they are.

Greenwashing is a tactic used in advertising or information on packaging to give the impression of environmentally friendly and sustainable products. These elements often manifest in colours, slogans, and logos.

Kram said people can detect when companies are greenwashing their products.

“This takes some time to master as brands have really caught on to the fact that sustainability sells the more people become eco-conscious,” she said.

Kram said that generally, consumers can detect greenwashing when brands use vague and unsubstantiated claims that their products are eco-friendly, sustainable, green or natural.

“They sell token eco-friendly products and do not disclose information about their supply chain practices, sourcing, labour conditions and environmental impacts. When in doubt, do a Google search,” Kram said.