17 Common Practices from the ‘90s That Were Actually Toxic by Today’s Standards

The 1990s were a decade of convenience, huge technological advancement, and fast-paced living. While these 17 things may have been commonplace throughout the decade, modern-day society would see them as toxic to communities, the planet, and individual well-being.

Overworking as a Badge of Honor

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During the 1990s, it was seen as a sign of dedication and ambition for employees to work long hours in the office. Not taking proper time for rest can lead to significant health issues, including stress, heart disease, and a higher incidence of mental health disorders.

Smoking in Public Spaces

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 46.3 million American adults classified themselves as ‘current smokers’ in 1991—25.7% of the population. With 1 in 4 adults smoking, public places such as restaurants, bars, and even some offices allowed customers and employees to smoke inside, exposing non-smokers to secondhand smoke.

Excessive Use of Disposable Plastics

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Convenience was the name of the game in the ‘90s, and as a result, there was a boom in the use of disposable plastic items like shopping bags, utensils, and containers. Ending up in landfills and oceans, these plastics pollute the environment and pose a threat to wildlife. Modern society has therefore worked to reduce single-use plastics and recycle wherever possible.

Lack of Online Privacy Protections

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The internet was very much still in its early days during the 1990s, and as it had little regulation, there was almost no protection for user privacy. This, as well as a lack of education among consumers, led to numerous high-profile cases of large-scale data breaches affecting millions of users.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion and Media

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According to Britannica, “Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.” There were numerous incidents in the ‘90s where fashion and media appropriated various cultural elements for profit, leading to a lack of authentic representation.

Minimal Awareness of Mental Health

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With limited public understanding and inadequate healthcare resources, mental health had a toxic stigma attached to it throughout this decade. Often, the lack of support meant people went untreated for mental health conditions. This paved the way for the awareness, education, and treatments we have today.

Gender Stereotypes in Career and Education

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Education and career paths were greatly influenced by gender stereotypes, with women being discouraged from pursuing careers in fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It also meant that men participated less in caregiving roles. Over the last two decades, there has been a big push to leave these stereotypes in the past and promote equal opportunities for all genders.

Unsustainable Fast Fashion

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Fast fashion became more popular than ever in the ‘90s, and brands began to offer more frequent collections at low prices. This led to a large amount of waste and environmental damage, with the fashion industry becoming one of the world’s largest polluters. 

Tolerance for Workplace Harassment

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Often overlooked, many victims of workplace harassment in the ‘90s faced retaliation or disbelief. This allowed a culture of toxic work environments, but according to the Seattle Times, “In 1998, a pair of Supreme Court rulings prompted many employers to adopt anti-harassment policies and formalize mechanisms for employees to lodge confidential complaints.”

Irresponsible Media Reporting

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Media outlets throughout the decade prioritized sensational headlines over factual accuracy, leading to people being misinformed and a rise in biased public opinion. This sensationalist reporting began to influence elections and public policies, and as a result, society turned to fact-checked ethical media sources.

Excessive Consumption of Processed Foods

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High in sugars, fats, and preservatives, the 1990s saw a rise in the consumption of ultra-processed foods. This heavily contributed to health issues such as obesity and diabetes, meaning increased healthcare costs and decreased life expectancy. It’s really only in more recent times that there has been such a strong movement towards a balanced diet rich in nutrients.

Ignorance of Environmental Concerns

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Industrial growth often took precedence over environmental issues in the ‘90s, and as a result, practices such as deforestation, unregulated industrial pollution, and high carbon emissions were commonplace. This had a severe impact on the global climate and biodiversity and is a far cry from the heightened environmental awareness we have today.

Casual Racism and Stereotyping in Entertainment

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Media and entertainment in this decade frequently used racial stereotypes, often marginalizing or misrepresenting minority groups. These portrayals of characters contributed to racism in wider society as they enforced harmful stereotypes and perceptions. Today, efforts to promote diversity and accurate representation within the media are ongoing.

Overexposure to the Sun Without Protection

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Despite growing awareness of skin cancer risks at the time, sunbathing and tanning without protection were extremely popular in the 1990s. Whether outside or on a sunbed, UV radiation is the major cause of most skin cancers, and not using sunscreen increases these risks substantially.

Dependence on Fossil Fuels

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In modern times, we are used to using renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro to power our houses and workplaces, but this wasn’t the case in the 1990s. There was a heavy reliance during this time on fossil fuels for energy, contributing to pollution and the greenhouse effect.

Normalization of Bullying in Schools

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Bullying was often dismissed as a normal part of school life in the ‘90s, and parents or teachers didn’t often intervene. Studies have shown that being bullied can lead to serious psychological trauma and negatively affect educational achievement, which is reflected in the anti-bullying campaigns integrated into modern-day education.

Glamorization of Size Zero Models

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The fashion industry of the 1990s widely promoted extremely thin ‘size zero’ models as the ideal body type. Harper’s Bazaar says, “This period in fashion is often held up as a golden time for the industry – the decade of grunge, Calvin Klein and the slip dress – but it was also the start of a deeply unhealthy beauty standard.”

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