Fast Fashion Is Trashing The Planet: Ethical Swaps & Clothing Exchanges Can Help

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Whether or not you’re familiar with the term “fast fashion,” it’s no secret that the constant turnout of clothes in today’s consumer-focused market is killing our planet faster than almost any other industry in the world. 

Retailers like Zara, H&M, GAP, Adidas, Shein, and so many more are making millions off of selling their cheap and trendy clothing without concern for the lasting ecological impact their cheap labor and goods are causing. 

These clothing brands continue to make millions with every trend that comes out and with minimal cost to them – contributing to the downfall of environmentally-friendly companies that are doing their part. 

According to the UN Environment Programme, the fast fashion industry is “the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions.” 

So that trendy shirt you bought for $5? It may be worse for the environment than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

What is Fast Fashion?

If you’re not familiar with the term or if you’re uncertain about all of the implications, “fast fashion” is a term that’s come up more frequently of late as the rise of trends has escalated. A trend that would usually stick around for a year is now pushed to the side by a new trend in record time – it could be as short as a month. So, to keep up with these ever-changing style shifts, consumers look to these affordable fast fashion retailers. 

Fast fashion is a blanket term that refers to “cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximize current trends.”

Do you ever scroll through TikTok and see a new trend emerge and the very next day, you see it in stores? That’s due to fast fashion. The industry has been known to create and market new trends in order for them to gain popularity so retailers can get money quickly. 

How Fast Fashion Operates

If you see a store suddenly filled with the latest fashion trends, know that they’re most likely not here to stay, and there’s a good chance they may not have been made sustainably. Brands know they can capitalize on the newest trends and people will buy into it. 

In 2012, it was reported that Zara was able to design, produce, and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 could do it in six weeks; and H&M in eight. The short amount of ‘lead time’ that these companies take also leads to them cutting corners with environmental and safety regulations. 

That being said, there are some clothing companies that follow trends while still being sustainable – you just need to do the research in order to make certain you’re not contributing to fast fashion brands. Just be aware of the top fast fashion brands and avoid contributing to them. 

The Issue with Fast Fashion

While there’s nothing wrong with following the style trends of the day, contributing to the fast fashion industry is extremely problematic. 

Business Insider found that fashion production contributes to 10% of the total global carbon emissions. That means that the overhaul of clothing production dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams. While the production of fast fashion clothing trends in and of itself is harmful, 85% of all textiles made go into a dump or landfill each year. 

So even if you’re not contributing directly to fast fashion, you should assume that the clothes you do buy will end up in a dump, so buy as sustainably as you can. 

Furthermore, even if you keep your fast fashion clothes, washing your clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres into the oceans each year (~50 billion plastic bottles worth). This is why being conscious of where your clothes come from, what they’re made of, and what they’re emitting into the environment is so important.

How Fast Fashion Impacts Society

Not only is fast fashion a problem for the earth, it’s also a problem for the people on it. Eighty percent of fast fashion apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18-24. In 2018, the US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, and other countries. 

If your clothes aren’t being produced in sustainable and ethical environments, buying into fast fashion trends could support unlawful and unjust child labor practices. 

Take the case of  20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel, an employee at Natchi Apparel, an H&M supply factory in Kaithian Kottai, Tamil Nadu, India: Kathiravel was murdered after speaking out about being sexually harrassed at her workplace by her direct supervisor.

After reporting the harassment, Kathiravel received a call from that supervisor, Thangadurai, saying he needed her to report to the factory immediately. She never returned home and her body was found days later. Thangadurai eventually confessed to police that he had murdered Kathiravel.

H&M put out a statement that they would be investigating the supplier, saying, “We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and suppliers that do not share these values cannot and will not be part of our supply chain. Our ongoing monitoring, including announced and unannounced audits as well as self-reporting by the supplier, had not raised any cases of harassment in the factory in question.”

Dangerous Working Conditions

But women in the industry felt this was not enough and called on H&M to do more than investigate and send condolences, as the issue is rampant in overseas factories.

“We believe the continued sexual harassment that has been reported to us, followed by the rape and murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, is a direct result of Eastman Exports [the owner of Natchi Apparel] and H&M’s failure to respond to the extreme and widespread conditions of gender-based violence and the ongoing violations of freedom of association facing workers in Natchi Apparel,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator at Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA).

While there are laws put into place to restrict unlawful working regulations, the fashion industry is one of the biggest offenders of skirting or outright ignoring these laws. The fashion industry is notorious for using cheaper labor by cutting costs and not following environmental or safety regulations. 

According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labor-dependent industry in the world. 

What’s the Solution? Ethical Swaps And Clothing Exchanges

The sad truth is that fast fashion won’t just go away. It’s cheap, it’s accessible, and it follows the trends of today in an accessible way. There are ways to counter the effects of fast fashion, however, even if it feels small to you. 

First and foremost, do your research. Look into brands that contribute to the fast fashion scene and don’t give your support to them. If you love a new fashion trend, look into ways you can DIY it, thrift it, or look into a clothing exchange. 

Next, look into slow fashion. Buy from brands that support sustainable fashion and manufacturing processes.

Clothing Exchanges/Secondhand Stores

If you love to shop online, go to retailers like ThredUp and Poshmark, two online stores where you can buy second hand. 

Mercari is a great option for buying (and selling!) secondhand clothing. 

The marketplace is “the perfect place to go to declutter or discover items that will breathe new life into your space. Letting go has never felt so good – it’s almost as good as finding your new favorite thing. And we’re here to help,” states the website.   

Their apparel section has luxury and vintage clothing, with a large range of sizes, and you can find everything from formal dresses to jeans.

ThredUp is another standout in the clothing exchange marketplace and offers premium and designer apparel, including Revive by Rent The Runway. Instead of renting designer brands, you can buy previously rented designer clothing.

Clothing exchange sites like ThredUp and Mercari are easily navigable, and shoppers can filter by size, brand, clothing type, and your preference of  “new with tags,” “gently used,” etc.

Finally, remember less is more. You don’t need to buy into every trend, and you don’t need to get only new clothes. Shop your closet, buy second hand, use clothing exchanges, and be as conscious as possible when you’re deciding where to shop. 

It’s an uphill battle to fight fast fashion, but we all need to get in the ring.


Are you steering clear of fast fashion in favor of clothing exchanges and ethical swaps? Tell us in the comments!

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