Fashion used to be something that changed only with the seasons each year. Or when you outgrew your clothes. and all you had was your style to maintain any semblance of sanity. But things speeded up around 2 decades ago. Fast fashion happened. And with it came monumental changes.
The arrival of fast fashion into our lives made clothes cheaper. The trend cycles also became shorter, and shopping became a hobby, and then move on to being a manic obsession.
All the brick-and-mortar stores and online fashion sites started selling trendy clothes, and the latest fashion. And they were rock bottom cheap. You could wear such clothes a couple of times and then move on to the next trend in fast fashion. You suddenly became the equal of your fashion icon.
People were too caught up in the latest trend to wonder at the true cost of the dirt-cheap fashion. Fast fashion could be defined as insanely cheap but trendy clothing that stole ideas from the celebrity culture or the catwalks and turned them into mass demand garments.
Shoppers adopted fast fashion outfits immediately but also discarded them just as quickly. And that worked quite well for the fashion industry. The idea was that repeating a trend was a fashion disaster and to stay relevant, one had to don the latest trends in real-time.
It led to a toxic system of excess production and consumption, leading to fashion turning into the world’s greatest polluters.
The Start Of Fast Fashion
Back in the 19 century, fashion trends were slow and stayed steady for a long period. The focus was more on depending on local help and trends for wear that were more about the materials available locally and the demands of the profession and the weather.
The Industrial Revolution brought in new technologies. Starting with the sewing machine, clothes became a mass-produced product. Making clothes passed from the hands of the households to specialized shops and manufacturers. They used teams of workers to make the garments. Sweatshops emerged where workers churned out clothes on a large scale for poverty-level wages. They were accident-prone and led to numerous disasters.
New trends emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and fashion become a means to express personal statements. But there remained a yawning gap between fast fashion and the fashion on the streets.
But the last decade of the 20th century saw the start of the online trend that pushed low-cost fashion to the top. The latest fashion trends were quickly copied from the internet and hit the street within days of being launched on the cat-walks of the fashion capitals of the world.
Identifying Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is defined by thousands of the latest trends and designs that are dirt-cheap imitations.
It has an extremely short fashion life. The turnaround period between the time the fashion trend hits the sidewalk and the time it was first seen in celebrity media or catwalks has gone down to a few days.
Fast fashion is primarily about keeping expenses low. Manufacturing was outsourced to developing nations with cheap labor costs and lax labor laws. The workers had no access to rights or safety measures. The supply chains were complex and had poor visibility beyond the first tier.
A trend was manufactured in limited numbers, creating an artificial scarcity of a new trend. It made people rush to be the first and only ones to get their hands on it.
The materials were cheap, like polyester, and had to be discarded after a few wears.
Fast Fashion And Its Adverse Impact On The Planet
The increasing pressure to cut costs and manufacture fast in large numbers had its impact on the environment. The industry began to cut corners and introduced cheap materials that were toxic and non-biodegradable. The fashion industry soon turned into the second-largest polluter of water resources after agriculture.
The introduction of cheap textiles also had an impact on fast fashion. Polyester became the most preferred fabric. But it is directly derived from fossil fuels. It added to global warming. It also sheds microfibers which add significantly to the most dangerous forms of micro-pollutants that are entering our food chain.
And it is not just the synthetic materials and their wastes that are affecting the environment. The pressure of fast fashion has also turned ‘safe’ materials like cotton into contributors to pollution.
Fast Fashion And Its Impact On Limited Water Resources
Normal cotton requires massive quantities of water and pesticides. This has increased stress on limited resources of water in developing countries and has aggravated drought-like conditions. This has created competition for limited resources between local communities and companies sourcing cheap cotton from these developing countries.
The dyeing process of cheap clothes also involves the use of toxic chemicals. Denim is the 2nd biggest water polluter on the planet. Waste discharge from the textile industry has polluted 70% of freshwater sources in Asia. Around 2.5B gallons of wastewater are discharged from the cloth industry, leading to a worsening health and ecological crisis.
Around 75% of water sources in the Chinese city of Xintang were found to contain heavy metals that are extremely toxic and associated with the denim industry. The city is considered the world’s denim capital. People are moving away from the region in large numbers.
Another major water pollutant is polyester. Each wash cycle of the material leads to the discharge of microfibers. They are responsible for the worst form of ocean plastic pollution as microfibers enter the food chain through marine life.
Another major pollutant closely linked with fast fashion is leather. Leather is among the highest polluter. Every 900 pounds of hiding tanned requires 300 pounds of harsh and toxic chemicals.
Massive textile waste is another major pollutant. Fast fashion leads to clothes being discarded at a rapid pace. Australia alone dumps 500 million kilograms (1102 million pounds) of waste clothes in landfills and a massive percentage of that is non-biodegradable.
An Increase In Carbon Emissions
Modern clothes manufacturing processes and the pressure of the industry have led to the industry has a massive carbon footprint.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions on the plant are due to the fashion industry. That is more than the combined emissions of the aviation and shipping industry.
One major reason is the toll of transporting mass quantities of clothes across continents from cheap manufacturing bases in Asia to the developing world.
Around 700M tons of greenhouse gases are discharged every year from polyester production alone. And that could rise to an incredible 1.5B tons by 2030.
