Would you think differently of the clothes you are wearing if you were aware that your affordable outfit from that fast fashion retailer was purchased at the expense of the environment and the working conditions of the workers making it? In a way, fast fashion is comparable to fast food in that it is cheap, consumed at a faster pace than you would consume a more wholesome meal, made under questionable circumstances, and just not good for us all around.
Let’s start with a brief description of fast fashion for those who are new to the terminology. Fast fashion is how we describe the rapid movement of fashion trends moving from the catwalk to the retailers. Consumers are attracted to these collections based on the latest fashion trends presented at Fashion Week but the majority of consumers are unable to afford designer prices. This is where retailers step in to have these clothes designed rapidly and inexpensively so that customers can buy these designer copycats for lower prices. Stores such as H&M, Zara, Primark, and Target are just a few of the fast fashion retailers that do this. While fashion once abided by the four seasons, now we have fifty-two weeks of fashion with new clothing items hitting the store every week.
The objective of fast fashion is to quickly produce clothes in a cost-efficient manner to respond to the changing consumer’s tastes as quickly as possible. Fast fashion has been blamed for unethical working conditions, a negative environmental impact, and the depletion of natural resources.
Demands for faster product may be placing workers’ lives at risk in developing nations. Fast fashion has been criticized for its contribution to poor working conditions in developing countries. The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013 brought attention to the dangers of fast fashion. Factory workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that have a wide range of symptoms from skin irritations, rashes, or issues with breathing to the more severe diagnosis of cancer. In some cases, the exposure to the chemicals can lead to death. The chemicals can actually linger on the clothes even after the clothes leave the factory.
The fashion industry tries to increase their profits by reducing the money spent on manufacturing, which means they push for already low prices from factories and this results in lower wages for the workers in these factories, who are already bringing in a low wage. Since this type of work does not require high-skill levels, workers accept low wages just to make any sort of income to bring home to their families. There are also the serious issues concerning child labor and forced labor where people are forced to work for nothing at all.
The parts of countries like India, China, and Bangladesh where the biggest fast fashion manufacturers are located are also the biggest user of fossil fuels. The manufacturers rely on fossil fuels such as coal to produce energy and the burning of fossil fuels then contributes to global warming.
Fast fashion is only second to the oil industry in its contribution to pollution. It has contributed to the pollution of rivers around the world, especially in Asia where a large amount of cheap clothing is made. Textiles are covered with harmful dyes which leak into the soil and water. It is no coincidence that water pollution is worse in countries that host the biggest manufacturing facilities, such as India, China, and Bangladesh.
Seeing how it is in nearly 40% of our clothing, cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and not exactly the best for the environment. Thirsty and chemically dependent, it is produced using an excessive amount of water and uses a huge amount of insecticides and pesticides. It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. The chemicals used for cotton also get into the dirt and waterways.
Fast fashion is all about quantity over quality and the article of clothing is not made to last. In fact, a few washes later and the item may look considerably worn. As the demand for fast fashion increases, so does landfill waste. Out of the over 80 billion pieces clothing that are annually produced worldwide, three out of the four outfits, made of non-biodegradable materials, will end up disposed of in landfills, with only a small percentage of them recycled.
While it is not feasible to estimate how much fuel is used to ships clothes worldwide, about 90% of clothes are transported by ships each year. Air transportation is also a popular method of transporting garments from manufacturers to retailers. As the demand for production increases, so does the high levels of carbon that fast fashion can take credit for.
Making a Change
There are many influential clothing designers, such as Eileen Fisher, Ralph Lauren, and Stella McCartney, who are doing their part to reform the industry. The consumer can also do his or her part by resisting that impulse buy and making an effort to question whether we really need another $4.00 tank top before we take out our wallet. As the consumer, we have the power to impact what goes on in the world. Now that we know the extent of the impact that fast fashion has on the environment, it is our decision whether we want to contribute. We can have a negative or positive impact on the environment and its people and make a difference simply with the purchasing decisions that we make. Hopefully, those fast fashion retailers will do the same by looking past the fast profit to the importance of the fragile world we live in and the power that they possess to make changes for the better or for the worst. Until then, the consumer can only do their part and hope that others will join in to make a difference by taking care of the environment.