Fashion is a concept that allows people to express their creativity and individuality. It gives consumers the ability to invent a personal and unique style, which in turn contributes to a greater sense of confidence. Essentially, fashion allows people to portray themselves in a way that they want to be seen in the world. Today’s society places great emphasis on looking a certain way to fit in and be considered “trendy.” Since many consumers are unable to afford high-cost clothing, they ultimately resort to buying similar items from low-cost brands and enter the world of fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to low-cost clothing collections that mimic current luxury fashion trends. Brands such as H&M and Zara sell fast fashion so that clothing trends can be readily accessible to everyday common consumers, while increasing the sales of these types of brands.
However, because fast fashion is in high-demand, the pressure to both reduce costs and speed up production time means that environmental corners are cut and that child and adult garment workers, from mostly third-world countries, have to work in unfavorable environments for extremely low wages. Therefore, fast fashion is both unsustainable and unethical. Instead of exploiting workers, consumers and clothing brands must strive to be eco-friendly by recycling clothing, and brands must reconsider their legal policies pertaining to involvement in labor issues.
Fast fashion has quickly grown over the past years as Americans are buying more clothes than ever. According to The Atlantic, “Americans buy five times as much clothing now as [they] did in 1980” (Cline), and according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “clothing production approximately has doubled in the last 15 years” (Drew & Reichart). Clearly, Americans are buying more clothes than are actually needed. Some people buy more than what they need because of how inexpensive fast fashion can be. They do not want to give up a bargain deal, even if it something that they will wear once. According to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, people buy clothing that they do not need because “the shopper did some well-intentioned but faulty thinking during the purchasing equation” (Yarrow). This is known as choice-support cognitive bias, in which is “the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has selected” (Ramos).
In a shopping scenario, one would try to rationalize their reasoning into buying something that they may not use simply because it was on sale. Moreover, people buy apparel because it makes them feel good about themselves; especially clothing that is high in demand. In the age of a digital world, trends spread like wildfire and people, especially the younger generation, are pressured into keeping up to date with trends. This is where these people will turn to fast fashion brands so that they can mimic what the latest designers are creating and what the latest celebrities are wearing. For example, Tommy Hilfiger is a brand with affluent apparel and it is more on the expensive side. Companies such as H&M have mimicked its red, white, and blue sweater, selling it at a much lower price. Hence, the common person is able to afford clothing that is popular, and fast fashion companies are able to remain both competitive and relevant.
The fast fashion industry is showing no signs of slowing down. According to MarketLine, a business information company, the global apparel industry is “now valued at nearly $1.4 trillion dollars in sales for 2017” and “is projected to experience 5.91% yearly growth over the next three years”(Singh). For fast fashion retailers, as there are new styles and trends to mimic, this becomes beneficial for retailers because the constant introduction of new products encourages consumers to go to stores more frequently; and this means consumers end up making more purchases.
However, with competition between all fashion brands, not just fast fashion ones, brands have to adjust to changing consumer trends and preferences. If a fast fashion company is able to jump on a big trend before competition, then the company can make big profits because people are more likely to buy clothing and accessories for a much lower price. According to Account Executive Austin Rindner, “there is a ton of increased competition in apparel [and] high end apparel brands are facing significantly more competition from fast fashion” (Stammen). Because fast fashion is produced in “fewer than six weeks,” (Lieber) high-end brands must work to keep up with production. Despite fast fashion companies benefitting from competition, as they can quickly mass produce clothing in a short amount of time compared to higher end brands, the question of how fast fashion companies accomplish this arises.
Fast fashion appears to to very beneficial, especially for American consumers because they are able to buy more clothes and spend less money at the same time. However, fast fashion has taken over the global industry at a low cost. One event that sparked attention towards the ethicality of fast fashion was the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building consisted of garment workers working for companies like Walmart and Children’s Place. The building collapsed because of the appalling conditions workers had to face and despite workers telling their managers “that they noticed cracks in the building” (Kell), they were told to continue working. This decision caused to be a catastrophe as more than 1,100 people died (Nittle). This event provided insight into what it is like working for fast fashion companies. Additionally, 80% of fast fashion laborers are women who are of 18 to 24 years old and management positions tend to be male-dominated (Barenblat).
