In the 1980s and 1990s, a new production strategy appeared on the fashion scene.
It involved moving trends from the catwalk to the consumer at a rapid pace, with a cheap price point. The ultimate goal? More consumption. More sales. A bigger bottom line.
Enter ‘fast fashion,’ the term coined to describe this quick, cheap, disposable cycle.
Fast fashion brands like Zara, Forever21, and H&M can design a garment and have it in stores in as little as two weeks. (Most fashion brands require at least six months.) According to Elizabeth Cline’s book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” Forever21 and H&M deliver new styles to their stores every single day.
The volume is almost incomprehensible, and production levels are staggering. Zara designs and produces over 10,000 styles per year. Consumers can now have an outfit for even the slightest change in weather, at an affordable price.
So what’s wrong with this model? Brands are increasing sales, and consumers are getting a low-cost product with broad variety. What’s not to love?
The non-glitzy truth is that fast fashion requires shortcuts. Really. Big. Shortcuts. How else can a $3.80 tank top exist in the world?
Much of the production process takes place in faraway countries with very little transparency.
Here are some of the big reasons fast fashion is bad, for people and planet:
1. Genetically modified cotton.
Since 1960, the world has doubled its production of cotton. Although synthetic fibers are a huge part of the textile industry, people simply love cotton. Monsanto provides farmers across the world with GM seeds (and the recommended pesticides), which affect the soil, animals, and waterways. And it’s prevalent; in 2010, 93% of the cotton grown in the US was genetically modified (“Bt cotton”).
With twice as much cotton growing on the planet than fifty years ago, a grave amount of pesticides are needed to keep crops “safe” from pests. According to Lucy Seigle’s “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” cotton soaks up 11-12% of the world’s pesticides. In countries like India, where yields are low and pesticide use is high, illness and even death as a result of uninformed (and unprotected) pesticide use is prevalent.
3. Modern-day slavery.
In the shortcut to fast fashion, slavery exists. Slaveryfootpring.org states that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history. But what does it look like? Uzbekistan is one country notorious for its use of forced labor during the cotton harvest season. The Uzbek government drafts over one million citizens during harvest to pick cotton, unpaid.
Slavery in the sewing process is also prevalent, with factories contracting tasks (such as clipping threads or hand sewing detail) to sub-contractors, who then find, and exploit, desperate workers. Too often, debt bondage is the result, as laborers can’t keep up with the “required” pace of work.
4. Poor (and fatal) working conditions.
The two biggest costs associated with your t-shirt are fabric and labor. Cutting labor cost is key for fast fashion companies, and thus far, big brands have been chasing down the cheapest labor markets in the world to keep prices low.
The Rana Plaza collapse in April, 2013, which left 1,129 people—mostly garment workers—dead, is a tragic reminder of the true cost of fast fashion. Aside from low pay, workers often toil under poor and unsafe working conditions, for long hours with few breaks.
5. Dumping (and other environmental disasters).
The bright colors we love so much are a result of chemical dyes, containing heavy metals (known carcinogens). Often times, because environmental responsibility is an expensive endeavor, textile factories in the developing world will dump dye effluents into local waterways. Even developed China has been cited for this, outright, by Greenpeace.
6. A short lifecycle, and growing landfills.
Fast fashion is meant to be disposable. It’s not supposed to last—otherwise, how would brands keep selling? The average fast fashion garment goes from the store to the landfill within one year.
Because it takes so many resources to produce textiles and garments, each disposable style is an eco-disaster. In fact, the average American throws about 80 pounds of textiles out each year.
Fast fashion isn’t good, and the best thing each of us can do is refrain from purchasing clothes at fast fashion outlets.
Instead, shop local, thrift, swap with friends, and support transparent brands making a difference.
Bonus! Waylon talks with the author, Kristin Glenn:
More! Eco Fashion vs. Fast Fashion: Waylon Lewis with Rachel Faller
Editor: Bryonie Wise