Remember that skirt that you just HAD to have because it was so inexpensive? The same skirt that you wore once and has been sitting in the back of your closet since? That’s fast fashion. There has been a lot of talk recently about moving away from fast fashion, but what is it? And what can we do as consumers to combat the practice?
Fast Fashion is defined by Investopedia as, “inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends.”
The goal is to produce an item as quickly as possible that is cost efficient while also responding to the ever changing consumer demands. Retailers assume that consumers want runway styles at low prices and with new items constantly being put out consumers are constantly in stores. However this encourages a throw away attitude, consumers no longer keep items long term because trends change so often and it is very inexpensive to buy something new. Most of us have probably shopped at fast fashion retailers, the top being: Zara, H&M, Gap, Forever21, and Topshop.
One of the major problems is the detrimental effect it has on the environment. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world. There are so many toxic chemicals used to achieve the colors and prints that you adore and the constant pressure to reduce costs and production time causes many manufacturers to cut environmental corners. One of the most widely used fabrics, polyester, sheds microfiber when it is washed. Those microfibers add to the levels of plastic in the oceans and work their way up the food-chain into the fish and shellfish that we consume. Another major fabric, cotton, requires large levels of water and pesticides to make, further harming our water supplies. It is not the act of creating these fabrics that is so harmful but the rate at which they are being made. Textile waste is a huge problem, people are constantly buying more clothes so manufacturers are having to create clothing at a much higher volume and faster. Most think it is cheaper to buy a new product rather than to have an item repaired and many do not have the sewing skills to repair their own garments. While more organic and slow fashion products do still have negative impacts on the environment it is not nearly as close to the impact that fast fashion has.
There are initiatives in place to push back on the negative impact fashion has on the environment. The Greenpeace Detox My Fashion campaign was created seven years ago to stop the pollution of waterways by fashion companies and so far all 80 companies that have participated have made major steps to eliminate certain chemicals from their production-line. Wrap’s Love Your Clothes initiative teaches people about the value of their clothing and provides information on how to better think about the way that people are purchasing their clothes and how to use and dispose of them properly.
Not only does fast fashion hurt the environment, it also hurts the people who are creating these products. According to The Guardian, of the 60-75 million people that work in the garment industry, 80% of them are women and most are not being paid a living wage, that is if they are being paid at all. Many companies will outsource their production so that they are able to produce clothing as cheaply as possible, however bad practices are also being done in the US. Workers are being paid below minimum wage, making as little as $4 and on average $7 an hour for 10 hour work days. Many retailers do not face consequences because the laws hold the manufacturing companies accountable instead.
While receiving little to no pay, garment workers often work in extremely harsh conditions. The work environments do not meet health and safety standards, poor ventilation results in excessive heat and dust accumulation making it difficult to breathe, there are rats and roaches, they work without training resulting in puncture wounds and burns, and there is rarely a first aid kit. Workers even have to pay for toilet paper themselves and are forced to use bathrooms that are not cleaned. Many manufacturers use undocumented immigrants in their factories and the fear of deportation keeps the workers from unionizing and reporting the conditions. One of the deadliest factory catastrophes in recent history, the Rana Plaza Disaster in 2013 killed over 1100 people and injured thousands more. The factory conditions were not up to standard because manufacturers kept cutting costs to in order to produce cheaper clothing. To combat these issues and to take more responsibility many brands have taken up a pledge of transparency, the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge requires participating companies to publish, and update regularly, a lists of all the sites where their products are manufactured. With this information being public knowledge companies are more likely to make sure that their workers are getting all of their rights and work in good conditions.
Fast fashion also has negative effects that are less physical. The major key to fast fashion is that it is fast. Retailers are constantly pushing out new styles and designs on a weekly basis and often to compensate for this they steal designs from smaller brands and the huge growth of social media has allowed designers to be knocked off much more frequently. Often times a designer can post on Instagram or a celebrity can show off a one of a kind design and by the next day fast fashion retailers will have it up on their sites. Because copyright laws were created when there were no huge American fashion houses (many major fashion houses are based in Europe) fashion is not fully protected under American copyright law and it is a very tricky subject.
Most of the advantages of fast fashion are for the retailers and the consumer. Consumers can now change their look and style as often as they want without breaking their budget because clothes are so cheap. With constant new design roll-outs there is always something new to see and it allows people to keep up with constantly changing trends. Retailers are able to make large profit gains very fast and recover from losses easily because they are putting so little into production.
|Fast Fashion Brands||Ethical/Slow |
Gap and Old Navy
TJ Maxx and Marshalls
And many more
How You Can Help
You may think one person cannot change the huge fast fashion industry, but if everyone decides to take small steps to help make changes then there will be a large impact. Some ideas are recycling your old clothing by giving them to donation centers (Goodwill is a major one) and re-purposing the clothing that you have (hello, Pinterest !). A major way to help is to buy second-hand, shop at thrift stores, swap clothes with friends, or even raid your parent’s closet (you never know what you may find, as we know fashion is cyclical). If you aren’t into being thrifty, start purchasing your clothing from more slow/ethical fashion brands like some of the ones I listed above, shop less and buy higher quality items that will last you longer and above all be more conscious of where your clothes are coming from.
Here are some resources for you to learn more about fast fashion: “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth L. Crine, The True Cost documentary, “Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry”, and “The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics”.