New to the conversation of fast fashion? Start here with a fast fashion 101.
The Rise of Fast Fashion
When ‘fast fashion’ came onto the scene, it was heralded as a revolutionary and innovative business model. Why? Due to globalization and the increasing popularity of the free market, companies began outsourcing their production to lower income countries.
Economically, this was a huge benefit for the fashion industry. It meant that brands could mass produce clothes, much quicker and much more frequently than before, for far less cost. Thus, ‘fast fashion’ was born.
Popular stores such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 can credit their success to this fast fashion model. Companies started bringing out new trends every week, instead of just every season. That means instead of 2-4 collections a year that aligned with the seasons, there’s up to 52 collections a year – encouraging excessive purchases and making it nearly impossible for consumers to keep up.
The developing nations that were producing these clothes, such as China, welcomed the industry. The boom helped their economy grow and strengthen, bringing many people out of poverty. The industrialization has even been credited with empowering women in these countries and drastically reducing the amount of suicides.
While this may be true, just because the situation is arguably better now than it was previously doesn’t necessarily mean it’s objectively ‘good’. Workers in these low income countries are often forced to work in unsafe or hazardous conditions, an issue brought to light after the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, where over a thousand garment workers died to to a building collapse in Bangladesh.
These workers (80% of which are women) are basically trapped, with no leverage or regulation available to better their working conditions. As a result, they are overworked, underpaid and generally exploited.
One of worst parts of all this is these brands are making so much money that they could easily pay their workers a living wage if they wanted to. However, they side-step responsibility by outsourcing the work and not taking an active interest in their supply chain, meaning that factories constantly squeeze the worker’s pay or time in order to be more competitive. This is commonly referred to as ‘the race to the bottom’.
Aside from the social issues, there are other consequences that need to be considered as well. By not actively managing their supply chain, brands often neglect to monitor the negative effect that their clothes production has on the natural environment.
Some of the more commonly known issues include:
- Cotton is a thirsty plant. It’s estimated that producing just one cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 litres. Not ideal in a world where water scarcity is a real issue.
- Polyester, a common cheaper alternative, but not necessarily better. Polyester is an oil based fabric and causes much more CO2 emissions during production. It also can take up to 200 years to biodegrade.
- The dyeing of textiles is not only water intensive (and arguably wasteful) but also releases toxic chemicals into local waterways. Dye houses in India and China are notorious for not only exhausting local water supplies, but for dumping untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers. The documentary River Blue points out that there is a joke in China “You can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers”.
- The ongoing transport of these materials and clothes around the world also increases the CO2 emissions associated with the fashion industry.
Of course, this is just a brief overview. There are many more, very nuanced further issues regarding fashion production, all depending on the material, location and brand involved. However, there is one overarching issue, and it’s arguably the biggest one of all: excessive waste due to excessive consumption.
Because fast fashion exploits workers in low income countries, they are able to offer their clothes at extremely cheap prices. By discounting clothes so drastically, they’ve essentially become disposable in today’s society. You can buy a dress for the weekend for the same price as lunch, which is crazy when you think about it.
This combination of new trends coming out every week and clothes being so unbelievably cheap means that many are caught up in a cycle of buy, wear a few times, and throw it away. Consuming and then disposing in such large volumes creates an excessive waste problem.
The average American will throw away up to 81 pounds of clothing in just one year. It’s not just Americans either – it’s a global issue. Landfills around the world are filling up with cheap textiles. And yet, we’re still globally consuming and disposing of more and more fashion, wasting scarce resources and causing copious amounts of pollution.
So, what’s the solution? Rethinking traditional business models, using innovations and technology and supply chain management would all go a long way to help make fashion more sustainable and ethical.
There’s also many great programs out there that are trying to revolutionize the fashion industry – some of which you can integrate into your everyday lives. One of the better known innovations is the Good on You App – you can check how sustainable or ethical a brand is while out shopping on the go.
Unfortunately, due to the large production amounts and constant turnover, fast fashion can never truly be sustainable. As a consumer, the best way to help is to educate yourself on the issues, and simply buy less.
Written by Demi Barclay. Demi is an Australian who has been working and living in Berlin for the past year in content management. Prior to Berlin, she lived in Sydney where she worked in a design and advertising agency for a few years, with many clients in the retail industry. Since being in Berlin and learning about the dire consequences of fast fashion, Demi completely changed her attitude towards clothes. See the full infographic and sources from this research project here.