A World In the Fast (Fashion) Lane
The Growing Cost of Fast Fashion & How To Be Part Of the Solution
This article originally appeared on The Fem Word — a platform celebrating bold women in creative spaces.
A Global Debt We Can’t Afford to Pay.
We live in a hungry world. The evidence is all around us — our appetite for consumption seems to have no end, and the results are doing more damage than we ever could have imagined. A lot of us are beginning to wake up and question why we operate from this paradigm of consumption in the first place, and many are looking for ways to live differently and undo the harm our unrestrained practices have caused.
Fast fashion has become the norm for how we clothe ourselves. The term “fast fashion” itself refers to the pattern of cheap, incredibly quick production of vast quantities of poor-quality clothing that has steadily redefined the industry. We all know what this pattern looks like in our own lives: we buy on impulse, we wear the clothes for a short while (often until they start looking ratty or damaged just a few months later after the purchase) and then we discard the clothes by throwing them out or donating them.
When we donate the clothes, we feel better about the waste of money and material. At least someone else will wear them, right? The reality isn’t so simple. Today, I’m joining The Fem Word to take a look at the reality of fast fashion and find solutions you and others can use to create better, more sustainable norms.
PART ONE — THE PLAYERS. READY, SET, OVERPRODUCE.
The brands spring up like weeds, taking over your computer screens, shopping malls, and billboards. They listen to you through your devices, they advertise via your emails and your social profiles, and they seem to always, always have a new and effective way to make you feel like you should give in. You have unmet needs, you should just “treat yourself” to that cute jacket or cheap pair of jeans…
Brands like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, Fashion Nova, Shein, and countless others are perennial players in the fashion industry. They have low prices and quick turnaround — that’s a surefire recipe for corporate success. Other brands are sold through outlets like Amazon or Ebay, taking advantage of the services these mega brands offer.
The result is an absolutely enormous amount of clothing produced in preset sizes and distributed globally. The profit margins are insane. The costs aren’t endured by the consumers or by the executives who run these companies, so why would anyone pay those costs any mind? The people who do pay visible costs are largely invisible when it comes to the average consumer’s line of sight.
These brands operate on a surface level and have seen great success using their consumption-centered business models. Production is outsourced, of course, and can easily be switched from facility to facility or country to country based on the bottom line. They are expert marketers, following the creed that it’s better to make a need than meet one when it comes to selling products.
And we, the consumers, have fallen for that model hook, line, and sinker. Who can really blame us? As fast fashion has become the norm, we’ve found less and less options outside of it. Most of us can’t afford better-quality products, nor do we have the resources to modify clothing to suit our long-term needs. Most people don’t know how to sew, re-seam, or otherwise repair clothing. Most of us don’t even know how to spot quality textiles in the first place! We simply weren’t taught to do these things.
Ever since the industrial revolution, fast fashion has taken advantage of the class differences that arose and began to define society all across the globe. People had less time, less energy, and often less income than before. They needed cheap, quick solutions to their everyday needs, and things like fast food, fast entertainment, and fast fashion filled those needs.
The players’ names have changed, but the values (or lack thereof) that drive them haven’t. At the end of the day, we aren’t here to blame the brands for doing what businesses do. It’s more important to look at the impact our fast fashion culture is having, and to re-evaluate the conditions that have made it both unavoidable and unsustainable.
PART TWO — ROUND ONE, MOTHER EARTH VS. MOTHER CONSUMPTION. READY, SET, FIGHT.
The data is beyond alarming. The numbers are so unbelievable that we simply shut down when we hear them. 92 million tons of waste. 79 trillion gallons of water consumed. A full ten-percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. 15,000 different, often harmful, chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
This is the environmental cost of fast fashion, and it’s growing higher every single day. When you look at the numbers, they’re so large that our brains tend to simply dismiss them. What does 92 million tons even look like? What does 79 trillion gallons mean? It’s too overwhelming to ponder.
It’s more useful to simplify: the cost of fast fashion is one we can’t afford to pay. We as a species, and as a planet, are already deep in debt. The interest rate is astronomical. We are harming the oceans, the air, and our own bodies with almost obscene enthusiasm, and so far advocacy and awareness campaigns have only just begun to show significant impact.
Of all the clothes we purchase, 85% end up in landfills. Every second of every day, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck of clothing is dumped or burned. And, because a full 60% of our clothing is now made out of fossil-fuel-derived synthetics, this waste doesn’t decay. Instead, it usually ends up in our water as microplastics — 35% of microplastics in the ocean come from textiles.
