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This is part three of a four-part series on Sustainable Fashion by our FFAC summer interns and mentees. You can read part 1, 2, and 4 here:
Part one: fast fashion and workers
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Part two: fast fashion and the environment
Part four: five tips for shopping sustainably
When shopping for clothes at a local mall, you might often take interest in seeing the origins of the items and the quality of the fabric to justify the worth of its price. As the popularity of online shopping continues to rise, clothing seems to be increasingly cheaper and entirely new selections roll out on an almost weekly basis. Instead of finding a small collection of last year’s trends in the clearance section, you're searching for others from last month and even the latest. As trends are rapidly updating, clothing prices are also plunging. But what does this mean? As trends are evolving almost weekly, an increase in demand causes clothing to be less expensive. This and the fact that fast-produced synthetic textiles, such as nylon and polyester, are used in fast fashion mean that 90% of all clothing in the US consist of possibly toxic chemicals. What people don’t realize is that a single clothing item made of these fibers can contain 8,000 unwanted chemicals, linking fashion with processed foods—a much more familiarized topic and a parallel most would never expect.
Similar to factory farming, most of us are unaware of the health issues that are created from the fast fashion industry. Unlike meat however, clothes aren't eaten and digested, but that doesn’t mean they can’t damage our health. Through dermal absorption, a natural process that allows skin to absorb 60% of direct-contact chemicals into the bloodstream in 26 seconds, the toxic chemicals in our clothing can easily enter our bloodstream. Fast fashion textile employees work in hazardous factories where they’re exposed to these chemicals at much higher levels and experience labor injustices that harm their mental and physical health. Even worse, many clothing products known for being technologically innovative, including ‘sweat-wicking’ or ‘odor-reducing’ athletic wear, contain toxic chemicals, such as triclosan and nanoparticles, that are rapidly absorbed when clothing is exposed to heat as the body works up a sweat during exercise. Triclosan is dangerous because it can act like estrogen, which can increase breast cancer risk, cause hormone imbalances, and be resistant to certain bacteria. Nanoparticles are harmful because they contain minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that can be absorbed by the body at rates much higher than average--a problem when tests have shown that nanoparticles cause lung, liver, and kidney damage in animals.
In less developed countries, health hazards are prevalent for sweatshop workers who often work long shifts under immense stress, experiencing frequent accidental injuries or deaths, chronic life-threatening illnesses such as cancers and lung disease, and reproductive risks.
Fast fashion and factory farming are connected through their impacts on not only human health, but animal health. Microfibers that come from common textiles such as polyester are small enough to easily escape waste treatment plants and into the ocean, where they’re eaten by autotrophs, working up the food chain to fish and humans. Animals used for slaughter are also subjected to skinning for leather, perpetuating the success of both industries.
While clothes seem to be cheaper, keep in mind that they’re also becoming unhealthier. Researching sustainable fabrics that won’t harm your health or checking out the Top 5 Tips For Shopping Sustainably are the first steps to steering clear of a toxic clothing haul. Washing your clothes less or with natural detergent is also helpful. Through these choices, you’re not putting your body in jeopardy while assisting to denounce an industry that exploits their workers through endless hours of stress, exposure to toxic chemicals, and dangerous working conditions. As consumers, it’s important to recognize that in order to fully remove the threats that fast fashion pose on our health, its social justice and environmental issues must also be confronted.
Tiffany Wu was an FFAC Summer 2020 intern.