How does the fashion cycle affect us environmentally?
Updated: May 2, 2022
By Joy Swasy
Photo by Fernand De Canne on Unsplash
You’re scrolling on TikTok and see a creator dumping a huge box of clothes from Shein onto their floor.
As you continue scrolling, you notice the plethora of clothing hauls from H&M, Zara, and other popular fashion brands. What do all of these brands have in common?
They’re trendy and they’re fast fashion.
Brands like Shein, H&M, and Zara are constantly introducing new clothing items for consumers to buy.
But because the fashion cycle is occurring more rapidly than ever, making these popular fashion brands produce clothing at high-speed, clothing trends tend to be a reintroduction in a new and innovative way instead of a new fashion.
And this rapidity of the fashion cycle and high-speed production of clothing are leading to more than just hauls on Tiktok.
They’re leading to detrimental environmental effects.
What is the fashion cycle?
When a fashion trend becomes popular, it eventually dies down because something “new” and exciting emerges.
Before a fashion piece can die down, it must go through the five life stages of a trend.
During the first stage, a piece is introduced at a high-end level. In this stage, very few consumers have the means to purchase pieces due to the high cost.
After a piece has hit the runway, it will naturally move on to the second stage — celebrities and influencers flaunting a new look.
The idealization of celebrities and influencers moves us into the third stage — the peak.
During a trend’s peak, brands will create more affordable replicas. Even though a piece is at its peak in the third stage, it’s already irrelevant in the high-end world.
Now comes the decline.
In the fourth stage consumers become bored of a trend and it’ll be found on the sale rack.
But it can’t stay on the sale rack forever, so in the fifth stage it becomes obsolete.
Although a fashion trend may have lost its relevance, that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.
“While the 20-year cycle remains true to an extent, the advent of innovative technologies and social media has drastically condensed the life cycle of trends today,” says Mélanie Mollard from Heuritech.
The fashion cycle typically spans over a two-decade time period. But the condensing of the cycle is making fast fashion brands more prevalent than ever.
Defining fast fashion
H&M, Zara, and Shein aren’t just fast fashion brands because they’re trendy.
They are fast fashion brands because of their price, manufacturing timeline, and disposability.
Price plays a key role in the appeal for fast fashion, allowing a larger demographic to participate in trends.
Since these brands are so trendy, they need to have a speedy manufacturing process to keep up. According to The Fashion Law, “While the fashion industry largely operates on a seasonal calendar, fast fashion retailers deliver new garments and accessories to their stores every four to six weeks, sometimes even more frequently.”
This rapid timeline has aided in the idea that clothes are disposable.
The disposability factor of fast fashion has led to more than just extra space to refill in your closet. It has been a contributing factor to textile waste.
Textile waste in the fashion industry
When an item of clothing is discarded, it ends up in a landfill.
Of the 17 million tons of textiles created in 2018, 11.3 million tons were landfilled.
With the large amounts of clothing landfilled each year, it has become a major contributing factor to harmful environmental effects.
The disposing of textiles when a consumer is done wearing an item isn’t the only time the fashion industry contributes to textile waste. It begins at the production stage.
Textile waste can occur where it is produced as well as consumed - and whether it is disposed of locally or exported to another country.
The waste produced during production is from the raw materials, like yarn and fibers.
Textiles take years to decompose, sometimes even hundreds of years, depending on the material.
Due to this, textiles are sitting in landfills for prolonged periods of time, releasing harsh chemicals into the environment.
Unfortunately, fast fashion brands are not concerned with these harmful effects of textile waste.
How times have changed
The rapidity of the fashion cycle and fast fashion isn’t as recent as you may think it is.
The disposability of fashion began as early as the 1960s.
“There were paper dresses. Disposable. They were made of paper and you could wear them, then throw them away,” said Glenda Byars, history of fashion professor at the College of Charleston. “That was kind of the beginning of that slippery slope that you'd be on trend for 10 minutes.”
However, a consumer buying and disposing of fashion items became most prominent when the internet became widely available, according to Byars.
“It was slower up until probably the internet became widely available. When I say slower, I mean, everything's relative. Right?” Byars said. “So it used to take 100 years. Now it takes 10 minutes.”
Consumers are buying nearly 60% more textiles today than they did in the 2000s.
Lasley Steever, the marketing manager at Ibu, a sustainable fashion brand based in Charleston, South Carolina, blames social media for the overconsumption of fashion.
“I do think that fast fashion has caused us to constantly feel like we have to update our wardrobes and be on the latest trend. I mean social media, all of that, is constantly flashing this in front of us and we want to buy more,” stated Steever.
Social media platforms are constantly advertising the latest trends for consumers to purchase.
These changes to the fashion industry are anything but positive.
The fashion industry’s harsh effects
Although detrimental to consumers' pockets, the fashion industry and fast fashion are becoming damaging to the environment.
“It is extraordinary the quantity of clothing that has been dumped. It's doubled since like the 90s,” stated Kristin Schillings from Green Zone Recycling. “To your point about fast fashion, a lot of it is ending up in the trash.”
17 million tons of textiles were produced in 2018.
According to Insider, 85% of textiles are sent to the dump every year.
In addition to landfills being filled with millions of tons of waste, popular textile fabrics use an excess of water to produce.
There is a high use of water in the production of cotton material, making the fashion industry the second largest consumer of water.
“Cotton is an extremely water intensive resource. There's a lot of information out there about dyes and how harmful they can be for the environment. So I would say that making anything new is going to be a carbon intensive process,” stated Schillings.
The dyeing process of textiles is one of the largest water polluters.
These dyes are both harmful to the environment and the laborers working in the textile industry.
Beyond just the environment, the fashion industry is harming cultural practices through knock offs.
“We work with a group in India that uses looms, which make a Jacquard print or weave. That's easy to knock off now with commercial things, but to set up those looms to weave it in that way, it takes time and it's expensive,” explained Steever.
Some manufacturers will knock off different designs with cheap and unsustainable material to minimize costs.
With all the cons that come with fast fashion, how can we be more sustainable with our fashion choices?
Fashion can be sustainable
An excuse that consumers use in terms of not being sustainable with their fashion choices is that it’s not accessible.
However, it is accessible!
“It's accessible if you consider used clothing sustainable,” Byars commented.
Secondhand shopping uses very little resources besides transportation.
“If people could just stop buying new clothing, that would be an extraordinary help. Even if you want to buy new clothing, buy something nice that's going to last you for many years instead of going to H&M and buying a bunch of crap for 20 bucks that you're gonna throw away,” stated Schillings.
According to Byars, there should be a correlation between cost and how much use you will get out of a clothing item.
The less you spend on a new clothing item shortens its wear time.
Ibu takes pride in its sustainable manufacturing processes.
“Many of the groups that we work with are sustainable to the core. They start with the raw materials, spinning or creating the cloths, and then dyeing them. Oftentimes, they're using sustainable dyes, because they're using what they have access to,” explained Steever.
Sustainability conscious consumers are purchasing clothing items like Ibu’s to wear for many years.
Steever mentioned that a customer of Ibu’s buys clothing based on what she would leave for her daughters to wear in the future.
Sustainable fashion practices benefit not only the environment, but people as well.
“It's not just about being conscious about reducing the waste production,” Steever said. “It's really about the sustainability of the humans. The humans that are behind that product.”