What is Fast Fashion?
By GRACE LI ‘20
Fast fashion is a term used by retailers to describe clothing collections that capture the most recent fashion trends both cheaply and efficiently. Some of the most common fast fashion brands include H&M, ASOS, Charlotte Russe, Primark and Uniqlo. The clothing these brands produce aims to emulate trends seen during the Fall or Spring Fashion Week runway shows. The quick turnaround time between the looks displayed on the runway and their availability for purchase for a relatively inexpensive price affects everyone involved. The fast fashion industry capitalizes on consumers’ ignorance of the effort going into producing a simple tee shirt, for example. The fashion cycle consists of the following steps: production, distribution, sale, and disposal.
The clothing cycle begins with the accumulation of raw materials. Take, for example, a cotton tee shirt from Uniqlo. The cotton must first be planted before the shirt is made. According to DailyMail, Monsanto, an agricultural biotech company, currently has a monopoly over the majority of cotton seeds in America. Regulating the price of the seeds, the corporation maintains control over the farmers because of its ability to raise and lower the pricing as much as it wants. Farmers can find themselves in debt when they are unable to profit from the amount of crops they produce because of the high cost of the cotton seeds. Not only do farmers suffer financially from the monopoly, but the pesticides they use on the crops damage their health as well. Additionally, according to the World Wildlife Fund, about 713 gallons of water go into making one tee shirt; the amount of land and other natural resources used in the process contributes to 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere each year.
After the farmers accumulate the cotton, they send the raw material to a factory to be woven into fabric. Using sweatshops to efficiently and cheaply produce trendy clothing allows the company to cut the price of production, but at what cost? Working in dimly lit, cramped, and dangerous quarters for almost no pay, the workers who produce the clothes are the ones most affected by society’s need for instant gratification and assimilation. Many families, including their children, work in the factories to try and earn enough to make a living. Not only is the condition of the factories sub-par, but the factories themselves also harm the surrounding environment. The runoff from dyes and other chemicals used in the production of the tee shirt can contaminate the water supply. Many times, big companies place factories in less developed countries to cut costs and bypass regulations. The transportation of the product to various storefronts also has the second largest climate impact in the clothing cycle, the first being the production of the clothing.
Finally, you—the consumer—enter into the cycle. You purchase the tee shirt for $9.90, “a great steal,” some would say. It is a steal because you stole from the livelihood of the
workers who produced the shirt. Your purchase, made in haste or ignorance, supports inhumane working conditions and reinforces the baseless consumption of low quality products. The cycle doesn’t end here. Cutting corners to minimize cost, fast fashion companies purposefully create a product that would fall apart, forcing people to repurchase new clothing items. According to the Huffington Post, the US generates about 70 pounds of discarded clothing and textiles per year per person. 95% of the textiles could have been recycled. So how can you help?
There are a number of different solutions. First, and most obvious, is refusing to buy from companies that take advantage of resources and people. But, for many people, the price of high-quality and ethically produced clothing doesn’t fit into their budget. Yes, thrifting is an alternative, but such stores often do not carry all necessities. Many people who live at or below the poverty line have no choice but to purchase clothing made in overseas sweatshops. The issues of poverty and privilege are more complex than ever in such a globalized era. If we begin to recognize the privilege associated with the fashion industry, the industry will cease to progress in such a manner. Fashion is problematic because of the nature and roots of the industry. During the days of the Roman Empire, the socioeconomic statuses of people were determined by a person’s attire. Move forward a couple of hundred centuries: only the rich white elite were able to afford a personal seamstress to create unique garments. The less privileged were, in turn, forced to wear more generic clothing that was easily mass produced. Jump forward a couple more decades to the 1900’s: fashion began to take off, the forefront of the movement led by white males. Now, cultural appropriation and the idea of an “ideal” body type plague the industry and continue to be perpetuated by the media, a big part of the advertising for fast fashion companies. We can only begin to solve the issues of the fashion industry by educating ourselves and understanding how to utilize fashion as a unifying factor, rather than a divider.