In an effort to keep up with ever-changing clothing trends—from athleisure to straight jeans and crop tops—many people continuously purchase clothing that is on the cheaper side, then throw it out or shove it in the back of their closet when a new trend comes along. However, instead of blaming the consumers for the amount of clothing that is wasted, it’s important to pay attention to the source of it all: the fast fashion industry.
Fast fashion is all around us. Everywhere you go, people are covered in brands such as H&M and SHEIN. The big problem with fast fashion is the way it conditions consumers into continually buying trendy clothes, despite their environmental impact.
If all clothes were biodegradable, throwing away old styles and donning new ones wouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is. Unfortunately, the reason why fast fashion brands are able to set their prices so low and have their clothing output be so high is because they use cheap fabrics such as polyester or nylon. Textiles like these can take up to 200 years to decompose, and although they can be recycled, people rarely go out of their way to do so.
There are also many pieces of clothing that aren’t ever sold or worn and are instead sent to landfills or burned. When used clothing is sent to donation shops such as Savers or Goodwill, unsellable pieces are often thrown out. In fact, according to Green America, an overwhelming 62.5% of both used and unused textiles in America are in landfills—with even more being wasted around the world.
We can help with these problems on our own by recycling our old and used textiles. However, most people aren’t aware of how they can go about recycling their clothes. That’s the reason why only around 14.5% of used clothing in America is recycled. When textiles are recycled, they need to be separated by material and dyes. Natural materials such as cotton, wool, or linen are easily recycled through separation and re-spinning into yarn or thread. Other manmade materials like polyester, nylon, or acrylic have to be processed into chips, melted, and then spun into thread.
But then again, the issue is not mainly with the consumer, but with the brands that make the recycling of fabric necessary. Occasionally, brands will release and promote different styles of clothing made from recycled or organic materials, such as Uniqlo’s cotton line or H&M’s Conscious Collection. However, the price of natural and recycled materials can’t beat the appeal of cheaper, synthetic fabrics. Creating a brand that uses environmentally friendly materials, is cheaper for the consumer, and can keep up with trends is extremely difficult, especially for brands that aspire to increase production and decrease material costs.
Brands such as Patagonia and Ooloop work to only sell clothing that is almost completely recycled material. The downside with this is it isn’t widely affordable, especially among the middle or lower-income communities. For example, jeans found on Ooloop made of both original and recycled cotton go for $185, while jeans found on SHEIN in a similar style but made of cotton and polyester are only $25. Clearly, the SHEIN jeans are much more affordable.
Despite fast fashion being an ongoing problem, there doesn’t seem to be a magical solution that can fix it all. The only way we can combat this in our own little ways is by buying from brands that use sustainable materials, focusing less on being “in” and more on the clothes we already have, recycling or repurposing the clothes we can’t wear anymore. In this industry geared towards increasing consumer consumption, it seems as though there is nothing we can do.