Peyton Harris | Staff Contributor
Fashion has greatly evolved over the last century, and even more so in the last 50 years, thanks to industrialization and the introduction of new textile materials. One newer aspect of fashion, known as fast fashion, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.”
While fast fashion can be easily made and marketed for consumers, the impact it has on the industry and the environment will long outlast the clothing’s shelf-life, and likely ourselves.
One thing that was here long before us and will be after — an invaluable resource that we all need — is water. Water accounts for everything we do: food, transport, and yes, clothing. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry uses over 21 trillion gallons of water each year. A single pair of denim jeans bought at a store such as H&M can use well over 2,000 gallons of water, according to a United Nations report.
While these stats alone show an excessive amount of water usage, what’s more egregious is how companies producing these articles of fast fashion clothing dispose of their spent water. Take that pair of denim jeans from H&M for example: Once the denim is constructed into the pair of jeans, it is continually dipped into synthetic indigo dyes to achieve the desired color for the style of jeans. Once the dyeing is complete, finishing — the process where chemicals are laid over to achieve the desired texture — uses even more water with added chemicals to complete the piece.
There are thousands of gallons of used water that companies wish to not use again, but what can they do with it? The most likely result is that these companies, whose factories are often based in Asian countries like China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, use their weak environmental laws as an excuse to pour this water into nearby waterways and rivers.
Expand the scope of the problem to the entire fashion industry’s excessive water use, and you can see the alarming problem being raised around the world. While the fashion industry consumes and pollutes trillions of gallons of water, there are still millions that go without access to clean drinking water — and that number is growing.
Once water is discharged from a factory, that water seeps into the groundwater, contaminating whole drinking supplies. It also contaminates irrigation channels, and food products have now been found to have parts of synthetic chemicals in them, introducing plastics into the very food we eat.
H&M, a company known for its low-cost, easy-care clothes, is a large market for fast fashion producers, along with brick-and-mortar stores like Forever21 or online markets like ASOS, Zara and Shein. While the clothing bought at these stores comes at a low cost to consumers, the toll its production takes on the areas where it is produced is horrifying. Reports of black rivers in Bangladesh, gastrointestinal issues and multi-pronged health rates are soaring in people who worked in Chinese chemical factories dyeing clothes; to name a few, they have been coming to light in recent years.
These large corporations, rather than individuals, are to blame for the environmental impacts of fast fashion, according to Rebecca Ulinski, a freshman at Duquesne.
“Basically fast fashion is a problem because it’s so easily accessible and so poorly manufactured,” Ulinski said. “But you really can’t place the blame for destruction on individual people, but on the big companies that keep those businesses in place.”
Now that studies have taken place, governments, corporations and consumers have begun to enact change. China’s Ministry for Environmental Protection cracked down in 2017 on companies flouting environmental laws and imposed taxes on higher polluting companies. Bangladesh has begun implementing laws as well in an attempt to lower the rates of water discharge into local drinking and crop supplies. Private companies, like H&M and Levi’s, are enacting changes in-house to their production methods, and are acting to root out any suppliers that go around environmental policies.
Fashion is a great thing — it can inspire design and change. However, it can also be a detriment to the society and world that it affects. Until companies and governments enact laws that force companies to change, it is up to consumers to shop ethically to determine whether this month’s newest fad belongs in their closet or not.