When you think of the word “fashion,” what comes to mind? Bright lights, bumping music, and models stomping down a white runway?

The traditional framework of the fashion industry, in which a designer or company releases a collection twice a year, used to be the norm. For many upscale designers this structure is still in place, but in the last decade retail stores have dominated the everyday fashion world, flipping tradition upside down and straying from the standards of its high-end counterparts. Stores like Target and H&M are so consumer-driven that they must meet the demand for runway looks at affordable prices, their stores displaying new collections every few weeks. Customers who don’t even care to keep up with trends are exposed to dozens of microtrends every season, in stores’ efforts to push the newest and coolest clothing and accessories. The speed at which big companies produce, market, and sell these collections has dubbed their clothing “fast fashion.”

This heavy demand has transferred to the manufacturers of our clothing – for large retailers, this is almost entirely an overseas process. The U.S. only produces 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, compared to 50 percent only 25 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people in countries like China, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and the Philippines are working unrealistically long hours for little pay to produce garments for cents apiece.

As the world discovered after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, retailers have routed their manufacturing processes through middle men, diverting the accountability for any accidents off of themselves. After the collapse, over 200 brands have signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, both established to protect and ensure the safety of Bangladeshi workers. While the intention is just, the scope of the agreement applies only to one geographical area of garment production, and the compliance of production facilities and implementation of safety measures is proving difficult and time consuming.



Fashion’s social impact isn’t the only negative facet of the industry. It’s the second highest polluting industry in the world, second only to the oil industry. That’s right, that soft cotton shirt you’re wearing is worse for the world than the chemical you put in your car’s engine. While garment production and manufacturing garner media attention for the involvement of child labor, or for the aftermath of a large disaster, the industry as a whole (and the lifetime of its products) has a monstrous effect on the world.

Because of fast fashion’s quick turnover (and cheaper production materials), consumers are discarding clothes at a faster rate than ever before. The average American discards 65lbs of clothing every year, some of which is recovered but half of which could have been recycled rather than thrown away.

The solution? First, we need to work with local governments, businesses, and organizations to ensure discarded clothing ends up somewhere it can be reused or recycled. San Francisco is a model city for promoting textile recycling, providing drop-off bins and prompting it’s businesses and buildings to get their own bins (the city’s goal of Zero Waste by 2020 is an ambitious one!). Then, we as consumers need to better understand the environmental and social impact of the clothing we buy. Supporting fair trade companies alleviates the safety & humane issues surrounding fashion, but what about environmental? Livia Firth, noted ethical fashion advocate, suggests asking yourself if you will wear an item 30 times before purchasing it– a great way to begin to consider your clothing a valuable part of your life rather than a disposable outfit, ready to toss when a better one comes along.

Your choices matter

You and me, the average shopper, the standard clothing-wearer, the American Female – we have been the driving force behind the fashion industry’s metamorphosis from an individual-produced craft to a mass-produced monster. We didn’t do it intentionally, but the take away is that consumers have power, money makes decisions, your choices matter, and choosing fair trade and ethically produced goods will steer the fashion industry back in the right direction.

What should you do when the time comes to get rid of clothes but you don’t want to add to the landfill? We have a post coming up with plenty of ideas.