Editor’s note: This article appeared in the spring 2023 issue of University of Denver Magazine, which can be viewed online, in its entirety.

From environmental destruction to harmful labor practices, Daniels experts agree that we pay a high price for cheap clothes

A sea of discarded clothingThe Atacama Desert in Chile stretches more than 600 miles along the Pacific Coast. It’s the driest place on Earth. Stretches of the desert are so inhospitable that NASA uses it to train for missions to Mars. And now, tragically, the Atacama is the backdrop for an environmental nightmare.  

Every year, on this remote but hauntingly beautiful plateau, roughly 40,000 tons of textile waste from around the globe are dumped and left to rot. The party dresses, cropped sweaters and jogging shorts accumulate in dunes that stretch for miles. Much of the clothing has never been worn. The price tags still cling to collars and waistbands. 

A continent away, the beaches of Accra, Ghana’s capital city, are unlike any you’ve seen before. Where sand once marked the transition from land to sea, never-ending piles of T-shirts, jeans and other textile waste form an unsightly landmark along the shoreline. 

Home to the Kantamanto Market—the largest second-hand clothing market in West Africa—Accra receives more than 15 million used garments on a weekly basis. Nearly half of them end up as waste. 

This is the unsightly underside of fast fashion—an industry valued at nearly $100 billion annually.  

The rapid rise of fast fashion

While the fashion industry has always produced waste and pollution, recent decades have seen the brisk growth of fast fashion—hyper-trendy clothing made as cheaply and quickly as possible—and an acceleration of the environmental damage that apparel production causes.  

Rising to prominence in the early 2000s, the fast fashion industry turned the four traditional clothing seasons—spring, summer, fall and winter—into 52 micro-seasons.  

Globally, more than 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year—more than double the industry’s output in 2000. With companies such as H&M, Shein and ASOS collectively bringing thousands of low-cost garments to market each week, consumers have nearly endless options to buy.  

And buy, we do. On average, Americans spend more than $100 per month on clothing and apparel. Ali Besharat, associate professor of marketing in the Daniels College of Business and co-director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center (CiBiC), says low prices and consumer convenience are the primary drivers of fast fashion’s explosive growth.  

“With the emergence of fast fashion, there’s a temptation: With $15 you can get a new sweater or a pair of jeans,” he says. “So, what’s the point of getting a pair of jeans that will last four years but is going to cost $100 versus getting a $15 pair that you only wear twice and then you can move on?” For younger shoppers who tend to have less disposable income, the temptation grows even stronger.  

Brick-and-mortar stores filled with an ever-changing lineup of ultra-low-cost apparel are designed to encourage impulsive purchases through what Besharat calls “incidental exposure to a product.” While online shopping can offer consumers a chance to plan, research and compare items before buying, he says retailers frequently send reminders about impending discounts or limited-edition runs to motivate customers to spend. “If there’s a matter of urgency or scarcity, consumers are going to act in the same way that they do in a retail store,” he says.  

Melissa Akaka, co-director of CiBiC and director of DU’s master of science in marketing program, says a push for trends over styles also shapes purchasing decisions.  

“Trends are much quicker cycles of popular, desirable styles. Styles can be much longer lasting than trends like bell-bottoms or crop tops. Fashion trends move more and more quickly because of the ability of the clothing to reach mass markets in shorter amounts of time,” she says.

But there’s more behind fast fashion consumption than a persistent cycle of new, cheap outfits to wear. Meet the social media influencers.  

They’ve emerged as fashion brands have confronted an ever-growing challenge. Typically, brands engage in costly advertising to bridge the gap from the factory to the consumer. But these days, advertising falls on unreceptive ears. “Broadly speaking, advertising has not been consumers’ favorite form of entertainment or information,” Akaka says.

In fact, many consumers install ad-blocking software, pay premiums for ad-free services or take other steps to avoid traditional advertisements. And, Besharat adds, younger consumers trust brands less than they used to. “Nowadays, peer-to-peer trust is a much stronger, more reliable and trustworthy channel that people use,” he says.

As a result, many brands now rely heavily on social media influencers to build that trust and reach audiences that are otherwise anti-advertisement. They send clothing to individual influencers, who, in turn, model the items on their platforms and give them a distinct cachet.  

Following an influencer, Akaka says, “is a way of saying, ‘I don’t like ads, but I still need information. I still need to know which products are best.’” What’s more, influencers often provide audiences with product information and entertainment. 

Social media influencers have helped fast fashion brands reach their target audience efficiently and sell trendy garments almost instantly. As Akaka notes, the fast fashion industry “is not just the movement of trends and the rapid innovation of style, but also the ability to manufacture, produce and take to market these specific styles that may not last.” 

Unfortunately, producing fast fashion is resource intensive. For example, growing, processing and manufacturing cotton for a single pair of jeans consumes roughly 1,900 gallons of water, according to the United Nations. What’s more, cotton farmers often maximize their yields by using insecticides and pesticides that spread into the surrounding soil and water. Commonly used fertilizers release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.  

Many fast fashion garments are made, in part or completely, of synthetic fibers such as nylon, spandex and polyester—materials derived from fossil fuels. Drilling and fracking to acquire oil for synthetic textiles can contaminate drinking water sources and the surrounding air. Producing animal-based textiles also takes a toll on the environment, from deforestation to methane emissions. Later in the production cycle, heavy metals used in the dying and tanning processes expose textile workers to toxic chemicals and contaminate waterways when they are disposed of.  

