Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and SHEIN: The Environmental Ramifications of Fast Fashion

By Rachel Jiang
Published on April 25th, 2021

Amidst the influx of rabid shoppers enveloping you, you somehow manage to lay your hands on Zara’s newest clothing release - a pair of straight-legged contrast-stitch jeans. Having been heavily advertised by your celebrity idol, you bask in great rapture knowing that you now share the same sartorial preferences as her. Yet, ingrained within each strand of synthetic fiber lies myriads of impalpable negative externalities that arose from the production process; the cacophonies of hissing machinery, laboured breaths of heavily underpaid child workers, and buckets upon buckets of highly-toxic textile waste.

Fast fashion, inexpensive and widely, has changed our societal perception towards clothing. The blindingly fast pace at which each garment is bought and discarded has transmuted them into temporary commodities rather than hefty keepsakes. In fact, 40% of Hong Kongers keep their newly purchased clothing for one year or less, contributing to 196,000kg of clothing entering the city’s landfills daily. Shopping behemoth Zara has a design-to-retail procedure of one month and launches more than 20 different collections a year. Online retailers, which have been heralded as “ultra-fast fashion” operate at an even quicker pace; Fashion Nova’s CEO has admitted that the company launches up to 900 new styles on a weekly basis. Coupled with influencers’ heavy endorsements, such overbearingly rapid trajectories at which new designs are released further feeds into consumers’ desire to purchase more.

Following the subsequent skyrocket in garment consumption over the past few decades, fast fashion has emerged as a formidable business industry. However, due to the deep-rooted environmentally polluting supply chain operations, the wholly degrading industry presents many unimpugnable environmental justice issues.

The first step in the global garment supply chain operation is the production of textile. Unfortunately, this tumultuous production process encapsulates a multitude of significant environmental hazards. For example, polyester, a synthetic textile, is derived from oil, while cotton requires large amounts of water and pesticides to cultivate. Untreated wastewater stemming from the textile dyeing process is often discharged into local water bodies, thus adversely impacting the health of native animals and nearby residents.

Garment assembly, the next step in the global garment supply chain operation, is conducted mostly in low and middle income countries. These countries often lack any robust occupational and safety standards due to poor political infrastructure and organizational management, resulting in numerous occupational hazards. This includes respiratory hazards due to poor ventilation and musculoskeletal hazards from overtly repetitive motion tasks. Further reported health outcomes include debilitating conditions such as lung disease and cancer, negative reproductive and fetal outcomes, accidental injuries, overuse injuries and death.

Furthermore, clothing continues to enact devastating effects upon the environment long after the production process has been complete. Discarded garments that are not sent directly to the landfill are compressed into 500kg bales and exported overseas to be sorted, then sold in second-hand markets. Excess clothing not sold in these markets becomes solid waste, which clogs rivers, greenways, and parks, amounting to numerous additional public health hazards.

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