Supply and demand is the simple yet determining factor of the global economy as we know it. Consumer demand dictates how much of a product is produced, and when Europeans consume an average of 26 kg of textiles per year, it is evident that there is a constant need for new textile products. Such widespread participation in this demand has led to the emergence of the fast-fashion industry, where clothing items in particular follow a short-lived trend cycle that focuses on quantity over quality. Stunning statistics depict the true realities of the fast-fashion industry on the environment, human rights, and the consumer themselves, leaving many wondering how to navigate the market with a more responsible and mindful approach.
While many are familiar with the term “fast fashion”, there is an overall lack of awareness about the harsh truths that come with purchasing from retailers that contribute to it. In Europe, Inditex is the fastest turnover retailer, meaning that brands like Zara, Massimo Dutti, and Pull & Bear are notorious for following a business model defined by short trend cycles, excess, and exploitation. At the same time, these brands and others alike have reached a level of extreme popularity and success, providing little incentive for such companies to change their ways. Lack of regulation and protocol has let such businesses get out of control, inflicting immense consequences on the planet, human dignity, and consumer health.
The vast majority of textiles consumed in Europe and the US have been fabricated in another part of the world. This is so companies can save money by paying workers less and distancing themselves from the environmental impacts of their actions, also known as resource and worker exploitation. In fact, of the 40.3 million people subjected to modern-day slavery in 2016, 24.9 million were enslaved by forced labor. Unsurprisingly, among the top two leading industries involved in this modern-day slavery was the global textile industry. These people, along with others not considered to be a part of modern day slavery, must undergo dangerous working conditions with poor compensation, even involving child labor in some cases. This cycle perpetuates poverty and low rates of development in regions like South-East Asia, for instance, condemning people to poor living and working conditions that bring about health risks. A recent instance has been brought to the light by a French investigation into the alleged participation in crimes against humanity for brands like Zara, Uniqlo, and Sketchers for the forced labor of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China, a minority group already undergoing a suspected genocide within China’s north-western region.
Textile production also lands within the EU’s top five greenhouse gas emitters, producing about the equivalent of 15-35 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide per tonne of textiles manufactured, with only 75% of emissions taking place outside of the EU and in the regions where the textiles are being manufactured. To put this into perspective, the manufacturing and transportation of the textiles amount to each individual in Europe utilizing “1.3 tonnes of primary raw materials, 100,000 liters of water and 700 m² of land […] per year,” according to the Nova Institute. These statistics are particularly difficult to process when considering the short lifespan of fast-fashion products and the frequency with which textiles end up in the garbage rather than being recycled or reused. In 2018 alone, the landfills in the US collected around 11.3 million tonnes of MSW (municipal solid waste) textiles.
In terms of consumers, they risk microplastics from their cheaply-made clothing ending up in their bloodstream. Research conducted by Environment International found that 77% of participants had plastic in their bloodstream, with 50% of them being PET, the most widely used polymer in polyester fibers. In accordance, polymers happen to be huge components of fast-fashion textiles.
In circumstances like these, the responsibility lies largely on the individual consumer to make more responsible and informed choices about where we choose to spend our money. It is frustrating that the major retailers follow such a loose moral code, but there are a plethora of sustainable options (and more fashionable!) if you just know where to look.
First things first, quality over quantity. Spending a bit more money upfront on an ethical and high-quality brand will save you money in the long run. This type of clothing has a longer lifetime and tends to fit you better than would cheaply-made products, making it so you do not constantly need to replace clothing. If you decide to shop at a fast-fashion retailer for any reason, whether it be convenience, price, or style, it is very important to remain mindful about what you are buying and only purchase something that you know you will wear for more than one occasion. Avoid micro-trends that will go out of style in a few months and be intentional with what you buy by ensuring that it is something that you can see yourself wearing for longer than one season and feels like it has decent quality. While trends do work on a cyclical pattern, short-lived low-quality products will not stand the test of time.
I recommend taking advantage of the amazing second-hand clothing shops that Madrid has to offer. Humana is an amazing choice for basics and rare finds at a low price, and the vintage shops scattered around the city have a more curated and high-quality selection of fashionable pieces. Magpie Vintage in Malasaña is a personal favorite where you can find the best affordable and timeless pieces in the city. Other than those, sites like Vinted and Poshmark have tons of hidden gems for you to discover for a low cost. Lastly, when you or your friends have clothes that you no longer use, ask one another if they are interested in the item. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure! Shopping in such ways will not only assist you in aligning your actions with your morals, but it will most likely up your style and make you stand out. Quality and unique pieces will make you much more fashionable than Zara ever will.
As a takeaway, I urge you to rethink what you are supporting each time you walk into a fast-fashion retailer. Is the convenience really worth the damage you are causing to the planet, workers, and yourself? There are so many fashionable alternatives to discover that are moral, sustainable, and easily accessible. It’s time to rethink fast fashion for good.
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