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Sustainability in the age of fast fashion

(Photo Courtesy of Science Friday)

When people think about how to minimize their environmental impact, they often turn to trying to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, reusable grocery bags and composting. 

This may be changing with the renewed attention on climate change and recent protests of youth across the world — sustainability and climate solutions are now more forefront in people’s minds. 

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist,  sailed nearly 3,000 miles from England to New York City to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Thunberg sailed in order to bring attention to the carbon footprint of air travel.  

While not everyone can be Greta Thunberg, many young people are taking to the streets to march for climate change awareness. 

Students Spark Change

(Photo Courtesy: Science Friday)

Rachel Chamberlain, a student at Utah State University studying conservation and restoration ecology, organized a climate strike march that over 200 people attended in Logan, Utah, in September.

Chamberlain said that Greta Thunberg inspired her to take action because “no one is taking [the climate crisis] seriously enough.”

Kelsey Barber, a junior at studying physics with a minor in environmental studies, decided to do something on Westminster College’s campus. Barber started the group Students for Climate Solutions with her friend Hailey Brookins.

To Barber, sustainability means “doing as much as you can to mitigate the negative impacts that you have on the earth.”

But sustainability issues can’t be addressed by just grabbing our reusable grocery bags on the way to the store — we also have to think about what we’re wearing.

Sustainability and Fast Fashion

Most people are familiar with fast fashion. However, few people pause to consider the consequences of buying a cheap shirt or pair of pants in order to keep up with the latest Kardashian.  

As awareness increases, some people are becoming more cognizant of the negative impacts of the fast fashion industry on the environment and adjusting their behavior. 

 Deseret Industries is a non-profit thrift store and donation center. Known as the D.I., it is only a 25 minute walk from Westminster College and a place to pick up or donate gently used items instead of buying new clothing which is not environmentally sustainable.
(Madison Hales)

“I think the main problem with the fashion industry, and specifically the fast fashion industry, is that people don’t think when they see a $10 shirt” Barber said. “They don’t think about what the implications of that shirt being $10 are. You have to think about the steps that are missed in order to make your clothing super cheap and super accessible.” 

Dana Thomas, the author of “Fashionopolis, The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes” spoke about her new book and the issues surrounding the fast fashion industry in a recent Marketplace Podcast with Kai Ryssdal.

“Fashion has grown from a $500 million a year business to a $3 trillion a year business, in the matter of decades,” Thomas said. “We throw away millions of tons worth of clothes every year, we burn through clothes and we keep them less and less. The average garment is worn seven times before it’s thrown away. In China, it’s three times.”

Thomas went on to say in the podcast that once people know about the issues, they care.

The fast food industry was something that Thomas pointed out in the podcast, saying that people didn’t realize what was going on behind the scenes for many years. When it comes to the fashion industry, Thomas wanted to make a similar connection. 

“I tried to do that with the fashion business and show […] this is where our cotton comes from and that synthetic indigo, that is used in our jeans, is not good for you,” Thomas said. “That the mountains that are going to landfill do not disintegrate or biodegrade because they are made of polyester and polyester is plastic.” 

Uptown Cheapskate is a local fashion exchange, located below Westminster On The Draw. At Uptown Cheapskate you can find gently used name brand clothes for a fraction of the price –you can even get cash depending on what you bring in.
(Madison Hales)

Instead of walking into a store like Zara or Forever21, Chamberlain, who spearheaded the climate strike march in Logan, Utah, urges shoppers to check out their local second-hand thrift store.

“We throw away so many good, useful and beautiful things, it is ridiculous,” Chamberlain said. “Most people think things are gross or out of date, but that is actually where the coolest treasures lie.” 

Second-hand thrift stores are more than just a place to find an oversized shirt for a high school theme dance. Chamberlain said that she gets everything “from clothing, shoes, furniture, art, camping supplies, ski gear, cook wear, and bikes” from second-hand stores.

Barber said it’s important to remember, especially in the fashion industry, to use the Three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle. 

On the Marketplace podcast, Thomas echoed the same sentiment saying, “We need to put integrity back into our shopping and into our purchases. We need to buy things that we really care about and not just consume for the sake of consuming.”

Change within Government and Corporations

An NPR podcast, Science Friday, posed the question to its viewers on an episode that aired on September 20: “Can this industry—which is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions—really shed its wasteful business model in favor of one with a lower carbon footprint?”

Some people, including Erik Olson from The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, think that change needs to come from the government and not just from shifts in consumer preferences and awareness. 

In an email, Olson said he submitted his letter “Let’s get to work on air pollution and climate” to the Salt Lake Tribune because “we know what the tools are and how they can be implemented, but are still dragging at the state and federal level.”

(Photo Courtesy: Science Friday)

Some Utah politicians agree. John Curtis, an American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Utah’s 3rd congressional district, recently said on Facebook “Let me shock you. You ready? The climate is changing and man is influencing it.”

Politicians have the tools, but they may be slow to do anything about it. In the meantime, student groups are trying to raise awareness and get people to change their habits. They are also encouraging people to get involved in politics and support politicians who are advocating for environmentally friendly policies.

“Supporting certain political careers can really make a difference in making moves towards something that is more environmentally sustainable,” said Kelsey Barber, co-founder of Westminster’s Students for Climate Solutions Group.

Clothing isn’t going anywhere, but there are things that consumers can do to make better choices. 

“If you’re buying excess clothes from a thrift store, that’s not really doing anything,” Barber said. “You are still accumulating all of these items. The biggest thing is to reduce the amount of clothing that you’re buying.”


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Madison Hales is a senior communication major. She enjoys being a part time vegan, shoe shopping and spending time with her grandmother. Madison is eager to use the skills she has acquired in the real world.

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