The average person knows, on some level, that waste is being produced and that it’s not a good thing. We donate and reuse where we can, but ultimately the information we need simply isn’t widespread enough to reach us. The motivation needed to address the causes of environmental destruction caused by fast fashion has to derive from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is usually in-your-face, unavoidable exposure to the images and effects of our actions as a species. That exposure hasn’t gotten the momentum it needs yet, at least not in the environmental preservation arena.
There has, however, been a cultural awakening in another area.
PART THREE — HUMAN COST VS. HUMAN CONSUMPTION. ROUND TWO: FIGHT.
It was a cool Spring morning in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Three-thousand, one-hundred and twenty-two garment factory workers got up, ate breakfast, and went to work at the Dhaka Garment Factory, as usual. They stopped momentarily when a brief power outage caused the lights and equipment to flicker, but then the diesel generators kicked on and they went back to work.
At 8:57 AM on April 24, 2013, the Dhaka Garment Factory building collapsed, burying all 3,122 factory workers in thousands of tons of concrete and metal rubble. Half of those workers, including many young women and children, died as a result of the collapse. Many others were permanently injured.
It was the single deadliest disaster in the history of the textile industry. It was far from the last. Fires, collapses, explosions, and other disasters have a long and enduring history in the clothes-production industry, and they continue to happen today. Despite widespread calls for action, very little has been done to address and enforce the causes of these often-deadly disasters. The profits keep coming, and so production continues as usual — as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Output has continued to increase, wages have not.
All of the human costs of production are interconnected, from the loss of life to the loss of quality-of-life suffered by many garment factory employees. Major brands have almost unilaterally outsourced all manufacturing labor to underdeveloped countries in order to slash costs and provide clothing at a much cheaper price to consumers, all while steadily increasing their profit margins.
One study in Australia revealed that for every piece of clothing purchased, less than two cents of the profit makes it back into the pockets of the people who produced it. The same study found widespread forced and child-labor practices in the factories that supplied the same clothing, and even in facilities with better practices, many garment workers are expected to live off of astoundingly low wages.
An investigation led by Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) found that across southeast Asia, the majority of textile workers were working at least 48 hours a week and were receiving less than $3 an hour in wages. Many are making even less than that. In China and elsewhere, slave labor is not uncommon. In the USA, prison inmates are used as a labor source, and the workers are paid cents for every hour they work.
Low wages mean that garment workers have little political power and even less time and energy to devote toward advocacy or protest. They work because there aren’t any other jobs available, they need to care for their families, and the factories allow them to afford the bare minimum of food and shelter. This is the standard by which they live and we consume, and the costs continue to rise as illness, injury, and poverty plague the ranks of those we rely on for our cheap fashion fixes.
Economically, this model is a train with no brakes. Like the environmental impact, the economic cost of poor labor practices and human rights’ violations within the garment industry is unsustainable. Eventually, that train will crash, and it will collide with the lives of everyone who is riding in it.
PART FOUR — ADVOCACY VS. APATHY. ROUND THREE: READY, SET, MATCH.
This orgy of waste and ruin is longstanding. Average people do not contribute knowingly, in a majority of cases — in fact, many of us go out of our way to not know, because we feel completely helpless in the face of so much destruction.
We simply don’t know how we can help, what we can do, or what our alternative options are. We try to recycle and reuse, we try to advocate online, but at the end of the day the waste keeps building and we are still at square one.
The future may not be as bleak as the data makes it seem, however. Across the world, across cultures and socioeconomic barriers, advocates are emerging. People are starting to open their eyes and see the potential for change — they are taking action.
After a long campaign, lobbyists have achieved historic wins in the UK and Australia through the “Modern Slavery Act,” which requires large companies to publish data on wages and the risks of forced labor in their operations, and the steps they are taking to create positive change and combat those risks.
Organizations have sprung up in communities all over the world — organizations like Anti-Slavery International, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, Canopy, and CARE International, to name just a few. They advocate and support the movement for sustainable and rights-oriented fashion, targeting governments and corporations that fail to meet equitable standards for labor and environmental protection. The work of organizations like these has made a significant impact on the industry, and continues to do so.
Nonprofits and lobbying groups are working on all sides of the industry, from farmers to factory workers to outlets and consumers like us, to change the game and save the integrity of the garment industry before it’s too late.
