‘Fast Fashion’ Is Just Not Fashionable for the Earth, CSUN Professors Tell Students

Two men sit at sewing machines, working on bluejeans in a clothing factory in Mumbai, India.

Indian workers sew jeans in a clothing factory in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. Photo credit: PaulPrescott72, iStock.


In the midst of a pandemic, CSUN’s Institute for Sustainability staff and faculty have remained busy and proactive — never taking their eye off the ball: Earth’s mounting climate crisis. As part of CSUN’s ongoing sustainability efforts and in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the institute presented a Water Day webinar. The April 16 session took place on Zoom, in lieu of Water Day events on campus, an annual symposium that usually draws hundreds of students and faculty to the University Student Union. Despite the change in scenery, nearly 90 viewers tuned in to the live and recorded webinar.

This year’s Water Day focused on the “fast fashion” industry and its voracious consumption of water, contamination of our water systems with microfibers, and other impacts on the environment. Fast fashion is a manufacturing process in which trendy clothes, often copied from haute couture designers and runway shows, are produced at much lower quality using synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon or regenerated fibers such as rayon. Synthetic fibers are made from petroleum-based chemicals and most of the items produced with the fibers are not recycled. These fashionable and cheap clothes are produced at a rapid pace for large, chain retailers and use an exorbitant amount of water — and the industry is bigger than ever.

The entire process of creating clothing requires water at each step, from farm to factory, and the fast fashion industry only amplifies that effect. Growing cotton needs water, as do the dyeing and finishing processes.

Many of the products and materials used to make fast fashion clothing do not decay and end up in landfills or the ocean, and eventually, back in our lives and even on our plates, said Tracie Tung, assistant professor in CSUN’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Tung presented the Water Day webinar, along with Natale Zappia, associate professor and director of the CSUN Institute for Sustainability.

“We all see the bright side, the glamour side of the fashion industry, but we never really talk about the dark side,” Tung said. “I want my students to know both the good and bad side of fashion.”

Tung shared a video, “The Story of Microfibers,” which details the effect of microfibers in our daily lives. Over time, clothing made from synthetic materials breaks down and releases these microscopic pieces of plastic and material when we wash them. Those microfibers end up down our drains and in our water systems, oceans, rivers and lakes. These tiny particles soak up chemicals, pesticides and oils, and are then eaten by fish and other sea life — entering the food chain — and eventually, human bodies, Tung said. It’s a growing problem that can be solved in various ways.

Buying and using less plastic is a start, the professors said. Buying fewer clothes, or avoiding clothing with synthetic material when purchasing new clothes, can help ease the impact. Tung also suggested buying sustainable fashion brands that are more transparent in sharing their lists of materials and production processes. She suggested sustainable brands such as Reformation, a women’s clothing and accessory brand that has fiber standards and sustainability methods, and Re/Done, which takes vintage and used jeans and remakes clothing from the fabric. In addition, look for brands that are part of the “Certified B corporations” community, which require specific environmental and business standards for certification, said Tung.

The fast fashion industry also has a major water problem. Its massive use of water spills into other areas of society, especially in a dry state like California, which is prone to severe droughts and wildfires.

An estimated 2 billion T-shirts are produced worldwide every year, according to “The Life Cycle of a T-shirt,” a second video shared during Water Day. To produce just one shirt, it takes an average of 2,700 liters of water. That’s enough to fill 30 bathtubs. An equally impactful downside to fast fashion’s need for raw materials are the pesticides and chemicals used when farming and producing materials for fast fashion clothing.

To produce one pair of new jeans, you would have to run your garden hose for 106 hours, use enough electricity to power a computer for 556 hours, and drive 78 miles in your car to equal the carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report by Levi’s, Tung said.

“That’s stunning to think about, that impact,” Zappia said. “I was aware of the labor piece, and even some of the supply chain [process], like the fossil fuels that are burned to ship stuff — but not even thinking about consumption itself, the [carbon dioxide], the water and all these things.”

Tung and Zappia are passionate about doing what they can to pass along knowledge to the next generation — college students and their peers — to raise awareness about the fast fashion industry, and many other sustainability topics.

The professors are teaming up to create a fashion sustainability ambassador program, which would give students the opportunity to focus on sustainability issues in the fashion industry. They plan to offer a series of six intensive and hands-on workshops that will feature industry leaders and experts from the Los Angeles fashion industry, Zappia said. The program is in its early brainstorming phase, Tung said, but they aim to educate individuals on campus and across the region about sustainability within the fashion industry, through a two-semester program. Tung and Zappia are looking to launch the program in the spring 2021 semester.

Other topics covered in the webinar included usability of returned or unsold clothing items. A lot of returned clothes end up in landfills instead of being repackaged and resold by fast fashion companies, while luxury brands attempt to maintain exclusivity by burning unsold or returned inventory. CSUN’s efforts to manage clothing consumption by reusing department themed shirts and limiting items like tote bags at department events are necessary in the fight for sustainability, said Zappia.

To close out the webinar Tung and the Zoom session attendees discussed Goodwill’s role (and similar companies) in fashion sustainability as well coronavirus’ effect on the future of the fashion industry and upcoming fashion catalogs.

The Institute of Sustainability held a second Zoom session for Water Day concerning water and electricity at CSUN led by Nikhil Schneider, an energy and sustainability coordinator at CSUN’s Facilities Planning, Design and Construction.

“From my perspective, to be a responsible citizen on this planet,” Tung said, “we do need to rethink the way we use consumer products.”

To learn more, watch the complete Water Day webinar online.

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