What is fast fashion, and how does it impact us and the world we live in? This post will examine the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion movement.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is a term used to describe retailers who manufacture fashion items at an increasingly rapid pace and affordable rate. Think of retailers like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, etc. We’re all familiar with fast fashion stores, but what specific factors differentiate fast fashion from traditional retail?
Rapid Manufacturing Timeline
If you’ve ever been inside Forever 21 or Zara, you’ll notice it seems like they have completely new inventory on an almost daily basis. Traditional retailers release new clothing and accessories seasonally- spring, summer, autumn, and winter styles. Fast fashion compresses these cycles to release new styles every few weeks. The aim of fast fashion is to minimize as much as possible the time between production to consumption. These companies deliver new clothing and accessories to stores every few weeks.
Another main tenant of fast fashion is providing trendy clothes to the consumer as soon as they’re debuted on the runway. Fast fashion copies trends spotted at fashion week every spring and fall, and presents them to consumers at an affordable price.??Fast fashion poses a threat since its logic is based on copying the designs of high-end producers and quickly diffusing them?sometimes even before the high-end goods, which are based on a complicated and high quality supply chain, are distributed. As such, it mines the overall investment in style by design departments of high end producers.” (US News).
One noticeable factor of fast fashion is the widespread availability of low cost garments and accessories. Goods are designed quickly and inexpensively. ?Buyers can afford to fill their closets with the latest trends, and then toss them as soon as they go out of style. Rather than designing classic pieces that are meant to last, fast fashion focuses on a constant cycle of consumerism. Pieces are trendy and lower quality, so they don’t last as long. But just as soon as you dispose of one item, you can buy three more.
So What’s the Problem Here?
Low-cost, trendy clothes delivered to stores on a weekly basis?! That sounds pretty awesome. As a former fast fashion connoisseur, I thought stores like Forever 21 and Zara were a godsend. I couldn’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a new outfit, and I wanted to be able to buy all the latest trends. I absolutely love shopping, and nothing beats the thrill of finding that perfect new dress for only $14.99.
After years of shopping like this, my closet is overflowing with low cost pieces. I felt like I was finally able to afford all of the clothes I needed to be perceived as trendy and fashionable. But in all this excitement, I never paused to consider the actual cost of my habits. I was too busy buying more to take a step back and ponder. How could a pair of skinny jeans possibly cost $7.99? Where were retailers cutting corners to get the cost so low?
The True Cost of Fast Fashion
The biggest factor that inspired a lot of folks (myself included) to learn more about ethical fashion is the documentary “The True Cost” (it’s on Netflix). This film exposes the life of low wage garment workers in developing nations. It specifically dives into the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse, when an 8-story factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people. The worst part is that several days before the collapse, concerns were raised about visible cracks in the building. But in an environment where factories are in a race to cut costs, these concerns were ignored. Our obsession with fast fashion is driving the demand for factories to cut corners – environmentally and ethically.
“The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. The True Cost… pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider, who really pays the price for our clothing?” -Andrew Morgan, Director, The True Cost
Social Impact of Fast Fashion
- Pressure to Cut Costs Leads to Poor Working Conditions:?Thanks to increased demand for lower and lower costs, garment manufacturers have to save money somewhere. They’re all competing for contracts with large retailers, and whichever factory can produce for the lowest cost wins. So they cut corners. Factories don’t pay their workers a living wage. They cut corners when it comes to the safety of their buildings, machines, and air quality. They classify workers as “contractors” so they don’t have to provide benefits and can instantly fire workers who don’t put up with their abuse. Young women make up the majority of garment workers, and they are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.
- Creates a Disconnect between Consumers and Their Clothing:?Before the rise of fast fashion, clothes shopping was more of an “event.” Outfits were pricier, so buyers carefully selected and evaluated their purchases. Purchases were more intentional. Shoppers took their time to consider whether they really needed an item and how it fit in their existing wardrobe. Now, you can hop over to H&M and buy 12 new outfits on your lunch break. We don’t put as much thought into selecting and caring for our clothes, because we can always buy more.
- Encourages Culture of Dissatisfaction and Constantly Wanting More:?Since we don’t feel any meaningful connection to our wardrobe, we are left constantly wanting more. Rather than appreciating what we have, the constantly changing trends and new styles of fast fashion leaves us feeling perpetually inadequate. Sure, that romper was cute as hell two weeks ago, but now you just have to have that floral midi dress. It’s never enough. With new styles arriving in stores every week, there’s always something more that you “need.” Fast fashion marketing thrives on you shopping again and again to scope out the new finds. They capitalize on your feelings of FOMO to compel you to come back and buy more.
Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
- Pressure to Cut Costs Leads to Cutting Environmental Corners:?As explained earlier, the demand for increasingly low costs forces garment manufacturers to cut corners. This is particularly harmful in an industry that is the second largest polluter in the world. When the bar is already set so low, this race to the bottom has a profound environmental impact. The environmental impact starts all the way at the beginning of garment production: water use and pesticides used to grow natural fibers, and carbon emissions from the creation of synthetic fibers. During the dying and finishing process,?additives are used which can be toxic to human health, marine life, and the environment. Manufacturers cut costs by dumping toxic wastewater into local waterways, often dying the entire river an unnatural hue. Although less toxic chemicals and processes are becoming available, fast fashion manufacturers simply will not pay the increased cost to implement these.
- Disposable Nature of Fast Fashion Increases Waste:?Simply put: our clothing is not made well, and we’re not connected to it. So we wear it few times, then toss it out and buy new stuff. We fool ourselves into thinking that our used clothing is going to some orphanage in Haiti, when in reality most if it ends up in the landfill. Rather than buying a few select pieces that we love and wearing them until they fall apart, we buy massive amounts of cheap clothes that fall apart after a few wears. When you consider the environmental impact of each item of clothing, from fiber production to dying to shipping across the world, it really is a shame to consider it disposable after just a few wears.
You Can Help Change this Industry
My intent is not to villainize?fast fashion retailers or make you feel like a horrible person for wearing their clothes. Up until a few months ago, I was a fast fashion connoisseur. I truly had no idea about the industry’s social or environmental impact. So now I want you all to feel empowered as informed, intentional shoppers. As a consumer, you hold the power. You decide which companies to support, and you define your relationship with your wardrobe. So let’s go out there and show this industry that we do care about how our clothes our made.