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Fast Fashion is an ‘Issue of Global Environmental Injustice’

The overabundance of so-called “fast fashion” has created an environmental and social crisis, claims a new paper from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Inexpensive, lacking in quality and typically made with dubious labor practices that short-shrift workers, fast fashion generates enough disproportionate impacts to warrant its classification as an “issue of global environmental injustice,” said Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at the Brown School and co-author the commentary, which was published recently in the journal Environmental Health.

“From the growth of water-intensive cotton, to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to workers’ low wages and poor working conditions, the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread,” Ekenga said in a statement. “This is a massive problem.”

The problems with fast fashion are especially stark in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where communities near textile manufacturing facilities bear a “disproportionate burden” of environmental health hazards, note Ekenga and her co-authors, Rachel Bick and Erika Halsey.

While increased consumer demand for the latest trends has spawned millions of tons of textile waste that winds up in landfills and unregulated settings, approximately 500,000 tons of used clothing are exported from the United States each year, mostly to LMICs, they said.

“This is particularly applicable to LMICs as much of this waste ends up in secondhand clothing markets,” the paper’s authors wrote. “These LMICs often lack the supports and resources necessary to develop and enforce environmental and occupational safeguards to protect human health.”

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By some industry estimates, roughly 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased worldwide each year, translating to $1.2 trillion in annual returns for the global fashion industry.

More than 50 percent of fast fashion produced is disposed in under one year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Americans alone send 12.8 million tons of clothing to landfills every year, the U.S. Environmental Agency has calculated.

In the two decades since fast fashion conquered hearts and wallets, the growing desire for newer, trendier, quicker-turnaround clothing has resulted in “environmental and social degradation along each step of the supply chain,” the authors said. Yet the environmental and health consequences of fast fashion have “largely been missing” from scientific literature, research and discussions about environmental justice.

This cannot be allowed to stand, they added.

“There is an emerging need for research that examines the adverse health outcomes associated with fast fashion at each stage of the supply chain and post-consumer process, particularly in LMICs,” Ekenga, Halsey and Bick wrote. “Advancing work in this area will inform the translation of research findings to public health policies and practices that lead to sustainable production and ethical consumption.”

Though the authors allow that trade policies and regulations are the most effective tools for bringing about widespread change in the fashion industry, consumers in the developed world have their role to play, too.

“While certifications attempt to raise industry standards, consumers must be aware of greenwashing and be critical in assessing which companies actually ensure a high level of standards versus those that make broad, sweeping claims about their social and sustainable practices,” they said. “The fast-fashion model thrives on the idea of more for less, but the age-old adage ‘less in more’ must be adopted by consumers if environmental justice issues in the fashion industry are to be addressed.”