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Fast Fashion: Cheap Clothes = Huge Environmental Cost

Fast fashion brands may be killing the planet, a Newsweek investigation revealed earlier this month.

Clothes which are processed to get them on the market as quickly as possible—a model favored by H&M, Zara's, and Forever 21—come at a very high environmental cost, with millions of tons of clothes winding up in trash bins, incinerators and landfills.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Popular clothing chains are trying to mask the environmental impacts by launching programs that claim to recycle clothes. But Newsweek found that these programs are not helping at all.

In April, H&M announced it is accepting donations of used clothes from customers and recycle them to create a new fiber, and thus new clothes. However, only 0.1 percent of all clothing received by charities and programs that recycle clothes is actually recycled, H&M's Development Sustainability Manager Henrik Lampa admitted.

H&M's program is also remarkably similar to that used by Goodwill, Newsweek noted.

Fast-fashion outlets are exacerbating the problem because very few secondhand stores or websites selling used clothes, such as thredUP, will accept items purchased from Forever 21 and other stores like it due to its poor quality.

This means more unwanted clothing is adding to the national trash pile. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Fast fashion is the second dirtiest global industry after oil. Since 2011, Greenpeace has been running its Detox campaign to urge global fashion production houses to eliminate hazardous chemicals from clothes.

The problem is further exacerbated by the increased speed of trend turnover. The fast-fashion outlets, due to their quick and voluminous output, are changing trends very quickly to stimulate more sales. However, this means that recent purchases will go out of style sooner than ever before, which means more clothes in the trash bin.

Natural fibers—which include silk, linen, cotton and semi-synthetic fibers (think modal, rayon and Tencel)—have a similar decomposition process to food which yields methane. But it's impossible to compost these clothes.

"They've been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths," Sustainable Apparel Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey said.

The chemicals are likely to seep into groundwater if placed in a landfill or permeate the air if sent to an incinerator. This is only one of seven reasons to hate fast fashion, EcoWatch reported in November 2015.

Other materials like acrylic, nylon and polyester have a petroleum base, which means it could take many hundreds of years to fully decompose.

The problem is further intensified by Americans' growing consumption of clothing, which has doubled to 14 million tons per year in less than two decades.

How damaging is this consumption to the environment? The EPA believes that if Americans were to recycle all of their unwanted clothing, it would have the same environmental impact as removing 7.5 million cars from American highways.

There are organizations that are attempting to put a dent into this clothing waste.

Housing Works, based in New York, has sponsored a clothing recycling program which has kept approximately 6.4 million pounds of clothing out of landfills since 2011. The organization sells these clothes in several secondhand shops. However, 6.4 million pounds is only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of clothes in New York being thrown out each year.

For those living outside New York, the more obvious choice for recycling old clothes is Goodwill or the Salvation Army. However, only 20 percent of clothes donated to these organizations are resold, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. But Salvation Army maintains that it sells between 45 percent and 75 percent of its donations, while Goodwill says it sells 30 percent, and Housing Works claims to sell 40 percent.

"When it doesn't sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it," Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International, told Newsweek.

So the clothes are often bundled up and sent off to companies which recycle textiles.

There just isn't adequate demand for clothes in the U.S. to warrant the amount of clothes that are being produced, Georgetown University economics professor Pietra Rivoli said.

"People feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don't have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing," Rivoli said.

One solution to the problem may be closed-loop sourcing which Marie-Claire Daveu told Vogue is the "holy grail for sustainability in fashion."

"Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers," Daveu, who works for worldwide luxury holding company Kering, said.

This technology may not be ready for another 10 years, and may only work on textiles which have never been dyed.

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