Homegrown movements are also becoming more and more visible. Websites like Good On You provide data-driven ratings that let consumers know which brands are ethical and sustainable and which aren’t, better informing our choices in a simple, efficient format. Blogs running the gamut from personal finance niches to lifestyle advice and trend-tracking platforms have taken up the banner against fast fashion, providing information and solutions to the online world.
Groups have sprung up across social media platforms, from mom-tip sharing communities on Facebook to infographic accounts on Instagram. Information has begun to trickle into our lives, and in 2020 that trickle is picking up and becoming a steady stream of awareness. Only time will tell if that information will make a lasting difference in the way we produce and consume clothing.
PART FIVE — YOU VS. CONSUMER CULTURE. WHO WILL WIN?
The solutions are cropping up all over the web and the physical world — now, more than ever, you have a chance to change your practices and make a difference in your culture. The best part? Now you can actually afford to make that difference.
In the past, one of the major barriers to change in the fashion industry was a lack of affordable clothing options outside of fast fashion brands. People simply haven’t had the options necessary for making ethical choices. It still isn’t the easiest thing in the world to find cheap, sustainable, and moral clothing options at prices the average person can afford.
It is possible, however.
Let’s start with the soul-searching work. Go back a few months and track how many items of clothing you purchased — how many of those did you actually need to buy, and where did you buy them from? How many pieces of clothing have you disposed of in the last year? Why did you get rid of those garments? The answers will vary — the point isn’t to grade your practices, but to cultivate a basic awareness of the way you view, consume, and get rid of the clothes you wear. That awareness is the only way to know what needs to change.
Now, let’s evaluate the skills you have. Do you know how to sew a button back onto an otherwise-good coat, or do you end up disposing of your garments as soon as they display any signs of wear? Most of us would sheepishly admit to the latter. A lot of people simply don’t realize how easy it is to learn these 5-minute skills, or how free it is to do so.
You can find a glut of free online classes that will quickly teach you skills like sewing and reinforcing clothes. You would be shocked to find how much money and waste these basic life skills save! The loss of home economics in our schools is a disaster for sustainability — that’s a big assertion that deserves its own piece, but in the fashion arena it’s easy enough to remedy. By learning to do alterations, you open up a world of possibilities for better quality, longer-lasting, and better looking clothing. It’s a win-win-win (a win for you, a win for the environment, and a win for the economy).
The art of Upcycling has also become a major trend in the Western world and beyond. There are hundreds of blogs, videos, and articles dedicated to taking unused things and turning them into useful items. Not only is it sustainable and ethical, but Upcycling is also a strong creative outlet and a viable source of income.
For those with less time (or less inclination for pins and needles), there are now a plethora of point-of-purchase options available for revamping your wardrobe’s morals. Places like The Real Real or ThredUp offer the selection of an online market with the sustainability of thrifting. You should still be aware of the cost to ship these products, but it’s an improvement, at least.
Clothing Swaps have become another commonplace trend. There are plenty of online options such as the aptly-named Swap.com or assorted Facebook pages dedicated to local and statewide swaps, or you can take the initiative to organize a swap within your own social circle. Everyone simply grabs their unused clothing, displays it, and barters with other people for their own garment offerings.
Rehash is another good option for exchanging your clothes with other people, and clothing rental services like Style Lend allow you to achieve designer looks for a night or a day. All of these solutions are simple to use and cost-effective; all it takes is your willingness to give them a try.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems we face as a planet and a society, but it’s also easy to become overwhelmed by too many solutions. Try one at a time, give it some thought, and don’t be in a rush to completely change your lifestyle. Aim for long term goals and see what you can achieve!
SOME PARTING SHOTS (THOUGHTS).
As you and the people around you become aware of the debt we’re incurring through careless fast fashion norms, we come closer and closer to turning the tide toward a more sustainable, equitable, and beautiful future.
Our capacity for creativity as human beings is unparalleled. Our ability to solve problems collaboratively and with passion is incredible. You are a receptacle for ideas, motivations, and powers that can truly change the world, and although your life is busy and your worries many, you owe it to yourself to explore this potential as much as you can in the time you’ve been given.
We are all stewards of the Earth and of each other — the way you buy, wear, and dispose of your clothing is part of your integrity as one of these stewards. Thank you for taking this journey with The Fem Word — and please share, like, and comment to spread the word about bold women in creative spaces!
Together, we’ll make our story a good one.
Fashion & Sustainability by Feast Magazine
Fashion Me Green Blog
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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Fem Word organization. Any content provided by our authors are based on their opinions and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.”