Deck the Landfills: The High Price of Fast Fashion

Elizabeth Sherwood, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Fast Fashion Graphic

There is an expectation that clothing should be priced low and be available in large quantities. Consumers enjoy the feeling of purchasing large stacks of clothing with minimal damage to their bank accounts, but these habits have unseen consequences.

The Fast Fashion Cycle

Fashion trends change quickly, and in order to keep up with the demand for new styles of clothing, designers and retailers have responded by producing “fast fashion.” Essentially, fast fashion is clothing that is produced quickly and inexpensively and then sold at low prices to consumers. Shoppers perpetuate this cycle by frequently buying and disposing of cheap clothes. In this system, clothing producers maximize profit and consumers get great deals, which gives the illusion of a win-win relationship. However, the fast fashion model causes negative externalities that should be accounted for when making purchases.

Last year, Newsweek investigated some of the burdens of disposable fashion. Although the high turnover fashion system increases clothing donations, not all clothing gets put to use helping the needy and the fast fashion cycle creates an environmental disaster.

No Second Life for Fast Fashion Clothing

Americans reportedly dispose of about 80 pounds of clothing per capita, per year. While many Americans donate these clothes to philanthropic secondhand stores, the fabric quality of fast fashion clothing is often too weak to be resold. According to a report from Forbes, only ten percent of donated clothes get resold. What happens to the other 90 percent?

Newsweek followed the trail of donated clothing from second hand stores to textile recyclers, but they found that recycling mixed fabrics is a tricky and toxic process. When mixed fabrics become separated, they are refined and put into smaller groups of the same fiber. Since the extracted fibers are much shorter than the originals, they are harder to incorporate into a new fabric. Additionally, shelters and NGOs are inundated with donations, but because the fabrics are of substandard quality, it is costly and time consuming to sort through what clothing can actually be reused. America’s fashion habits hit Sub-Saharan African countries like Uganda especially hard, where 81 percent of clothing purchases are second-hand. This eliminates jobs for local clothing producers.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, and of that, 12.8 million tons were simply discarded. This figure may increase  as clothing prices continue to fall and consumers continue to demand low quality fabrics. The unfortunate truth is that the usefulness of a fast fashion clothing item does not extend far beyond our own desire to wear it. Despite the owner’s benevolent intentions, their clothing donations  will likely end up in a landfill.

Breaking the Cycle

Although large retailers contribute to the fast fashion cycle, many companies are taking a stand for sustainability. Patagonia has noticeably committed to sustainable practices by producing clothing with cleaner materials and encouraging reuse by offering repairs. The company has even included a reference library complete with the origins of their materials and how the the articles can be disposed of properly.  H&M, one of the pioneers of the fast fashion industry, has  also invested in sustainability. According to Newsweek, the retailer created a $1.1 million fund to support research in innovation for textile recycling.

Until better policies are adopted to incentivize sustainable production and reduce waste, it is up to consumers to seek out clothing companies with ethical practices. This may mean that consumers pay a higher price at checkout, but the clothing will be higher quality and have a better chance at staying out of landfills. While prices will be higher for a typical fast fashion consumer, the longevity of the product will more than recoup the loss of of the upfront cost. The environmental costs produced by textile waste make purchasing quality goods more of a bargain than a burden.

As the holiday season approaches, it is important to make wise investments that benefit society at large when purchasing gifts for friends and family. Being a conscious consumer is worth the added research and costs. As consumer demand for sustainable products increases, more companies will be forced to take environmental and social responsibility seriously.

Sustainable companies for your gift bags and closets

  • ABLE: Women’s clothing and accessories, made globally
  • Apolis: Menswear, made globally
  • Della: Women’s clothing and accessories, made in Ghana
  • Everlane: Men’s and Women’s basics and accessories
  • Nisolo: Shoes and accessories for men and women, made in Peru
  • Oliberte: Shoes and accessories for men and women, made in Ethiopia


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