The fashion industry has become littered with lies, lust, and hypocrisy. The result? The wrecking of our world and the dehumanization of thousands. Feel like there’s nothing you can do to help? It’s time we change that.

In a society incessantly feeding on instant gratification, it is no surprise that we demand things quickly and conveniently. Amazon has become our personal assistant, FaceTime allows for immediate face-to-face connection and you can purchase virtually anything from a pocket-sized device often glued to your fingertips. 

Sure enough, in light of our addiction to speedy satisfaction, many fashion companies have become fixated on finding ways to keep up with the intense demand of their consumers. Though they likely didn’t mean for their production methods to result in extensive, irreversible damage to their employees and our planet, there is no doubting the startling reality of how harmful the fashion industry has become.

Before it seems I’m pointing my finger at everyone working in the fashion world, let me make an important clarification: I’m talking about those working in fast fashion. Not sure what exactly I’m referring to? Let me catch you up. 

Vox journalist Jasmin Malik Chua defines this term as one referring to “cheap, disposable clothing, made indiscriminately, imprudently, and often without consideration for environmental and labor conditions.” When thinking of fast fashion some may think of websites known for unbelievably low prices like SHEIN or Romwe, or retailers like Forever 21 and H&M known for their unbeatable prices, yet less than favorable clothing quality. Though many agree these companies may not deserve five-star ratings for their products, very few are aware of just how much damage they are doing. 

Environmental Effects

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent issues existing within the fast fashion industry also happens to be the most detrimental to the planet: excessive waste. 

When producing mass amounts of clothing from poor quality materials, it comes as no surprise that the majority of these items are worn once or twice before being thrown away after becoming instantly damaged. Seems relatively harmless, right? Wrong. 

Due to excessive waste, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion reports that the fast fashion industry is responsible for 2 to 8% of the Earth’s carbon emissions. This is largely due to the use of oil-based polyester, a material that, though lightweight and inexpensive, has more than double the carbon footprint of cotton—resulting in a decomposition process that can take hundreds of years.

The simple fact that there is such an overwhelming amount of clothing being thrown away also poses many issues. Seeing that less than 1% of used clothing—especially cheaply made clothing—is recycled to make new garments, nearly all clothing disposed of is tossed into a landfill or incinerated. This, in turn, makes a massive contribution to climate change.

There is also environmental harm occurring during the production and packaging process. The treatment and dyeing of fabrics require 93 billion cubic meters of water a year, creating 20% of the world’s wastewater. The plastic packaging used by many in the fashion industry is hardly ever recyclable, leading to mass amounts of plastic waste being buried in landfills. The worst part? These statistics only begin to shed light on how much damage has been done. 

Inhumane Production 

Companies like ASOS, H&M and Forever 21 have stayed relevant due to their ability to keep up with rapidly changing trends. As companies such as these continue to remain exceedingly popular as years progress, the question of how they can maintain this seemingly impossible speed of production weighs thick in the air. Unfortunately, you probably do not want to hear the answer.

Renowned journalist and author of Fashionopolis: The Prices of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, Dana Thomas, has seen firsthand what it’s like to step into factories owned by fast fashion companies. She recalls appalling sights of visiting sweatshops in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and even a Forever 21 factory in the heart of Los Angeles. When coming face-to-face with the horrible reality existing behind some of our world’s most popular fashion brands, Thomas couldn’t shake the horrible hypocrisy lying in the gap between those who own fashion companies and those who work for them. 

“You can become the second-richest person in the world, like Amancio Ortega, who owns Inditex and thus Zara, by selling gobs of throwaway clothes and paying pennies to people to make them,” says Thomas. “If a piece of clothing costs you $19.99, that means the person who made it was paid 19 cents.”

Along with making unlivable wages, workers are expected to work grueling hours in unfavorable, oftentimes unsafe conditions. Even worse, many of these workers are young children. There are a reported 250 million children ranging in age from 5 to 14 forced to work up to 16 hours a day, only making about 20 to 50 cents an hour.

Why Would People Support This?

After seeing the data revealing how horrid fast fashion can be, it seems unfathomable that the industry remains so successful. How could people support these businesses when all of this information is a Google search away? Well, there are a few reasons.

The primary reason has to do with the first thing mentioned in this article: an addiction to instant gratification. Few places allow you to purchase incredibly cheap yet on-trend items that are perfect for wearing to one occasion and throwing in the trash as soon as you’re ready to move on to the next trend. This phenomenon is one that Thomas coined ‘Cinderella Syndrome’. 

“There’s a whole culture that says if you’ve been seen in an outfit three times, you need to rid yourself of it,” says Thomas. “You wear it once, you post on Instagram, and then you get rid of it — [it] is a disaster…We’re not investing value into the clothes that we’re buying. And we need to start doing that.”

What Can I Do To Help?

Though you may feel powerless standing up against such a huge issue, there are many things you can do to move toward a more sustainable wardrobe.

For former APU student Alexa McClurg, what started as making her own style more sustainable quickly turned into an opportunity to share her love for fashion with the world. After teaming up with fellow APU Alumni Blake Matrone, the two banned together to create the brand SCRAPPED, a company devoted to making custom tote bags solely from second-hand clothing. 

“In order to make something truly sustainable, we try to the best of our ability to make our bags the best quality possible. From the straps, lining, pockets, and outer design; everything is second-hand to keep these pieces of clothing and textiles out of landfills,” says McClurg. “The whole purpose is to give these materials a second life.”

In just nine months, McClurg and Matrone have seen incredible success with SCRAPPED, garnering 70.4k followers on TikTok, 27.1k on Instagram and selling out of bags just minutes after their release. Now, as they go on to partner with well-known brands and grow their business, McClurg continues to show others that supporting sustainable fashion can be easy, fun, and most importantly, beneficial to our world. 

“Not only am I passionate about the environment, but I also love fashion and shopping on a budget. I love finding unique pieces at the thrift store and I’ve always been that way,” says McClurg. “I advise people to develop a sense of personal style and start going to the thrift store here and there. You might be surprised with what you find and what you end up liking. It can be so fun!”

For APU senior Jada Tarvin-Abu-Bekr, her passion for fighting against the harms of fast fashion has led to the cultivation of a 90% sustainable wardrobe. 

“I stand against fast fashion to reduce waste, to recycle fashion, and put an end to the perpetuation of slavery and child labor,” says Tarvin-Abu-Bekr. “When you give to a small business or nonprofit organization, you are supporting their passion, story, and humanization. When you give your money to a huge corporation, what are you supporting, a house for a billionaire in the Bahamas? Fashion is all about your ‘why’.”

So, next time you feel inclined to give your wardrobe a makeover, I challenge you to focus on who you want to support, not merely what will give you that hit of instant gratification we all crave. One small decision could be more crucial than you know.