Winter 2016: Fashion

Fast fashion made greener

Above, an abundance of discount clothing retailers has led to increased low-cost options for consumers. Below, many retailers employ a practice called fast fashion, which started gaining popularity in the 1990s. It refers to the process of creating a garment and getting it into stores as quickly as possible. Textile recycling, or donating used clothes to thrift stores, has helped to eliminate thousands of pounds of clothing from the regional waste stream.

Above, an abundance of discount clothing retailers has led to increased low-cost options for consumers. Below, many retailers employ a practice called fast fashion, which started gaining popularity in the 1990s. It refers to the process of creating a garment and getting it into stores as quickly as possible. Textile recycling, or donating used clothes to thrift stores, has helped to eliminate thousands of pounds of clothing from the regional waste stream.

Textile recycling helps the north country manage an eco-friendly waste stream

By Katie Machia, NNY Living

Photos by AFM Photography

In 1990, the average American household spent approximately 5 percent of its overall budget on apparel. Today, that percentage has dropped to 3.5 percent, which amounts to an average of $1,700 a year, according to a recent article in Forbes magazine.
Another change has been on the manufacturing side. In 1990, approximately 50 percent of clothing worn by Americans was made in this country. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent.

Clothing is one of the few consumer goods whose price point has declined; meanwhile, the price of almost everything else has gone up. Taking a brief look at this fact, it’s reasonable to conclude that we’re spending less of our budget on clothing. So why are our closets getting bigger, while our clothing budget is declining?

The simple answer to this question is fast fashion, which started gaining popularity in the 1990s. It refers to the process of creating a garment and getting it into stores as quickly as possible. Fast fashion retailer Zara, headquartered in Spain, has a reputation for this practice.

Just as recently as the 1990s, there were only two seasons in the retail industry. Zara currently produces clothing for 104 seasons. That means they’re putting out 30,000 designs a year, clothes are arriving in stores two times a week, and 2.5 million items are moved from their distribution center in Spain each week.

Zara’s clothing has been described as almost “carbon copies” of designer pieces. Although they use minimal advertising, the company has been reported to be dominating the fast fashion market, along with their competition, H&M, Forever 21, and Topshop.

This can all seem very appealing — clothes at rock bottom prices, new styles coming in every week, and the idea of being able to own the latest “it” item.

What could possibly be wrong with any of this? The answer is a very in-depth and complicated one. Factory tragedies, unsafe working conditions in foreign countries, overfilled landfills, a depleting ecosystem and a vicious cycle of consumption are all consequences of fast fashion.

The flaws of the fast fashion cycle began being evident on April 24, 2013, after Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh used by retailers worldwide, collapsed. A total of 1,129 people were killed and another 2,515 injured.

The building had been evacuated the day before over concerns about large cracks found in the structure. But the factory was still deemed safe, and the manager threatened to withhold a month’s pay from employees who did not return to work. That tragedy was just the beginning of the crisis behind fast fashion.

Surprising data started emerging about the effects this cycle was having on our environment, shocking many in the industry. Each year, since the craze began, the average person has been creating more textile waste — filling up space in landfills and damaging the environment.

FAST FASHION CYCLE WEBThe average American creates 70 pounds of apparel waste per year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. The Council has revealed that in 1999, Americans created 18.2 billion pounds of clothing waste, and that figure increased to more than 25 billion in 2009. If this cycle continues, it’s projected that Americans will create 35.4 billion pounds of apparel waste in 2019.

The idea that something is so cheap, along with the lower end quality production of many of these pieces, are major contributors to the problem. You would think a lot harder about throwing away a $50 sweater, as opposed to one of the numerous $10 sweaters that you picked up at a fast fashion retailer.

This mindset has people throwing away more textiles than ever before, and as a result, landfills are being overwhelmed. The dyes and chemicals from these clothes can be released into the atmosphere after sitting for years, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycling Textiles Association (SMART).

But efforts are being made at both the state and local levels to keep unwanted clothing out of the landfills, said Jan M. Oatman, regional recycling coordinator for the Development Authority of the North Country. In 2014, the New York State Association of Reduction, Reuse and Recycling helped launch a statewide textile recovery campaign to raise awareness of the issue.

One of the resources for textile reuse/recycling has been thrift stores, such as the Watertown Urban Mission and the Rescue Mission, according to Ms. Oatman.

“The textiles that are re-sellable are used in their stores, and those that they cannot sell or do not want are generally baled and go to a grader, where they are sorted and sent to a variety of places,” Ms. Oatman wrote in an e-mail. “Much of the reusable textiles are sent overseas to developing countries, others are sent to the wiping rag industry and others are reclaimed for their fibers.”

However, not all thrift stores can handle the excess amount of clothes that can’t be resold, she noted.

“Many thrift stores do not want anything other than items that they can re-sell in their stores,” because they aren’t equipped to deal with damaged items, she said.

An employee at the Impossible Dream Thrift Store at Watertown Urban Mission pulls a bag of used clothing to sort. The Factory Street second-hand store is one of several in the north country that accepts donations of used clothing, which helps to keep textiles out of the waste stream.

An employee at the Impossible Dream Thrift Store at Watertown Urban Mission pulls a bag of used clothing to sort. The Factory Street second-hand store is one of several in the north country that accepts donations of used clothing, which helps to keep textiles out of the waste stream.

That’s why an effort has been made to set up wooden collection sheds for textile recycling throughout the area. DANC has joined with Jefferson County and some other towns to set up these donation sheds at their transfer stations. The items are collected for St. Pauly Textile, a Rochester-based company which helps to distribute clothing worldwide.

You can recycle any clothing, household textiles or commercial linens, as long as they are dry and have no odor. Halloween costumes, curtains, pet beds, sports jerseys and stuffed animals are also accepted.

In the north country, the best places to recycle your textiles can be found at this website: northcountryrecycles.org/textiles.

There are other solutions to help reduce the problems created by fast fashion:

Talk about it

This may seem like such a simple answer, but talking about the difficulties that relate to fast fashion is really the first step to solving the problem. So, next time you’re out shopping with friends or out to coffee with someone, just mention this. You may be surprised how many people don’t even know about the problems created by fast fashion.

Write to the companies

Although the retail companies and manufacturers should work toward improving working conditions in overseas factories and reducing the amount of toxic chemicals being released into the environment, the consumer has to first demand change. Write a letter voicing your concerns over these problems. If enough people take the time to do this, these companies will be forced to listen. You can find the contact information for most retailers on their websites.

Change your consumption Habits

It’s a fact that a lot of people use shopping as “retail therapy,” whether they’re happy, sad, or lonely. Fast fashion creates massive amounts of disposable apparel. People love the feeling of having lots of possessions, making fast fashion one of the most successful trends the industry has ever seen.

The best way to change your consumption habits is to buy quality over quantity. You’ll buy less because you’re spending more money on fewer items, and you’ll only be bringing things to your closet that you’ll actually wear.

Buy ethical

This is a good way to begin changing your shopping habits. Buy clothing from local boutiques or designers, or from companies that are upfront about where their products are manufactured. You can also support fair trade brands, and buy from second-hand stores. Even if you supplement these buying habits with your existing ones, you’ll still be making a difference.

Katie Machia, 18, is a Watertown native and freshman at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She writes about fashion on her blog, theaisleofstyle.com, and is a regular contributor to NNY Living. She also models for print and runway shows.Contact her at theaisleofstyle@gmail.com.