What is Fast Fashion?
INSIDE H&M COMMERCIAL BAY
The term “fast fashion” is used to describe the business model used by some of the world’s most popular retail clothing stores such as Zara, H&M, and Urban Outfitters to name a very small few (*see 2020 fast fashion brands to avoid list here*). The model aims to replicate the freshest trends unveiled during fashion week as fast and as cheaply as possible with the largest profit margin attainable. Henceforth, the clothes produced are low quality and sold at a low price, commonly resulting in the life span of the garment being short, ending just in time for the next wave of trends.
In order to achieve the largest profit margin, fast fashion companies seek out the cheapest labor to make their products. This brings them to developing countries where they are able to exploit farmers and factory workers for an extremely low cost in order to keep up with their competitors. Although it might seem like a good deal for the consumer who’s getting a bang for their buck, the implicit costs of fast fashion are major, raising critical concerns around the fashion industry’s hazardous impact on our environment and on human lives.
Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
While there is confusion around exactly how harmful the fashion industry is to the environment, there’s no question that it is an industry that takes a large toll on our ecosystems and resources. According to a study by the Global Fashion Agenda titled “Fashion on Climate,” “the apparel and footwear industry is responsible for some 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2018, about 4 percent of the global total.” In 2014, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report titled “Valuing Plastic” that estimates around “10 to 20 million tonnes of plastic are finding its way into the world’s oceans each year.” Those tonnes include many microfiber plastics that derive from synthetic fabrics like polyester and acrylic that are commonly used in fashion production. The report states that “synthetic fibers make up over 60% of all fibers used in the clothing and accessories industry,” and when not recycled or disposed of properly, the textile waste generated contributes to the millions of tonnes of plastics ending up in our oceans annually. In addition, the use of toxic chemicals, dyes, and these man-made synthetic fabrics all contribute to consequences that have real ecological effects.
For many of the countries that host the factories producing these clothes like India and Bangladesh, the consequences of these environmental threats have brought them poisoned drinking water sources, cancerous agricultural conditions, and excessive amounts of textile waste in landfills that will stay there for at least 200 years before decomposing.
Human Rights Violations of Fast Fashion
Often when purchasing goods, the average consumer isn’t accustomed to thinking about how it came to be made, nor are they encouraged to, leaving these implicit costs relatively invisible. Within the fast fashion model, the speedy nature of its process places a strain on the agricultural industry it relies on for its fabrics. In order to keep up with demand, cotton farmers are pressed to amplify their production ultimately forcing them to genetically modify their crops. Andrew Morgan’s documentary The True Cost touches on this issue, highlighting the experiences of farmers who are a crucial part of the textile production chain. Featuring interviews with a cotton farmer (Larhea Pepper), environmental activist (Vandana Shiva), former managing director of agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, and a doctor dedicated to studying the issue (Dr. Pritpal Singh), their testimonies contextualize the harmful nature of the chemicals used to speed up cotton production on the crops, local community and the farmers alike. Once exposed to the chemicals, the crops become entirely dependent on them to grow. For the local community, many developmental diseases have been reported in children from being exposed to these toxic chemicals. In addition, many farmers have been reported to develop serious cancers that cannot be properly treated due to poor finances and, as a result, many take their own lives rather than succumb to a slow and painful death.
Still from The True Cost (dir. Andrew Morgan, 2015)
In the garment making factories, owners are forced to agree to extremely low pay since they cannot afford to lose business. As a consequence, the working conditions for their workers are extremely hazardous. One of the most widely reported catastrophes that occurred as a result of this neglect, is the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 which killed 1,134 people and left around 2,500 injured. To keep up with the fast pace of the industry, many workers are forced to work extended hours for little to no pay and sometimes even have to enforce child labor just to meet demand.
Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2013) - Getty Images
The alternative: What is Slow Fashion?
The antithesis of the fast fashion model is that of slow fashion. Slow fashion began with a focus on the ethical crisis within the fashion industry. Now that there is more awareness about the climate crisis, slow fashion now aims to target both sustainability and ethics in the production of fashion goods. Sustainable production ensures the quality and longevity of a garment in the long-term. It prioritizes the production of organic materials that are free of the interference of genetic modification, toxic chemicals, and pesticides which encourages the crop’s naturally slower growth process without harming its environment. It values the ethical and fair treatment of workers, enforcing fair wages, and safe working conditions. It also values transparency with consumers in an effort to normalize knowing where your clothes come from and encouraging brands to make an effort in combating climate change and giving back to communities in need.
This slower model allows for a more intentional production process in creating quality garments that will last the consumer a very long time with the smallest ecological and humanitarian cost possible. In contrast with the fast-fashion product, the slow fashion product is often more expensive, higher-quality, and ethically made with the idea being that the garment and the brand are worth the investment as opposed to throwing away money and clothing at a much higher rate.
How to combat Fast Fashion for beginners:
Since slow fashion often makes products at a higher price, it’s hard for people who can’t afford these more expensive brands to deflect their consumption from fast-fashion retail. However, there are many ways to transition away from fast fashion and towards more conscious consumerism.
Shop slow fashion / sustainable and ethical brands - Do your research!We’re living during a time where sustainability and ethics are becoming more and more important to brands and consumers. This means that brands are going to be trying harder to appear more eco-conscious and ethical. Keep a keen eye out for greenwashing and look into what brands are up to. Transparency is key!
*Check out this list for labels to look for ensuring the sustainability and ethics of brands and products.
*Check out this list for some sustainable and ethical brands featured on https://www.ourcommonplace.co/.
Boycott fast fashion companies, brands, and storesFast fashion retailers only stay in business if people keep buying their products. The more people who refrain from buying their products, the closer we can get to creating a more sustainable industry, resourceful economy, and a culture of conscious consumption.
Secondhand, thrift, and vintage shopping
Buying secondhand goods is a great and often cheaper alternative to buying fast fashion. You can find many fast fashion products secondhand on apps like Depop, Poshmark, or Etsy and even at your local thrift stores for even lower prices. You can also hone into and refine your own style by creatively curating unique pieces from thrift and vintage stores in your local area.
Recycle, Upcycle, and RepurposeMake it a habit to look through your wardrobe every so often to reassess what you already have. You might find pieces you’ve forgotten about or you can bring new life to old pieces by DIY customizing them into new garments entirely.
Educate!Read and watch up on the topic with some of these recommended books here and documentaries here.