Fast Fashion Kills


Adelaide Kaiser

You walk into Forever 21 and pick up a tank top. You try it on, it looks great, and it’s only $7. What a steal! You buy it and leave the store. You wear the shirt three times and then one of the straps breaks. You throw it away. You have to buy a new shirt.

This is a pretty common scenario. Clothes have become a disposable commodity, and we are purchasing and discarding them faster than ever before. This culture of fast fashion is one that seems harmless on the surface, but actually has an unseen ripple effect on our world. It’s easy for us to ignore, because we can’t see the person who made the shirt, and we can’t see how much carbon dioxide was released for it to get from the factory to us. These are the unnoticed ramifications of an evolving fashion industry, one that is a danger both to workers and the planet.



That shirt you bought at Forever 21 began in a developing country like Bangladesh. Workers, many of them children, toiled in a sweatshop under terrible conditions to produce it. Forever 21 received a D+ from the 2017 Ethical Fashion Report, meaning it failed to meet standards of providing a living wage for its employees, as well as other employee empowerment initiatives. That’s the reason the shirt was so cheap: it was made in unbearable conditions by workers who are paid barely anything. Sweatshop conditions are dangerous, and Forever 21 is one of the only brands that hasn’t signed the Bangladesh Accord, which aims to provide safe environments for factory workers. The Accord is trying to prevent building collapses, fires, and other accidents, and Forever 21 still hasn’t signed on. Forever 21 barely audits its factories, and has made no efforts to pay its workers a living wage.

Forever 21 is not the only brand with a terrible track record when it comes to its manufacturing practices. H&M only pays an estimated one to 25 percent of its workers a living wage (it is hard to trace the exact number due to a lack of transparency). Although H&M has more initiatives to encourage and support its workers than other brands, it seldom implements them at earlier stages of clothes production and raw material extraction. Zara, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Old Navy, and Victoria’s Secret also use sweatshop labor.

Sweatshops themselves are dangerous places to work. Workers in sweatshops deal with smoke and dust inhalation, loud noise, lack of ventilation, and exposure to toxic chemicals on a daily basis. In 2012, a fire killed over 100 people in Bangladesh. In 2013, the Ranza Plaza building collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers and injuring 2,500. The day before, the factory evacuated when cracks appeared in the walls. They were told to go back in.

These accidents led to the creation of the Bangladesh Accord; however, a few notable companies, such as URBN (which encompasses Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People) and Forever 21 still haven’t signed on. The accord legally requires brands to audit their factories and take measures to improve conditions, but it is a slow process.



Another problem with fast fashion is its’ environmental impact. Although a few companies, such as H&M, use some renewable energy and allow for garments to be recycled, many do nothing to limit their environmental impact.

The fashion industry produces 40 billion pounds of cotton a year. Each kilogram of cotton, which can be attributed to approximately one t-shirt or pair of jeans, requires 20,000 liters of water. More than 120 million trees per year are cut down for the fashion industry. Textile-dyeing is the second largest pollutant of water in the world. In a 2017 report released by the MacArthur Foundation, it was found that the industry releases 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

The way we waste clothes is also detrimental to the environment. More than half of fast fashion is discarded within a year of purchase, and every second a truckload of clothing is wasted. The average U.S. consumer throws away 70 pounds of textiles a year. When cheap clothes are so accessible, we are much less likely to hold onto a piece of clothing after it goes out of style or doesn’t fit us anymore, especially since the clothes are often poorly made and easily breakable. Clothes aren’t seen as an investment in a quality product, but rather as a disposable commodity that can be thrown away after their short time of usefulness.


What to do

There are a few ways to help combat the harsh realities of fast fashion. Making sure you are buying from sustainable brands that manufacture in an ethical way is one. Many brands use organic or all natural materials and have ethics codes on their websites, such as Everlane, Krochet Kids, Alternative Apparel, and Pact.

Making an effort not to contribute to the waste in the fashion industry is another. If you have usable clothes that you don’t need anymore, donate them to a thrift store, give them to a friend, or sell them on eBay. Many thrift stores also donate to local charities and might give you a coupon for donating, so it’s a win-win-win! Those clothes will also go to people who need them. And you can shop there as well—there are plenty of high-quality, inexpensive clothes in the world that need homes.

If your clothes aren’t in great condition, you can bring your old textiles to H&M, who will give you a 15-percent coupon for every bag you bring. You can also purchase a box from Terracycle, who will repurpose your textiles. There are many other programs at stores like Patagonia or North Face, where you can bring in old clothes from those brands with incentives like store credit.

It is possible to make a positive change in an industry that is built off of the backs of cheap labor and environmental depletion. So next time you’re about to buy that tank top from Forever 21, think twice about it.