Fast Fashion. It’s quick production, cheap clothing, and a favorite supply chain element that big brands use all the time. So…what’s the big deal?

Fast fashion is the process of quick manufacturing at a cheap price. It’s used by big brands such as Zara, H&M, and Topshop to respond quickly to changing customer demands and allows for consumers to get on-trend clothing quickly, seasonally, and affordably. On paper, it sounds like a great concept: consumers get high-end clothing at a low-end price, and big brands get to produce clothes quickly and inexpensively.

However, fast fashion is has drastic effects on workers and the natural environment.

First and foremost, there are a lot of clothes in the world. Most people enjoy the feeling of a closet stuffed with clothes they love—and free of the clutter of clothes they don’t need. Throwing away old clothing is a hugely wasteful activity. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothes annually, equivalent to 85% of our departed textiles in landfills. The fast fashion phenomenon encourages this buy-and-dispose mentality spurring Americans to buy clothes constantly and force old clothes out of their closets and into waste bins.

Secondly, working conditions in the early stages of production for these clothing brands is toxic and imposes a number of safety issues. A 2017 study done by the University of Sussex shows that apparel company factories are not being held to high safety standards; poor implementation of such safety codes and regulations has allowed fires and building collapses, and health issues remain an issue for workers. Research from the Delhi capital region reported a 10-12 hour work day was standard for these workers, and 39% of them suffered from eye strain and 41% from exhaustion. These types of conditions ultimately led to the biggest garment-related accident in history, the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh that caused the death of over 1,000 individuals and the injury of over 2,500.

Finally, the environmental impact from this method of clothing production is massive. Not only does the clothing industry cause the release of a huge amount of greenhouse gases annually, but many clothing brands utilize harmful chemicals, pesticides, and dyes that are released into bodies of water – but they also threaten aquatic life and the lives of the people living near those waters. When washed, polyester, one of the most common fabrics used in clothing, is incredibly harmful because it releases plastic microfibers that find their way into our oceans and harm aquatic life. Cotton also creates a negative environmental impact due to the considerable amount of water needed for its production. In addition, brands often choose to produce their clothing overseas. The amount of transportation associated with fast fashion is huge and adds to pollution.

The industry is slowly trending towards greener and more sustainable steps in production. However, there is still a lot more to do. As citizens, environmental advocates, and consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to make more sustainable purchasing decisions on a day-to-day basis.

First, recycle or donate your unwanted clothing instead of throwing it away to help eliminate textile waste. The second step is the harder and more long-term step: shopping ethically. Consumers can shop more ethically by choosing a thrift shop or repurposing store, purchasing from slightly more expensive brands who are dedicated to ethically sourcing and producing their clothing, or buying clothes that are made out of non-destructive products such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.

Fast Fashion creates an unethical production cycle and a destructive supply chain. Environmental advocates can slow this process by shopping ethically and responsibly.