Unraveling the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry’s unsustainable practices are increasingly under scrutiny.

A snapshot of the 26 billion pounds of textile waste (source: Planet Aid).

A snapshot of the 26 billion pounds of textile waste (source: Planet Aid).

The environmental impact of the fashion industry has become a matter of Parliamentary concern in the United Kingdom. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee is launching an investigation into the fashion industry to assess just how unsustainable it is and how the industry might become more sustainable for the future. The inquiry reflects growing concern over the fashion industry’s fast fashion phenomenon that rapidly mass produces clothes for consumption.

Fast fashion is a recent phenomenon that is part of the evolution of the fashion industry. Traditionally clothing was a household endeavor. Changes began with advancements of the Industrial Revolution that introduced ready-made clothing, or clothes sold in a variety of sizes. Yet the changes were selective and mostly reserved for the middle-class individuals who could afford it. Changes continued to occur throughout the 20th century, but it was not till World War II that standardized clothing was widely accepted.  However, the signal for today’s fashion driven world was the 1960s: when the younger generation embraced cheaply made clothes.

Companies responded to increased demand by outsourcing labor to developing countries—much as it is done today. The low quality, high quantity mentality of today’s fashion industry can be seen as a natural development of shifts over the years to more affordable clothing. 

The drive for affordability has led to certain practices that many question for the waste
produced. Instead of the traditional two seasons—Spring/ Summer and Fall/Winter—in
which designers launched the next fashion trend, there are now about 52 micro-seasons in which new fashion is constantly being churned out. Further, popular retailers are often receiving weekly  shipments of new clothing. What this does is make the consumer feel like they are always out-of-date and compel them to keep buying clothing so they can keep up with current trends. Another factor that encourages waste is that most clothes today are made out of lower quality fabrics. Plus, retailers may even disguise such lower quality clothes with “discounts” to convey an illusion of high quality goods. These practices, focused on getting the consumer to consume, only create more waste.

Eco-fashion activist Livia Firth is known for saying in 2015 that “Disposable clothes…stay in a woman’s closet for an average of just five weeks, before being thrown out.”

Indeed, a 2016 survey concluded that the average American throws away around 82 pounds of clothing a year: 26 billion pounds of textiles. Of that 26 billion pounds, according to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling, only 15% is donated and 85%, or about 70 pounds per person, ends up in the landfills. This waste is a result of a cycle of “careless production and endless consumption” as stated in the 2015 True Cost documentary.

And it’s not just the landfills that are feeling fast fashion’s impact—fast fashion is criticized for its water pollution, use of toxic chemicals, and its treatment of workers. The Parliament’s inquiry into the UK fashion industry will provide a necessary glimpse into how the global fashion industry might be able to change for the better. But is also a responsibility of individuals to be conscious consumers of what they wear.


TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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