Engineering Alternatives to Fast Fashion


Every second, millions of people purchase clothing without a single thought about the consequences. According to a 2018 statistic from online retailer Rent the Runway, American shoppers purchased an average of 68 garments a year, with each garment being worn an average of seven times before being thrown away. As the world’s population continues to grow and the methods by which we are able to purchase clothing continue to make quick purchases as convenient as possible, it is imperative that we think about clothing production and consumption. 

Fast fashion is defined as the mass-production of inexpensive clothing in response to the latest trends. Fast fashion industry giants, such as H&M, Forever 21, and Zara, draw inspiration from high-end fashion designers by transforming runway couture styles into trendy, affordable clothing that is wearable by the everyday fashion enthusiast. These brands will introduce new collections and styles nearly every week, bombarding consumers with a myriad of style options with which to fill their closets. While purchasing a $7 blouse seems like a great deal to consumers, most of the products that are created by these fast fashion brands are extremely low quality. Despite the low prices, corporations are able to make millions of dollars in profit due to the sheer volume of clothing that they produce.

It is no surprise, then, that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to waste worldwide. The Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2015 that 16,030 tons of textiles were generated, 10,530 of which ended up in landfills. Manufacturers also utilize materials that are inexpensive to purchase but extremely harmful to the environment. Textiles derived from crude oil and methane can be found in many of the pieces that may be in your own closet, including polyesters and nylons. These materials never biodegrade, instead remaining as pollutants of centuries. 

In response to this, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute led by Dr. Helen Zha have set their sights on developing processes for manufacturing renewable fossil-free yarns, dyes, as well as fabrics that are made from fungi, plants, and artificial nature-inspired proteins. The goal is to create biodegradable textiles that function just as well, if not better, than the fossil-derived materials that are currently the industry favorite. 

Researchers at the Technical Research Center of Finland (VTT) also studied the properties of cellulose to create a sustainable fiber company. These fibers are similar to cotton, but they take less water and energy to produce. They are also more sustainable than synthetic fibers, but are still strong and flexible enough to be made into clothes.

Beyond the work that is being done within engineering labs at academic institutions, the fashion industry as a whole has become more conscious of its environmental impact. Eco-textiles consultant and author, Kate Fletcher, coined the term “slow fashion” to refer to the practice of purchasing ethical, sustainable, and quality garments. Experts have encouraged consumers to purchase less clothing and shift their focus away from acquiring the trendiest clothes in favor of more timeless products that can be worn for years. However, the unfortunate truth is that ethical fashion can never reach the prices of fast fashion. It costs more to source eco-friendly fabrics, pay workers a living wage, and make higher quality products in general. Shopping sustainably is often a luxury, as it is most convenient for consumers to purchase from fast fashion brands that have a storefront at nearly every mall in America, while many ethical fashion brands still operate solely online and require time for shipping. 

It is not enough for fashion industry experts to condemn consumers for over-purchasing, especially when the corners cut by multimillion dollar fashion companies continue to damage the environment. It is also incorrect to say that sustainable fashion brands and textiles will completely solve the issues that plague the industry. At the end of the day, the affordability of fast fashion offers consumers a means to wear the latest trends without having to pay $2,000 for a pair of name-brand trousers that are fresh off the runway. It is imperative that we take a nuanced approach to fast fashion, one that still allows consumers to participate in the latest and greatest in fashion on a budget, while also incorporating more sustainable clothing and practices into our wardrobes. Bringing sustainability to the fashion industry means a lot more than simply making novel textiles – it is through the combined efforts of the fashion industry, consumers, and engineers that real change will be made in how we access and think about the clothes that we wear.