Fashion has become a trillion dollar global industry. In the United States alone, it contributes more than $250 billion to the economy. Recently, the industry has been experiencing a different type of trend – one toward fast fashion. Traditionally, apparel firms design, produce, and put in stores their clothes in four cycles throughout the year, one for every season. However, fast fashion firms do this process in the course of only a few weeks. In shortening the production time, these firms, such as Zara and H&M, offer consumers trendy clothes at very low prices, though often at the expense of quality. While fast fashion has been praised as ingenious as a business model, there are some critical consequences to this type of production. These consequences come largely as negative externalities to the environment. To limit these externalities, policies should be put in place requiring more transparency in the manufacturing of clothing. Tax incentives should also be made available to those firms that accept and recycle clothing they once produced.
Passionate consumers of the fashion industry say that fashion is a form of expression. This ability to express oneself, in economic terms, promotes an increase in these individuals’ utility. Where fashion and staying “trendy” once seemed mainly reserved for wealthier individuals or else available during sales, when the clothes were already considered out of style, fast fashion has allowed all consumers to purchase these clothes at very low prices. Even high income individuals who simply want to have the newest styles often end up purchasing from these fast fashion companies. However, the frequent release of new clothing permitted by short production time, along with the affordability of the clothing has, according to April McGrath, “devalued personal attachment to clothing, as items are more quickly disposed of and easily replaced”. Moreover, McGrath even makes an argument against the satisfaction that these clothes provide consumers. Rather than the product increasing satisfaction, it is the activity of purchasing the new and in-style clothing that ultimately results in the consumer’s increased satisfaction.
Weighing the costs of fast fashion against its benefits, the costs seem to largely outweigh the benefits – both to the national and global economy. These costs largely manifest as negative environmental externalities, both at the very beginning and very end of the clothing’s life cycle. The externalities, already part of the fashion industry as a whole, are so significant some think the industry is among one of the largest polluters.
In the production side of the product life cycle, the manufacturing of clothing generates large amounts of water waste as wash-off from dyeing, particularly with cotton. The amount of water usage for dyeing in the manufacturing phase varies widely, but at a very conservative level it is estimated that about 4.3 x 1011 liters of water were used in 2012 to dye cotton alone. Considering that used for other fabrics as well as the water used for pre-wetting, rinsing, and the wash-off required from dyeing means actual water waste is significantly greater. Since most of the manufacturing is done in developing countries with less environmental regulations, the water is disposed of into streams and the environment.
At the end of the product’s life – which itself is not very long for fast fashion clothing since they are more often than not of low quality – the product becomes solid waste if not recycled. In the United States, more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles are discarded as solid waste per capita each year, and the quantity is argued to be rapidly increasing, particularly because of the growth of fast fashion retailers. According to an NPR article last year, “The top fast fashion retailers grew 9.7 percent per year over the last five years.” Thanks to second-hand retailers, however, a lot of clothes are being reused rather than thrown out. Tons are also sent to developing countries to be sold in markets as second-hand clothing. Though this system works well for citizens of developing nations, with the nature of the fast fashion process, the quantity of apparel going to these countries will rapidly increase. The movement of these clothes benefits consumers in these developing countries through lower prices, but here too they ultimately end up in landfills in large quantities.
To limit the extent that fast fashion causes negative externalities, regulations should be placed requiring further transparency in regard to production. Tax incentives, such as tax breaks should also be offered to retailers that accept used clothing from consumers and recycle the material. Requiring transparency from clothing retailers will lead to greater monitoring by the fast fashion retailers themselves as well as put social pressures on them to become more aware of the environmental impact of their production process. By offering tax breaks for firms that accept and recycle consumed clothing, the amount of solid waste of this form that ends up in landfills will significantly drop. Recycling cotton-based clothes will also significantly lower the water waste generated from the production of these clothes, thousands of liters worth, since cotton is such a water-intensive crop.
The fashion industry continues expanding and a significant contributor to its growth is due to the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion retailers have attracted consumers with lower prices and the desire to stay “in style”. The firms are greatly profiting from this effect on consumers. Both the parties end up happy with the exchange, though the externalities are negative and great. The cost to the environment through water waste and solid waste discussed here are only a portion of the externalities the fashion industry generates. These externalities are rapidly growing, however, due to the short and quick production and product life cycles associated with fast fashion. By setting up regulations and offering tax incentives to firms that are willing to produce using recycled articles, these negative externalities can be considerably lowered.