A customer goes into a store in the United States that is popular for trendy and cheap clothes — known as “fast fashion” — for an impulsive wardrobe addition.
The person buying those clothes may be planning to keep them for only a short time, and then throwing them out when a new fashion trend arrives.
Fast fashion refers to the mass-produced and low-cost clothing items that manufacturers churn out by the millions each day, especially in China, but also in countries such as India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Turkey.
But what most people don’t realize is that most of the clothes are made from materials that are bad for the environment and end up in landfills.
“Fast fashion has huge implications for the environment,” said Eliot Metzger, director of sustainable business and innovation at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “Not many people realize how much water and energy it takes to create a T-shirt. And if that T-shirt is going to the landfill, replaced by another T-shirt, that is going to multiply what is already an unsustainable pattern.”
Fast fashion is not only a problem in the United States but in poorer countries where donated clothes arrive and are then resold by vendors.
“Kenya and Ghana import quite a lot of fast fashion clothing that is causing a huge amount of pollution,” explained Erica Cirino, communications manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition in Washington. “The landfills are so overwhelmed by textile waste that they begin flowing into the surrounding waterways.
From stylish to disastrous
When retailers first introduced fast fashion apparel in the 1990s, the inexpensive and trendy clothing appealed to consumers. Today, its omnipresence in stores and on the internet in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, has made the fast fashion industry a disaster for the environment.
The clothes are often made from synthetic plastic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, which are produced from petroleum-based products — fossil fuels that are causing global warming.
“The heavy reliance by brands on polyester, nylon, acrylic is only increasing,” said Cirino, “so a great majority of clothing today is made out of plastic that is much less expensive than natural materials.”
Researchers have found microfibers from clothing in a wide range of land and aquatic ecosystems — from mountains to ocean floors.
“We call this a global microplastic cycle, where tiny microfibers and other microplastics can move thousands of miles from urban areas, where there are tons of people wearing synthetic clothing, to the most remote corners of the planet, including the top of Mount Everest,” said Britta Baechler, associate director of oceans plastics research with the Ocean Conservancy in Portland, Oregon.
Each year, approximately 6.5 million metric tons of microfibers are released into the environment worldwide, according to the Journal of Hazardous Materials. That’s equivalent to more than 32 billion T-shirts.
“As you're walking, the material is rubbing together and that that causes fibers to break loose that shed directly into the air and make their way into the waterways,” Baechler told VOA.
Microfibers in washing machines
However, experts say, the biggest source of environmental microfiber is washing machines in the U.S. that do not have filters to catch the tiny fibers.
Wastewater treatment plants filter out the majority of microfibers, but because they are so small, some still get into the waterways. They harm small aquatic organisms that ingest them by creating blockages that hinder their absorption of nutrients from food.
It is not yet clear what the effect of microfibers is on humans.
“When we wear this clothing, we're inhaling and potentially absorbing these plastic particles and their toxic chemical additives through our skin, so we're exposed at all times,” said Cirino.
Unlike some materials, there is currently no widespread system for recycling textiles.
There are facilities to recycle paper, glass and some plastics, there isn’t an easy way to recycle textiles by shredding them and making them into new textiles, explained Swarupa Ganguli, lead environmental protection specialist in the office of land and emergency management for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Instead of buying fast fashions, environmental groups say people should think about purchasing clothes at second-hand shops or on the internet and rent outfits for special occasions.
The Patagonia outdoor clothing and gear company in Ventura, California, has a program called Worn Wear to try to keep its clothes out of landfills. The company rebuys some of its used clothing, which is cleaned and resold.
“Worn Wear is based on the premise that reducing the environmental impact of our products must be a shared responsibility between Patagonia and our customers,” said Corey Simpson, the communications manager for product and sport community. “We want to help you with responsible product care while you’re using your gear, and we want to buy it back from you when you no longer need it, whether it can be passed on to someone new or recycled into something new.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency favors what is being called a circular economy approach. This includes redesigning clothes and encouraging the reuse and recycling of clothing.
“The idea is to shift the consumer mindset from using clothing quickly and then throwing it away, and instead to reuse, reduce and recirculate it back into the economy,” Ganguli told VOA.
While “the circular economy for textiles has huge potential,” said Metzger with the World Resources Institute, “I don’t think you can say it is working until the circular economy for textiles is slowing and reversing the consumption.”