Synthetics pose an additional risk—microplastic pollution. “Every time you wash clothing, tiny fragments fray off the clothing and that plastic gets washed away,” says Helen Hazen, teaching professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment. The miniscule plastic particles have been found nearly everywhere, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and, Hazen notes, inside the human body.  

While many of the risks associated with natural textiles have been studied for decades, the full scale of microplastics’ impact on health and the environment remains unknown. “We are on the bleeding edge of science with these. We don’t have the data we need. What we do know is that microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment,” Hazen says. “We know that we’re introducing synthetic substances, but we don’t really have long-term data sets to know what the impacts are. It’s a huge question.” In fact, some scientists worry that many microplastics may be carcinogens or endocrine disruptors with potential health effects ranging from cancer and diabetes to reproductive and developmental issues.

Textile workers face the greatest health and safety risks of all: exposure to toxic chemicals, long hours and unsafe working conditions. In 2012, a fire broke at the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 100 workers. A year later, more than 1,100 people died when Dhaka’s Rana Plaza Building, which housed five garment factories, collapsed. 

At the other end of a garment’s life cycle, the waste stream awaits. Americans sent 11.3 million tons of textiles—nearly 70 pounds per person—to the landfill in 2018, according to the EPA. Audits indicate that landfill-bound clothing typically includes massive numbers of never-been-worn items, deemed unsellable by manufacturers and retailers.  

Not all of the discards are destined for domestic landfills. Many are shipped around the world—often to the global south—for recycling, resale or, more often than not, disposal. Though clothing resellers and recyclers give some of these garments a second life, most of them accumulate as waste. Staggering piles of waste. Think the Atacama Desert, the beaches of Accra.

Putting the brakes on fast fashion 

Tackling fast fashion’s disastrous effects is no small—or inexpensive—task, says Jack Buffington, assistant professor of supply chain management at the Daniels College of Business and University College. To satisfy consumer demand for cheap goods, the industry relies on a global network of producers, manufacturers, logistics firms and retail outlets.  

To keep costs down, labor is outsourced to the cheapest possible far-flung locations. Cotton may be produced on one continent, shipped to another for assembly into hoodies and sun dresses, and then transported to still another continent for sale at a fast-fashion outlet. All of this means that fashion producers are predicting—and shaping—trends weeks or months in advance. Because they can’t necessarily anticipate demand, they often manufacture greater numbers of garments than can be sold, leaving vast amounts of unused clothing to be incinerated, buried or dumped.  

“They could reduce the waste by bringing the supply chain closer to the consumer and doing more on-demand production, but that would cost too much, and consumers don’t want to pay more,” Buffington says.  

A system optimized solely to meet demand for low-priced clothing will, by design, take a toll on the environment and human health. Making clothing supply chains more sustainable requires a different calculus. “We, as people, are producers, consumers, citizens, and we’re investors. That’s why you bring everything local and then you optimize on what’s best for the consumer, the producer, citizen and shareholder,” he says.  

The University’s on-campus thrift store demonstrates the benefits of keeping garments local. In addition to diverting discards from the landfill, the store, by sorting and selling secondhand apparel on campus, limits emissions from transportation, says Sarah Bexell, clinical associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and faculty director of DU’s Center of Sustainability. 

“It all stays right here at DU,” she says. “We’re keeping it in the cycle.” And those looking for a good deal are in luck. “Our students get rid of really nice stuff.” 

Students with purchasing power also have the power not to purchase. In other words, they have the power to regulate demand. When he makes this point, Buffington draws on another environmental problem, one related to single-use plastics: “A chemist at DuPont invented the plastic bottle,” he says, “but he’s not the guy who produces a billion of them every day. That’s the supply chain. And the minute that the consumer says no more plastic bottles will be the day that the supply chain stops producing them.”  

But what if consumers don’t oblige? “We also need public policy,” Akaka says. “We need policies in place that consider the consequences or inconveniences for consumers and weigh them out with the benefits to the environment.” Of course, such policies—affecting everything from working conditions for textile laborers to content labels on garments—will likely come with a price: increased costs, slower production cycles, reduced inventories, fewer choices for consumers. “These are not easy tradeoffs to identify or measure, but we must continue to explore them to make progress,” she adds. 

Although Katessia Robertson understands the magnitude of the challenge, she remains convinced that consumer activism can make a real difference. “You do have power to make ecologically responsible decisions as a consumer,” says Robertson, who is pursuing a master’s of social work with a concentration in ecological justice. First, consume less. When you can, buy secondhand and repair worn clothing. If you must purchase a new garment, look for well-made clothing that is produced sustainably and designed to last. True, a lack of transparency and persisting misinformation about manufacturing processes can make it hard for consumers to know when they are supporting truly sustainable practices. With that in mind, Robertson proposes a solution applied to organic foods. “We can regulate what sustainable means and whether companies are allowed to use natural, recycled or sustainable on their tags.”   

Consuming less, shopping secondhand and purchasing wisely may seem like small steps—so small they can’t possibly amount to much. But if efforts like these gain enough momentum, they are sure to catch the attention of fast fashion’s movers and shakers, its influencers and, by extension, its producers. As Besharat of the Daniels College of Business notes, in this age of social media marketing, “consumers are watching every move by every brand out there. And brands are listening to what consumers are thinking.”