“At this point, we look at clothes the same way we look at Billie Eilish songs,” Hasan Minhaj said in his comedy segment “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion.” “We’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe a kid made that.”
Companies like Fashion Nova, Adidas, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, Forever 21, Walmart, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Converse, Hollister and Gap have all been discovered to use child labor either directly or indirectly.
In addition to these horrifying labor practices, many fast-fashion companies display little remorse in copying designers—both high-end and independent—and churn out designs for 52 micro-seasons a year.
Independent designer Tuesday Bassen called out Zara for copying her designs in 2016. Zara responded, “the lack of distinctiveness of [Bassen]’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant portion of the population anywhere would associate the signs with [her].”
Similarly, Fashion Nova is notorious for churning out designs almost identical to runaway looks in mere days. In 2019, Kim Kardashian criticized Fashion Nova for producing a dress almost identical to the vintage Mugler dress she wore to the Hollywood Beauty Awards just two days after the event.
This high turnover rate comes at a huge ethical and environmental cost. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the global carbon footprint and is the second biggest polluter of clean water—after agriculture—from the use of dyes.
In an effort to reduce scrutiny on such matters, many companies have engaged in greenwashing, or creating a misleading public image of themselves and their products as environmentally friendly. Perhaps most recognizable is H&M’s Garment Collection Program and Conscious Collection.
Its website sounds ambitious enough. “Drop your bag of unwanted clothing in the recycling box at your local store … The textiles are then sent to the nearest recycling plant, where they’re sorted by hand. For every bag of textiles you drop off, you’ll receive a discount card for 15% off your next in-store purchase.”
However, the 15 percent discount only encourages a cycle of purchasing fast fashion. Worse, even though most textiles can be recycled on their own, contemporary clothing often blends materials together, making them harder to recycle. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates only 15.2% of textiles were recycled in 2017.
Minhaj demonstrated this disconnect in his pop-up store H-M, featuring clothing from H&M and Zara’s green collections. “This little dot means recycled materials,” Minhaj said, of the tag on a black graphic T-shirt. “But it only is this tag.” The tag itself was the only recycled material.
“I feel, like, scammed,” one of the shoppers said.
And so should you. In an industry that produces 150 billion garments a year, there is no such thing as sustainable fashion.
Cotton, the most popular textile for producing clothing, takes up 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, but 24 percent of insecticide and 11 percent of pesticide sales. Consider clothing made from lyocell, a man-made fiber in which 99 percent of the chemicals used in production can be recycled, instead.
Americans alone buy an average of 64 pieces of clothing and 8 pairs of shoes a year. This can be attributed to the plethora of choices in online shopping. Although it may seem like a good idea to purchase items in multiple sizes in order to try garments on, returning an item at least doubles its carbon footprint due to transportation.
Alarmingly, many companies will just throw out returned items because it is more cost-efficient for them. Consider shopping for locally-made clothing in person. At the very least, scrutinize measurements online so you’re less likely to have to return your purchases.
Even worse, companies like Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Nike, H&M, Urban Outfitters, Walmart, Eddie Bauer, Michael Kors, Victoria’s Secret and J.C. Penney have all been found to destroy merchandise in efforts to preserve their brand.
But corporations aren’t the only ones at fault. Americans on average throw out 80 pounds of clothing per person every year. Consider, instead, wearing a garment for just nine months longer, which can reduce the carbon footprint of the item by 30 percent, or thrifting clothing.
But, perhaps, the most sustainable type of shopping is not shopping at all.