Based on two reports by the Global Labour Justice, “more than 540 workers at factories that supply the two retaliters (GAP and H&M), have described incidents of threats and abuse” (Hodal). The reports claim that these allegations were recorded between January and May of 2018, in several third-world countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. These women face terrible abuse, but do not quit because they need the job to provide for their homes. For example, a women from a Bangalore factory was grabbed by the hair and punched and told that she was “a whore, [and her] caste people should be kept where the slippers are kept” (Hodal). Moreover, at an H&M supplier factory in Sri Lanka, a women was beat up by her supervisor as a punishment for failing to meet her “production quota” (Hodal). Women have to endure long-lasting abuse in the fast fashion industry, and many do not report the abuse they face, in fear of losing their job. And, not only do women have to undergo abuse, so do children.
Around 260 million children are employed around the world, of whom an estimated 170 million are engaged in child labour (Moulds). Inside these factories, children are exposed to harsh conditions and a “huge number of damaging chemicals including pesticides, formaldehyde, harsh acids, and toxic dyes” (Plell). Many neurological symptoms, skin diseases, and traumatic stress disorders are associated with these conditions. Moreover, cotton dust is is impossible to avoid as it clogs the air inside the factories, resulting in lung and stomach problems. The factories are hot, often poorly lit and without adequate facilities for sanitation and running water. Often, they are forced to go long hours without access to water, causing liver and kidney failure. Children are deprived of their adolescence because of fast fashion industries exploiting them. Sometimes these children have no other option but to work and can be taken out of school. According to Kelly Drennan , the founder of Fashion Takes Action “children are taken out of school, hired on the cotton field and forced to pick cotton” (Ciarallo). With all of these hazardous work conditions, comes hazardous environmental conditions.
Fast fashion leads to a crisis of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded (Tan). Because fast fashion clothing is at such a low price, the clothing is often used once and then discarded. This leads to people wanting to get rid of the clothing and an increase in environmental issues. Additionally, vibrant colours, prints and fabric finishes are appealing features of fashion garments, but many of these are achieved with toxic chemicals. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture (Perry).
In addition, according to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton “accounts for 24% and 11% of global sales of insecticides and pesticides” (Kizzart & Shelton). Cotton is the most-used fabric in fashion and requires water and agricultural chemicals. Likewise, polyester is popular fabric used for fashion. But when polyester garments are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. These microfibres can easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into waterways, but because they do not biodegrade, they represent a serious threat to aquatic life. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres, which then make their way up the food chain to fish and shellfish eaten by humans (Perry). Clearly, the fast fashion industry does more harm than good with its “unhidden” chemicals found in both clothing and the environment in general. It only worsens the environmental issues our world faces today.
As fast fashion continues to be on the rise, there are steps to ameliorate the problem. For instance, one can gradually stop purchasing clothing from fast fashion industries. Fast fashion clothing is known to be cheap and consumers should keep in mind the saying of “quality over quantity”. Even if a piece of item is really cheap, the reality is that it will not be as durable as something from a higher end brand. Moreover, recycling must be encouraged by both people and fashion brands. It is much safer for the environment if one is to recycle their clothing because it will help to divert clothing from landfills, recovering it for reuse or material recovery. To reduce the issue of labor workers in poor conditions, companies must acknowledge that their foundation comes from these workers and they must supervise and update their facilities to ensure safety.
Ultimately, the issue of fast fashion is complex, but the harmful causes and effects outweigh the economic gains certain companies receive. The inexpensive finds may be appealing, but one must understand the bigger picture and realize that the world is paying an expensive price because of fast fashion.
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