Clothing retailers born in the Instagram era face a unique problem: how to create timely items while remaining profitable.
Enter “fast fashion,” which aims to sell trendy items at low prices. But these items come with a significant cost to the environment, labor movements, and small businesses. Without singling out any brands, many fast fashion retailers are notorious for their exploitative labor practices, unsustainability, and ripping off of independent designers’ creations.
“Demand quality, not just in the products you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.”— Orsola de Castro
It should be acknowledged that abandoning fast fashion and demanding accountability can be done without shaming or infantilizing poor people. And it can certainly be done while addressing how inaccessible clothing can be for people seeking plus sizes. No consumption is completely ethical under capitalism, but rallying against fast fashion also means understanding that someone’s action can not always be as wide-sweeping or dramatic as another’s.
So what can we do?
The Negative Impact of Fast Fashion
A recent investigation conducted by British broadcaster Channel 4 found that employees at one Shein factory in China earned an average monthly salary of 4,000 yuan — or $556. At this factory, the staff was reportedly expected to create at least 500 garments per day. In addition, they worked 18-hour days and their first month’s pay was withheld from them. The company allegedly also docked employees half a day’s pay if they misproduced a piece of clothing (a prospect that seems inevitable given their arduous workdays).
This isn’t a side effect of fast fashion. It’s embedded in its design. As the George Washington University School of Law notes, these companies outsource their labor to Asian countries “to have minimal control over each step of the supply chain in order to avoid opening themselves up to enormous legal liability. Brands allow their subsidiaries to remain largely unregulated because it absolves them of responsibility for the unethical practices being used to produce their clothing at such low costs.”
On top of the exploitation of workers, designers — mainly Black and POC — have called out a slew of fast fashion brands over the years for ripping off their designs, and poorly so. In many cases, these companies have allegedly copied independent and small business owners who don’t have the resources or social media following to sue or recoup their lost wages.
Again, this isn’t an unintended consequence of fast fashion — it’s a feature.
And fast fashion’s economic impact cannot be overlooked either. A 2018 study in Nature Climate Change warned that the fast fashion industry could amount to 25% of the Earth’s carbon budget by 2050. And the industry is doing very little to self-regulate. Why would they? Data suggests that garment production doubled between 2000 and 2015. Meanwhile, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before it’s tossed has plunged 36%.
Finally, just in case you thought this didn’t suck enough, fast fashion garments are largely unrecyclable, as they’re made with non-renewable resources. This means that this clothing is virtually worthless as soon as it stops being trendy. In essence, society as a whole is paying for clothes we can barely wear.
There is no bothsidesing this issue: Fast fashion is antithetical to ethical and sustainable living.
One of the most sinister aspects is that the industry has convinced many that it is doing anything but. These brands will tell you they are offering “fashion” to groups of people who could previously not access it. Rest assured, their motivations are not benevolent or altruistic.
It means a lot to become aware of these issues, but we also need to do our part to counteract the negative impact of fast fashion on our world. Learn more by listening to our podcast episode about whether sustainable fashion is even possible, by reading Aja Barber’s Consumed (a previous FBC pick), and by checking out the other resources below.
“Ultra-Fast Fashion is Eating the World” in The Atlantic
Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters by Dana Thomas
The True Cost of Fast Fashion (video) by The Economist