I remember the first time I visited an H&M. It was on a high school trip to New York. The store was still a relatively new fixture to the U.S. market and there were just a few of them in the country. So it was a real treat to visit. And what I remember most was how special it was, how exciting. For a 17 year old kid from Wisconsin, it was like a dream come true. Stylish tank tops, dresses, and jeans all at ridiculously low prices. And as I walked out of the store, my bag brimming over with adorable new items, I remember thinking, “It’s almost like this is too good to be true!”
Well it kind of was. Over the last 10-15 years Fast Fashion — trendy but poor quality clothing sold at rock bottom prices — has exploded. This clothing is made to be expendable and disposable. Good for a few wears within a season and then expected to be forgotten or trashed.
“The best thing about Forever 21,” I remember a friend saying in college, “is that you can wear it once and not feel bad if it get spilled on and ruined! It’s so cheap!”
It’s an attitude that you’ll find all over. We want the newest outfits and the freshest fashion, but we don’t want to pay high prices for that privilege. Organic cotton sounds good in theory, but not when it means we’re paying $100 for a tank top. So since (just like in the travel or food industries) we’ve demanded clothing be pumped out faster, cheaper, and be more conveniently, the market has found ways to give us those things. But as we run out and fill our carts with clothing at insanely low prices, the hidden costs build up behind the scenes. Because while our insatiable need for new clothing may be a good thing for the fashion industry (which makes about 1.2 trillion dollars a year), it’s devastating to the environment.
“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world,” clothing mogul, Eileen Fisher, told a crowd in 2015 while accepting an environmental award, “second only to oil.” And with every cheap piece of clothing we buy, we contribute to that pollution.
The sustainability in the clothing industry is poor at best. We often think of cotton as a kinder more sustainable fabric than synthetic blends. But the reality is that the business of growing cotton is incredibly harsh on the environment. It’s a plant that needs tons of water.
According to the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, it take 20,000 liters of water to produce one t-shirt and pair of jeans. And then there’s the rampant use of insecticides and pesticides. Only 2.4 percent of cropland is taken by cotton, but it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent respectively of global sales of insecticides and pesticides. Between growing cotton, manufacturing air pollution, and dyes that are contaminating clean drinking water for whole regions, it’s a messy business, and one that is truly hurting our world.
It’s not a problem that has an easy fix. Because although several companies have tried to come up with ways to reduce the environmental footprint of clothing production, these measures are still cost prohibitive and as such, yet to become widespread. In the meantime, one way we can help as consumers is to shop at vintage and thrift stores.
These stores combine the best of many worlds. They provide higher quality merchandise at fractions of the retail cost and give you “new” clothing without any additional manufacturing. Plus, they’re just cool. And these thrift stores are some of the coolest in America.