Eco-Friendly Shoppers: Fast Fashion's Harmful Impact & Three Sustainability Tips

Environment-friendly fashionista, if you care about fashion and its impact on the earth, you need to read my short summary. The post will focus on fast fashion's harmful practices and the best ways to become a sustainability guru.

Recently I've been noticing more and more advertisements for sustainable and eco-friendly brands. Their ads claim they are better for the environment and their materials are eco-friendly. But what exactly do they mean? How are they better? I decided to find out.

I have to admit that I had to start with the essential term definitions. The first one I searched was sustainable clothing.

"Sustainable clothing refers to fabrics derived from eco-friendly resources, such as sustainably grown fiber crops or recycled materials. It also refers to how these fabrics are made." WikiPedia.

The second term I looked up was sustainable fashion.

"Sustainable fashion is a part of the growing design philosophy and movement towards environmental and social sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human impact on the environment and social responsibility." WikiPedia.

So what do we have? Sustainable clothing uses materials that are recycled, organic or eco-friendly grown. Sustainable fashion, in turn, strives to create an environment-friendly fashion industry utilizing the best eco-friendly practices to limit the impact on our planet by recycling, reusing, and utilizing natural fibers. Phew. I think I got it right.

To learn more about fast fashion's impact on the environment, I decided to consult leading experts in the field.

The first article that I found was Understanding Sustainable Fashion by Gitika Bhardwaj, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of National Affairs. The report paints a grim picture of the fashion industry which uses many natural resources, emits large amounts of CO2, and relies heavily on pesticides.

Synthetic material.

First, let's talk about materials. Do you ever check a small white tag on the inside of a garment? If not, I recommend you start. There is a handful of materials that you should avoid buying; primarily animal-based and synthetic. Why? Because most synthetic materials are harmful to the environment. Materials like cotton, polyester, and viscose are big offenders.

"It takes almost 3,000 liters of water to make one cotton t-shirt." Understanding Sustainable Fashion.

Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester are just as bad. They are not biodegradable and thus fill up landfills or get burnt. These materials also require a large amount of water during manufacturing. Factories that process these materials leave a large carbon footprint by generating nitrous oxide which is 310 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Rayon (viscose) is another synthetic material created from wood pulp. Wood pulp trees are planted at the expense of local forests. Natural habitats lose vital ecosystems. Besides, the wood pulp gets treated with chemicals which leak into our environment, again, affecting the natural habitats.


Another critical part to know is the use of pesticides. Cotton gets sprayed with a large number of pesticides. These toxins are very harmful to people and wildlife. And the scary part is the chemicals used tend to linger in the garment's material for a long time, long after it gets to stores.

"Pesticides are a major global killer. Nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning, and many more suffer from chronic ill health, such as cancers and leukemia, neurological diseases and reproductive problems including infertility, miscarriage and birth defects."

Please do not confuse cotton with organic cotton. Organic cotton is a safe alternative.


Manufacturing plays a vital role in the industry's carbon footprint. Dyeing processes use large amounts of water while unfixed dies end up in rivers and water supplies impacting local wildlife and people. The sector is also responsible for 10% of carbon emissions partially because synthetic materials require a lot of processing energy.


Fast fashion's impact continues even after garments are purchased at stores. Fast fashion got its name for a reason -- it is quick at producing new inventory in billions! 100 Billion items go through factories every year. Just think what that means. We do not wear clothes; we buy it, wear it once, and throw it out. Crazy!

I understand that it is so easy to buy clothes at low prices that many stores like Walmart and H&M offer. But why? I think there is a deeper phycological problem that needs to be addressed. The satisfaction that many get from buying something new. We need to promote and advertise healthy eco-friendly shopping habits instead of new and fresh inventory Zara brings in every week.


So what should you buy? Try to purchase clothes that are organic, recycled, eco-friendly, or sustainable. Natural fibers like linen, silk, alpaca, hemp, ramie, orange, and pineapple fibers are great alternatives.

Another article that I found was Sustainable Fashion Brands Explain That Yes, They Can Be Profitable by Julia Brucculieri, HuffPost. The author focuses on the interviews with Kathleen Talbot of Reformation, Rami Helali of Kotn, and Chelsea Mazur of People’s Product. I recommend reading this article in full.


From the article, I gained immense knowledge about many challenges that eco-friendly brands face. The problem starts at the very beginning: finding vendors and suppliers that share the love for our environment and sustainable practices. But even when you find a great partner, it is hard to scale production with timely and professionals deliverables.


There is also the issue of price. Sustainable brands charge more for their items due to higher sourcing & manufacturing expenses: eco-friendly materials, sustainable suppliers, designs, and production.

“Even our family and friends are confused about prices. They’ll go to the mall and see cheap things, and they’ll ask, ‘Why does your stuff cost so much?’ And then you have to give them the explanation about how the fashion industry is flawed,” ... Sustainable Fashion Brands Explain That Yes, They Can Be Profitable.

Other options.

It is not all that bad; the author does point out that many big brands start investing in sustainable practices and alter their manufacturing processes. For example, Levi's in 2011 has started the initiative to reduce water usage. H&M in 2012 launched the eco-friendly collection and has begun to accept clothing back to reuse and recycle.

The article points to the big piece of the puzzle: consumers. The fast fashion will continue to exist if customers continue buying its products. Sadly, I do not think consumers will change their habits any time soon. Many emerging countries have growing middle classes that are just now starting to enjoy their purchasing powers.

However, I believe we are missing a big education piece not only about the fashion industry, but also about the power of advertisement, celebrities' social media feeds, and social pressures to post new pics in fresh outfits. The ever-present need to impress and show-off fueled by celebrities is not helping the problem. Sustainable brands need to work with stars to promote eco-friendly lines and educate consumers about fast fashion's harmful impact.

Three Important Takeaways:

  • Avoid synthetic materials: check a little white tag every time you are shopping. Try buying clothing from recycled or natural fibers materials while avoiding synthetic or animal-based ones.

  • Try eco-friendly brands: Do not be afraid of sustainable brands' prices. You can always find brands that are cheaper than others. We need to support them in trying to do the right thing by our planet.

  • Buy what you need: Do not buy for the sake of buying. Create a list of items you need and the next time you are shopping buy unique pieces that you love and will wear for many seasons.

I hope my article shed some light on the fast fashion industry and made you aware of its impact on the environment. Next time you hit a mall, check out a small white tag on the inside of an item. You will be shocked to notice how many things are made from synthetic materials. Think twice before purchasing, regardless of a brand, to buy items that you will wear more than once.


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