ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

Fast Fashion: Cutting Corners to Fuel Excessive Consumption

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Kashaf Momin

Research & Publications Intern

Kaveri Marathe

Founder, Texiles

When’s the last time you found yourself idly shopping out of boredom or buying a shirt just because it was on sale? If it was in the last week, then you’re not alone. The average American shopper buys 60% more clothing today than they did just 15 years ago, but keeps it for only half as long. At the end of the year, this results in approximately 80 pounds of unwanted clothing per person!

What drives the ferocity of this buy-use-throw cycle are rock-bottom prices. Adjusted for inflation, consumer prices for clothing have dropped by 39% since 1994. Americans today spend just 3% of their disposable income on apparel, half of what they spent in 1977, and are able to purchase many more garments. 

But when you consider the resources and labor that go into the production of an average garment—growing the cotton, weaving the cloth, applying the dyes, sewing the garment, and shipping to stores—then how are fast fashion companies able to sell tank tops for less than $2 each? 

To support such low prices, corners must be cut—human and environmental ones. Minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh, home to one of the largest garment manufacturing industries in the world, is just $93 a month. Workers in dyeing factories suffer from respiratory illnesses and skin irritation, while these textile dyes also contribute to approximately 20% of industrial water pollution. The production of cotton, the most common natural fiber used for clothing globally, is responsible for 18% of the pesticides used in agriculture and 25% of the insecticides applied to crops globally.

Why has the clothing industry changed so much in the past few decades? First, globalization promoted the shift of high-cost processes, like textile manufacturing, dyeing, and sewing, to lower-cost centers abroad. Additionally, weak regulation in international markets enabled clothing brands to skirt labor and environmental laws, thus exporting the externalities associated with clothing manufacturing to other countries. Consequently, the American garment industry could not compete and has been steadily shrinking ever since. Whereas just 5% of clothing sold in the United States was manufactured outside the country in the 1960s, today more than 97% is.

The natural result of our overconsumption is accelerated disposal. Americans discard so much clothing in the trash every year that textile waste is now the fastest growing segment of municipal solid waste. Only 15% of our unwanted clothing gets donated. Of donated clothing, only 20% of it will be sold domestically. Twenty-five percent of donated clothing ends up being exported right back to the same countries it was often manufactured in as part of the global secondhand trade, which has been criticized by some scholars for disrupting local garment industries in developing economies. And the remainder gets resold to fiber recyclers to downcycle into wiping rags, insulation, carpet underlay, and other industrial products.

While the industry’s global impact may feel overwhelming, consumers do still have power to effect change. We can start by modifying our own shopping behavior and practicing the 4 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle (in order of priority).

  1. Refuse: Ask for non-clothing or secondhand clothing when receiving gifts and just say no to that free promotional t-shirt.
  2. Reduce: Stop purchasing new clothing. Instead try repairing or tailoring existing clothes.
  3. Reuse: If purchasing clothing, shop secondhand, or try a clothing swap.
  4. Recycle: When disposing of old clothing, take it to a swap, give it to a friend, or donate it to a local charity. If it’s worn out, many organizations and clothing retailers have bins where you can drop off worn out clothing.

En masse, transforming our individual consumer habits will help send fast fashion brands an important signal: that we are not willing to shortchange workers or the environment for their cheap clothes. As society moves toward a more mindful approach to consumption, the industry will necessarily need to evolve its business model. We can help push this by demanding greater transparency from brands around their social and environmental practices and reevaluating and disrupting our own patterns of consumption.