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Why fast fashion jeans are bad for the environment

Okay, let’s rip the band-aid off: that favorite pair of jeans in your closet might be contributing to a major environment pollution. You don’t even need to drive – scientists say simply putting on “fast fashion” jeans is as bad as driving over six miles in a gas-guzzling car.

Environmental cost of blue jeans

Researchers at Guangdong University of Technology decided to track the environmental impact of a classic pair of jeans – from the cotton fields to the landfill. What they found is pretty shocking:

Short jeans lifespan, big impact on environment

Fast fashion jeans differ critically from traditional jeans in their quick disposal. Their low quality and emphasis on fleeting trends lead to them being worn only a few times before being tossed.

Each time a fast fashion item is manufactured and transported, it generates a significant amount (2.5 Kg) of CO2. That’s 11 times bigger of a carbon footprint than jeans you actually wear out over time.

The hidden cost of “cheap”

To keep prices low, fast fashion companies rely on a few key unsustainable practices:

  • Low-quality materials: Clothes are made from synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels, adding to pollution during production. The fabrics wear out quickly, leading to faster replacement cycles.
  • Unethical labor: To cut costs, many companies exploit workers in overseas factories where labor is cheap and regulations are lax.
  • Air transport: To keep up with trends, companies often ship clothes via air rather than sea, which releases vastly more emissions.

Difference with traditional jeans

  • Higher quality means longer wear: Classic jeans are built to last. They’re made from more durable materials which can withstand frequent wear, washing, and time itself.
  • Focus on timeless style: Traditional brands often favor classic styles that don’t quickly go out of fashion, again encouraging longer wear.
  • Potential for ethical & sustainable production: While issues exist within all garment manufacturing, companies with higher prices often have more opportunities to ensure ethical production and explore sustainable material choices like organic cotton.

“The humble wardrobe staple – a pair of jeans – has a significant impact on the environment,” notes Dr. Ya Zhou, the study’s lead author. That’s not what most of us think about when we check out the latest styles.

The problem with fast fashion isn’t the jeans themselves. It’s how we buy and discard them. Here’s the hard truth:

The illusion of need

Fast fashion isn’t just about selling clothes – it’s about creating an artificial sense of need for more. With constantly rotating trends, lightning-fast production cycles, and social media hype, brands actively create and then fulfill a feeling that you’re missing out if you aren’t always buying the latest items.

“Changing fashion trends induce people to purchase clothing frequently and use them short-lived to keep following the latest trends,” explains Dr. Zhou. “Such overconsumption has led to a significant increase in resource and energy consumption in the clothing industry.”

Manipulating value perception

By keeping prices deceptively low, fast fashion makes buying seem inconsequential. You might grab three t-shirts, but don’t feel the impact like you would with a single higher-quality item.

This disconnect between the cost and the true value (environmental, social) makes us more likely to over-consume without much thought.

Planned obsolescence

Fast fashion garments often have a built-in expiration date due to their shoddy construction and trend-focused designs. This encourages the mentality that clothes are inherently disposable – they aren’t meant to become well-loved staples of your wardrobe but rather replaceable objects.

The global trash can

The problem doesn’t end once we throw out our fast fashion items. Much of this clothing isn’t recycled, nor does it naturally biodegrade well due to its synthetic composition.

Instead, it becomes a problem for countries burdened with mountains of secondhand clothes they can’t manage, creating health and environmental hazards that persist long after the garments go out of style.

Making jeans work for the environment

The study didn’t just expose the problem, it offered some powerful ways we can change how we shop:

Buying second-hand

  • Extending a garment’s lifespan: The most significant environmental benefit of buying pre-loved jeans is that it gives a new life to a garment already made. You’re preventing the need for a brand new pair to be manufactured (with its accompanying emissions), and instead extending the usefulness of existing resources.
  • Uniqueness and creativity: Shopping secondhand fosters individual style and creativity. Rather than choosing from a mass-produced rack, you’re going on a treasure hunt to find those one-of-a-kind pieces that speak to you. The added bonus is this often encourages learning basic mending and alterations, keeping your clothes in use even longer.
  • Affordability and accessibility: Secondhand shopping is often a win for both the environment and your wallet. Thrift stores, online marketplaces, and even clothing swaps with friends open up access to quality garments at a fraction of their original price.

Rent the trend

  • Fashion without ownership: Clothing rental addresses the issue of wanting to try the latest trends without the long-term commitment. You can enjoy variety and experimentation without those new garments ever needing to take up permanent space in your closet or end up in a landfill.
  • Reduced production pressure: The popularity of rental services takes pressure off the system that demands the constant production of new apparel. When fashion trends can be experienced by multiple people via a single garment, there’s less incentive for companies to churn out such enormous collections at breakneck speed.

Recycle and repurpose

  • Minimizing landfill waste: While this is less impactful than extending the wear of a pair of jeans, it’s absolutely better than throwing them in the trash. Textile recycling programs, though not perfect, can turn old fabrics into new materials, diverting them from harmful landfills.
  • Reviving the denim: Upcycling your truly worn-out jeans is another way to squeeze those last drops of usefulness out. Denim is a surprisingly versatile material that can be transformed into bags, quilts, even insulation.

Buy new jeans but consider the environment

Choosing second-hand or recycling can cut emissions by 90%. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, but here’s the thing – consumer choices matter.

Every time you say “no” to fast fashion and take a more sustainable approach, you’re sending a message. Think of it as your own mini-protest wrapped in a stylish pair of pre-owned jeans.

Let’s turn those polluting trends around and make fashion something we can feel good about – for the planet and our closets.


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