A Wolf in Cheaps Clothing
As a young professional, I found myself dreading the task of creating a work wardrobe. Everything was either out of budget, not my style, not professional enough, or just downright uncomfortable to wear.
Enter: fast-fashion brands like SHEIN, ZAFUL, Zulily, and more. They’ve got a monopoly on social media, squeezing in ads everywhere they can and sponsoring influencers who film themselves unpacking huge “hauls” (large orders) for low prices. And it’s no wonder, the clothes are so cute, and so cheap! From wardrobe staples to adorable accessories, almost any budget-conscious consumer would think this is a perfect place to start! … Right? Well, it might not be that easy. More and more frequently, reports are popping up about the dangers of fast fashion, both to people and the environment.
In 2021, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) released an episode of Marketplace titled “Toxic Clothing,” in which the main reporter ordered a variety of items, including maternity and children’s clothes, from six different online retailers. Upon receipt of the items, she submitted them to the laboratory of Environmental Chemist Miriam Diamond at the University of Toronto. The items were analyzed for heavy metals, phthalates, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and the results were quite concerning.
Among the most dangerous pieces were a small red purse and a children’s tan trench coat. These items contained levels of lead greater than 5× and 20× the Canadian limit for lead in children’s products, respectively. Those results were quite shocking, and Professor Diamond declared, “I think this trench coat is hazardous waste.”
I was appalled by these results, and knew I had to learn more. Through some online detective work, I found contact information for Professor Diamond herself, and I had the privilege of speaking with her about the use of lead in clothing. She pointed out that even though we are aware of how “unequivocally toxic” it is, the bright, eye-catching colors that dominate novelty fashion require heavy metal-based dyes. There are alternatives, she says, but with an “induced need for fast fashion” originating from celebrities and online influencers, complex supply chains, and profits as the priority, many manufacturers choose the cheapest options to make the biggest bucks.
One of the raincoats tested was found to contain PFAS levels greater than 220 ppb. For reference, the US EPA is currently proposing a 4.0 ppt drinking water limit. Wearing this item for its intended purpose would also result in runoff, potentially causing the very drinking water contamination that we are trying to avoid. The most frustrating part to Professor Diamond here is that there are alternatives that kept us just as dry before PFAS. Additionally, there was a clear handbag from ZAFUL with high levels of phthalates. However, ZAFUL recalled the product and refunded customers for after being notified of the results.
All in all, 20% of the items ordered across three of the six brands (SHEIN, ZAFUL, and AliExpress) were flagged for elevated levels of PFAS, phthalates, or heavy metals. Somewhat comforting is the fact that SHEIN did remove all the flagged products from its Canadian website, though I couldn’t verify this for other countries.
While the effects of these chemicals on our bodies aren’t immediate, they are impactful. Heavy metals can cause developmental issues in fetuses and children, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, and PFAS have been linked to increased cancer risks. Not only are these chemicals shuttled into our waterways when we wash contaminated clothes, they can also absorb into our skin as we wear them. One other point of emphasis for Professor Diamond is the effects on those who make the clothing we wear; we crave incredibly cheap fast fashion while imperiling the people who are making the items.
On top of the toxicity and environmental impact of these items, they simply aren’t the best quality. A cursory glance at the items received by the Marketplace Team found holes, unraveling seams, thin material, and inaccurate advertising with respect to sizing.
When this episode originally aired, Health Canada’s response indicated that it was up to companies to ensure that products are safe. I asked Professor Diamond whether she knew of any regulation changes that had been made since, and she pointed out that because these retailers are operating online and shipping from outside of the country, it is much more difficult to regulate what they produce. However, media and consumer pressure may be able to turn the tide; if fast-fashion retailers see their target demographic demanding better quality and safer products, it may encourage the change we want to see. Unfortunately, without compliance monitoring in place, there’s no way to be fully confident in the origin of our clothes.
So, what can we do? Here are some general tips for sustainable wardrobe creation:
- Try thrifting! Recycling clothes keeps them out of the landfill, and it’s a bit gentler on the budget. I know not everyone can afford to jump right into the most sustainable clothing options, including myself!
- Don’t forget to keep an eye on what brands you’re picking up! Super-fast fashion barely lasts long enough to thrift, so keep an eye out for hidden gems – high-quality brands that are made to last.
- If you can buy new, invest in more sustainable brands – there are plenty of websites dedicated to evaluating brands on their sustainability, as well as other criteria such as ethics, quality, size inclusivity, and more! You may spend more money upfront, but chances are the pieces will last longer.
- Weigh your pros and cons when it comes to fiber content. No textile is entirely eco-friendly. Cotton production uses a lot of water and pesticides, for example. However, being an organic fiber means that it is biodegradable, unlike nylon and acrylic, which break down into microplastics, another major pollutant.
- Learn to mend clothes instead of throwing them away at the first sign of wear. You’d be surprised how much longer a piece can last, and you don’t need to be a professional to make small fixes!