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Fast fashion is killing our planet

(Photo courtesy of LinkedIn) “Fast fashion is taking a toll on our planet.”

Steven O’Hara
Connector Editor

In the modern day, fast fashion seems to be the most consistent trend for fashion consumers. Fast fashion is a business model designed to promote clothing items based on quickly changing media trends. These clothes are produced at exorbitant speeds and in bulk, which reduces the quality of these items. In the early stages of this trend, before online retailers became popular, brick-and-mortar stores such as Forever 21 and H&M were known for providing clothing items at affordable prices. Consumers have now strayed away from in-person shopping, focusing more on online retailers such as Shein and Temu. Clothing consumption has been at its peak. 

Due to the influx of clothing items and deteriorating quality, most articles of clothing end up in landfills as they aren’t made to last. As a result, the environment has taken a heavy hit. From the production of fast fashion to its disposal, the earth is being polluted. Dr. Jasmina Burek, a professor of engineering at UMass Lowell whose expertise is on sustainability, gives more insight into this multifaceted issue.  

To start at the beginning, textile factories, which are mostly found in other countries as the United States spent around $127 billion in textile and apparel imports in 2020 (United States International Trade Commission, 2020), pump out clothing in bulk to be shipped overseas at high rates. This inadvertently causes an influx of greenhouse emissions that pollutes the Earth’s atmosphere. Dr. Burek says, “The textile industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (EU Parliament, 2020).” As well, resource exhaustion is another adverse effect of fast fashion, with water resource depletion being a big impact, said Dr. Burek. 

After these clothes are shipped around the world, items that are either retired, damaged or unwanted will most likely end up in landfills along with the rest of human waste production. Although many may choose to donate their apparel, it does not stop the natural progression from factory to landfill. Dr Burek says, “In 2018, the U.S. textile waste generation was 17 million tons (6% of total MSW) with 11.3 million tons landfilled and a mere 2.5 million tons recycled. Reused textiles are not included in the EPA’s textile waste generation estimate, but 45% of donated textiles are reused and sold as secondhand apparel (U.S. or abroad) and eventually become a part of MSW generation. Many donations also end up in unsanitary landfills in developing countries.” 

When fast fashion items eventually end up in landfills, the low-quality materials they are often made of becomes another issue. Since most are made of non-biodegradable materials, they cannot break down naturally in the environment. Items that do manage to break down end up polluting the area through the release of manufacturing chemicals and waste. Dr. Burek says, “The impact of the non-biodegradable materials is over the life cycle of the garment. From raw material extraction, fabric knitting, weaving, and dyeing, to retailing vs online shopping, washing, drying, and end-of-life. Also, [it] contributes to marine pollution. Globally, microplastics released to oceans from synthetic textiles are estimated at 16-35%. Between 200,000 and 500,000 [tones]of microplastics from textiles enter the global marine environment each year.” 

However, just because fast fashion has become a norm, does not mean things can’t change. Statewide initiatives have been implemented in an effort to combat this type of environmental pollution. In 2022, Massachusetts started the “Textiles Waste Ban” which barred state residents from disposing of clothing and textiles in trash in an effort to promote repurposing of apparel.  

Even UMass Lowell students can change the way fast fashion is handled. Dr Burek says, “Prolong the lifetime of the garments, use biodegradable materials for garments, recycled cotton, reuse, repurpose, donate and recycle [are key]. One of the activities that benefits the environment students at UML are doing is Thrift Day. The next one is planned for March 22.” 

According to a brief provided by Dr. Burek, the Student Society for Sustainability at UMass Lowell hosted “Thrift Day”, which avoided a total amount of 507 kg CO2-eq emissions. More Thrift Days will be hosted in the future and donation bins will be installed around campus for those who would like to dispose of clothes they no longer want.  

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