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Like when cigarettes were cool

Updated: Feb 22

I’ve always loved fashion. Never expected to write about it, though! Alas, fashion, and specifically the fast fashion industry is shocking and the more we learn the more it makes sense to elevate the discussion.

When I think of a comparison to Fast Fashion, I think of cigarettes.

Cigarettes - once an accepted and ubiquitous societal norm. Now, they are shunned, their negative impact on health undisputed, and their marketing heavily regulated. In some countries, mandates include grotesque imagery on their packaging to bring users just that much closer to what’s at risk.

Fast fashion is similar, but a newer phenomenon, and thus the backlash and education is early compared to the good ol' cigarette journey.

But how could something so bad look so good?

Big brands like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and Shein each produce millions of items every year. Zara, for example, produces over 450 million items annually with 20,000 new styles every year. Shein releases 6000 new styles per DAY. Together, the industry creates over 100 billion items annually. Quick reminder: the current world population is only around 8 billion.

Dire problem (#1): Waste

When garments are made cheaply and reflect ever-changing fads, they’re generally worn 1-7 times and then tossed in the trash. This is if they even get sold. Many items don’t. In the last 20 years, the volume of clothes that Americans throw away has doubled - from 7 million to 14 million tons, or 80 pounds per person per year. Worldwide we throw away 2.1 billion tons of fashion annually, much of it shipped off to Africa. The rest of our leftovers, go to landfills.

Dire problem (#2): Pollution

It is estimated that the sector is responsible for nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution annually and 10% of the carbon emissions in our air. The industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is one of the most polluting industries on earth.

Dire problem (#3): A Humanitarian Crisis

We all have some awareness that the clothing we wear is made in sweatshops, but many degrees of separation make this easy to not think about. We choose not to think about it because we don't have to. To be able to sell clothing so cheaply and still find profits, companies outsource and subcontract to independently owned factories in developing countries with minimal safety and labor oversight and wages below poverty level. So many of these factory workers face inhuman and unsafe conditions that deteriorate their health and put their lives at risk.

Like cigarettes, if packaging for fast fashion included images of how the item was produced - factory conditions, labor involved, cost of production - consumers would lower their consumption and support of the industry.

Also, haul videos would be.. Cringe.

Some good news, shifts are happening. There is growing awareness of the atrocities of fast fashion and a general feeling of people wanting to avoid these brands and to shop more sustainably. The brands themselves are also clearly addressing concerns with sustainable product lines or similar. It feels like fast fashion is in a similar time to where restaurants just created the non-smoking vs smoking sections, and smoking was no longer allowed on planes, but still way before it was banned everywhere.

So what can you do? What can we all do? Just try to be on the right side of change. When possible, avoid fast fashion and buy something better made that will last longer. Or, buy that better item through resale. Or, repair what you have! (Hint: go to Shavings make a pile and small shifts from everyone will drive substantial change in the future.

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