Fast Fashion And Its Toll On Animal Health
Animals, both domestic and wild, are major victims of fast fashion. The mass production of clothes has led to the requirement of ever-increasing land and other resources for factories engaged in various stages of clothes manufacturing, from chemical processing of raw materials to dyeing.
This takes away scarce land resources from wild animals, seriously affecting the biodiversity of the region.
It is just as bad for domestic animals as pressure on bringing down expenses for wool, fur, and leather leads to a rampant increase in the abuse of animals. The Chinese industry has been regularly accused of the passing of dog and cat fur as it is cheaper than even synthetic alternatives.
Humans Don’t Fare Any Better In The Fast Fashion Industry
The demands of fast fashion come at a high price for humans too. The whole fashion industry is based primarily on the abuse of millions of workers whose plight is hidden from the end-users of the product. This trend has continued, starting from the Industrial Revolution.
Workers in countries like Bangladesh are forced to work long hours for subsistence wages. Conditions are cramped and extremely dangerous and lead to frequent industrial accidents.
The fire at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 killed 1,100 workers. Another 2,500 were injured. This is only one of the frequent accidents at garment factories that have killed hundreds of workers over the last decade.
Children are also employed in large numbers in the fast fashion industry. And they are paid even less than regular workers. Labor laws are avoided by shifting the jobs to homes and small-scale units that evade the eyes of labor inspectors. Children stop their schooling to slave in factories to supplement insufficient family incomes.
High levels of corruption also make it easy for rich manufacturers to bribe their way out of regulations. Industry-specific standards can be easily circumvented and licenses obtained by bribing local officials.
Consumers Don’t Care As Long As Fast Fashion Is Cheap
The developed nations and their consumers do not care as long as they get jeans for $20. Everybody associated with the industry is aware of the pitfalls of fast fashion but rarely is interested in disturbing a cozy arrangement.
Price is the top priority for workers over all other selling points. Unsustainable and unethical practices do not even count among these points when it comes to deciding on a purchase.
Even the Rana Plaza tragedy made no change in consumer preference in the American market. Fast fashion products sourced from Bangladesh factories and other sweatshops around the world continue to be purchased at ever-increasing quantities and the industry is worth billions.
The rate of growth shows little signs of losing steam, and social media plays a major part in it. Social media is the quickest way to spread the latest fashion trends through social media sites such as Instagram in real-time.
The rise of influencer culture and the trend of micro-marketing is taking fashion to the grassroots population by convincing people through innovative methods.
Consumers continue to be exposed to the latest fashion trends over the internet. This is creating a shorter fashion cycle and forces people to play catch-up with the latest trends.
A 2017 survey done in London showed that 41% of teenagers and youths in the range of 18 years to 25 years are always under pressure to wear new clothes each time they step out of their homes.
It is no longer ‘cool’ to wear an outfit more than once.
Companies Across The Spectrum Involved In Fast Fashion And Its Harmful Developments
Both established companies and the new generation companies involved in fashion are guilty of the fast fashion trend.
Companies like Hennes and Mauritz (H&M) have been around for close to a century specialize in inexpensive fast fashion clothes. Expenses are kept low through outsourcing all manufacturing to around 800 independent manufacturers and suppliers based mostly in Asia.
Zara is another company that relies on a similar model for keeping the prices of fast fashion products down to entice a massive volume of customers. Fashion trends end up on the retail outlets in just 3 weeks from the design floor. Other factors that enable such quick trends are not given consideration.
Zara succeeds in overwhelming customers of fast fashion with a mind-boggling array of choices. Over 10,000 exclusive trends are available to customers at any time. The industry average for unique pieces is as high as 2,000 to 4,000.
This enables companies to push more to their customers than their actual needs. They succeed in building up demand out of nothing.
The online majors are succeeding in bringing down prices and this has put pressure on traditional fashion retailers. Even traditional giants like Forever 21 have filed for bankruptcy.
The internet-based online giants have the added advantage of reaching out directly to end consumers. They have succeeded in cutting out middlemen costs and also do not have to retain large inventory in prime locations. This ability to quickly change inventory helps to drastically bring down the expenses of fast fashion.
Online stock from retailers is virtual and that makes it easy to shift rapidly. This encourages impulse purchases of fast fashion items riding on the fear that they could become unavailable.
Some tell-tale signs of fast fashion are when companies source their manufacturing hubs to Asia. Companies that are part of the fast fashion trend offer thousands of styles that keep changing frequently and have limited numbers.
The designs end up on their sites within weeks after they are displayed on the fashion catwalks, or are worn by influencers and celebrities. The clothes are invariably made from low-quality material and wear out fast.
Moving From Fast Fashion To Sustainability
Consumer trends have shifted from focus on fast fashion and price to other issues such as its impact on the environment, and the care it takes of the workers behind it.
H&M has become more transparent than before about the supply chains behind it and is making improvements that positively affect the environment. This includes expanding recycling programs for their products and powering their outlets with renewable energy. Zara is making use of organic cotton in a range of its products.
But such changes are cosmetic if the companies do not address the greater issues that are at the source of the fast fashion industry. And such issues will not be easily addressed as that would strike at the core of the industry. Till then most efforts can be dismissed as mere greenwashing to divert attention from the core problems.