BY SABINA GRIEBEL
The rising popularity of fast fashion provides people with cheap, trendy clothing - at an extreme social and environmental cost. This article examines the problems behind both fast fashion and the fashion industry as a whole.
Art by Anusha Goswami
Websites such as Shein and Romwe have become increasingly popular amongst young people. The websites offer trendy clothing for extremely low prices, an incentive hard to resist. More traditionally, stores such as Forever 21 or Topshop offer similar options, though less cheap. The term for companies such as these is fast fashion.
Fast fashion refers to clothing made quickly and cheaply, increasing the inflow of clothes and allowing consumers to pay low prices.
The business model behind fast fashion is extremely lucrative. Fast fashion companies imitate high fashion trends and designs to then mass produce them. Using cheap labor often overseas, the brands can then sell their items at low costs while still maintaining a wide profit margin.
Fast fashion is a modern invention, as the fashion industry used to only release up to four collections a year. For most of human history, manufacturing clothing was an expensive, time-consuming process that meant the vast majority of people had limited wardrobes. The Industrial Revolution eased the production of clothing, and mass-produced clothing became a reality in the mid-twentieth century. Since then, the environmental effects of the fashion industry have only been more and more obvious.
The fabrics used in clothing production are often huge pollutants.
Cotton is called ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’. It uses 16% of the world’s pesticides, many of which have been shown to be poisonous. Pesticides used in cotton production cause water eutrophication — in which pesticides deplete oxygen in water — causing algae bloom and killing fish. Wool and leather are damaging to the environment as well, as animal-rearing is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Photo courtesy of Conserve Energy Future showing how water eutrophication causes the death of aquatic species.
Synthetic fibers are major pollutants as well. Synthetic polyester, for example, is manufactured from a chemical reaction between coal, petroleum, air, and water. Coal and petroleum are fossil fuels, and release air pollutants when burned.
Polyester is also nonbiodegradable; when polyester and other synthetic fiber clothing is washed, microplastics are released into local waterways.
These problems are everywhere in the fashion industry; fast fashion, however, only exacerbates these issues.
Fast fashion brands produce much more clothing than most traditional brands in an attempt to constantly keep up with the latest trends. This means more clothing produced faster, increasing the detrimental byproducts of manufacturing. Despite the cheap prices, as much as 20% of clothes produced are never purchased. In 2018, H&M was left with $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory. Ultimately, most surplus inventory ends up directly in landfills.
The problem is not just with companies; the average American bought 68 garments in 2018, wearing each one approximately seven times before disposal. It doesn’t help that the clothing fast fashion brands produce is remarkably low-quality, meaning they often fall apart after little wear and tear.
To keep costs low, fast fashion companies employ a number of morally dubious practices. Sweatshops are the basis of labor in fast fashion brands. Sweatshops are workplaces where workers make low wages and suffer unhealthy conditions. Workers in sweatshops do not make livable wages, are subject to dangerous machinery and materials, and are often victims of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. More than 170 million children work in the textiles and garment industry around the world. While most think of sweatshops as a problem of the developing world — after all, 60% of clothing is manufactured in developing countries — sweatshops exist in places such as Los Angeles and Leicester in the United Kingdom. Into today, big name brands such as Adidas, Forever 21, and Victoria Secret continue to use sweatshop labor.
Workers in garment factories face horrible working conditions to horrible ends. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 killed 1,134 people and injured another 2,500. Cracks were discovered in the building the day before the structural failure; the building’s owners ignored the warnings and ordered garment workers to return the next day. It is the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history. It is, however, only one of many factory fires, collapses, and other such disasters.
Even the daily work in sweatshops and garment factories harm the workers. Because buildings are often poorly ventilated or temperature-controlled, dust and smoke inhalation, chemical exposure, and exhaustion all negatively affect the health of workers.
There are moral qualms about what some claim is fast fashion brands stealing designs; more recently, these brands look not only to the catwalk but to social media. Time and time again, independent designers discover that their viral designs are being mass-produced by big name companies, who are able to recreate trendy, coveted, and expensive items for cheap. Consumers, of course, realize they can buy the t-shirt everyone is wearing on Instagram for far cheaper than the original. Unfortunately, outdated copyright law in the United States categorizes fashion as ‘manufacturing’ rather than ‘art’, denying it many protections other fields enjoy. This leaves independent designers at risk of having their designs stolen and sold.
Both the fashion industry and fast fashion at large are damaging to the environment, workers, and designers.
Slow fashion is offered as an alternative. Slow fashion manufacturing focuses on ethical processes, both for workers and the environment. The movement rejects consumerism, encouraging customers to shop locally and buy higher quality and durable garments. Mindful, conscious buying with an emphasis on the long-term, proponents argue, changes one’s relationship with clothing and fashion.
Overall, consumers have to change their mindset toward fashion. Instead of focusing on trendy clothing to be worn once, we must all grow accustomed to buying fewer items for higher prices. While possibly unfulfilling in the short-term – especially in contrast to fast fashion – a small wardrobe filled with long-lasting clothing will help move our society forward toward a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle.