How is fast fashion culture exaggerating the effects of plastic pollution?

The general picture that comes to mind after hearing “Plastic Pollution” probably consists of plastic bottles and bags clustered together on roads, waterways and neighborhoods. While these everyday plastics do fit the description, plastic pollution does not solely describe garbage visible to the naked eye. 

Different industries release different forms of “microplastics”- defined as “fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length,” according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency. 

The severity of the issue microplastics bring when discussing water pollution is quite unfathomable when considering its’ miniscule size. However, most people fail to recognize that the majority of the plastic floating in the ocean does eventually break down into smaller pieces. Only 6% of plastic pollution in the ocean is visible, because the rest breaks down and sinks to the ocean floor, polluting food webs and habitats. 

Many microfibers originate from clothing materials, like polyester and nylon- which come from synthetic fibers, i.e. plastic. In 2016, 65 million tons of plastic was produced for textile fibers, representing close to 20 percent of the total plastic production for that year. Not only that, but plastics from the fashion industry are responsible for generating enormous amounts of wastewater and emitting huge quantities of carbon (How Plastic Pollution).

While these statistics can be attributed to the fashion industry in general, the pace at which fast fashion moves multiplies its’ own environmental effects. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, published by Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2017, noted how the fast fashion industry has increased demand for plastic-infused clothing in recent decades due to quicker turnaround of new styles, increased clothing seasons per year, and lower prices. Fast fashion relies on massive new plastic production to fuel growth. According to the report, virgin plastic accounted for 63 percent of clothing materials used in 2015, compared to less than 3% recycled material (How Plastic Pollution). 

Basically, because of the constant weekly trends set up by fast fashion companies, they fall into a cycle of overproduction and wastage, just to continue pumping out clothes to seduce buyers. Rather than sticking with classic styles and the general 4-seasons-per-year clothing releases, fast fashion has plunged into 52-season years, increasing clothing production by 13 times. And, for those who get sucked into staying up-to-date with Shein’s overwhelming new releases, they are forced to constantly buy new clothes to avoid looking blatantly behind.

To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced the Fashion Pact at a G7 meeting in 2019. The pact included 32 companies and 150 brands (including Gucci, Chanel, and Nike) containing a set of shared goals that the fashion industry could work towards to reduce their negative impact. “Clothing companies and brands are encouraged, but not mandated, to: 1) achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, 2) restore natural ecosystems and protect species, and 3) reduce the use of single-use plastic. For example, Stella McCartney is eliminating virgin plastic in her collections by using recycled polyester and upcycling materials” (How Plastic Pollution is Being Woven into Fast Fashion Culture).

With this, if fashion companies reduce their fast mindsets and adhere to their sustainability goals, we can be on our way to reducing waste, and consequently plastic pollution. 

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