January 28, 2014

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Fast Fashion.

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”).

2. Pesticides.

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.


Relephant reads:

How Thoughtful Are These Threads?

Responsible Fashion & the US Economy: Nau’s Scape Jacket and Down Vest.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Clothes.


Bonus! Waylon talks with the author, Kristin Glenn:

More! Eco Fashion vs. Fast Fashion: Waylon Lewis with Rachel Faller

Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: linder6580 on Stock.XCHNG


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Scarlett Jan 27, 2016 2:20pm

I think we often think that we can't afford sustainably manufactured clothing because we aren't letting go of the fixation with having a full closet filled with new styles. Once per year I buy 4-5 locally produced garments that are versitle and wear well. I maintain my clothing carefully and I often trade with friends. When I shop thrift stores I look for timeless pieces or items made from wool, silk, or linen. Sure I don't look like a magazine cover but I always look comfortable and stylish. If you are creative you can repurpose things endlessly. Some of my favorite clothes have been in my life for ten years. I'm sure my budget for clothing annually is below average and my closet is never crowded, so refreshing!

Tracy Jul 21, 2015 12:11pm

I recommend that everyone watch the documentary The True Cost. It touches on all of these points in depth and is now available on Netflix. Seeing enormous landfills full of unused, non biodegradable clothing is pretty shocking. Seeing bales and bales and bales of unused extra clothes from the US being shipped to Haiti ("Here, we don't want these, you can have them, this trash is your problem now") is shocking. I think you really need to SEE what this stuff looks like sometimes to get a grasp on the real consequences and to understand how many resources the fast fashion industry is wasting.
I totally get why some people feel like this is another ploy to get consumers to buy 'overpriced' goods, but try not to get hung up on that. At the end of the day, I think the greatest take away from the film is to be more mindful with how you consume clothing. If you buy a t-shirt for $3, you are tempted to buy way more than you need simply because it was cheap, and you also feel like it is more disposable because it is cheap. It is important to buy fewer clothes that are of a higher quality that you really love and will serve you for a long time.

LAURA ALIOTO Jul 20, 2015 9:07am

Considering I am a newly divorced mother of three, and cannot afford to shop in PC stores like "free people" and buy a $28.00 organic dye free tank top, it leaves me no choice but to shop at H&M… Nevermind, i cannot find a job, with a BA in Business… So I'm not really sure if I should feel guilty? humble? or just frustrated….
Fine line-
Good article, very informative, however consider the customer that cant afford to shop high end.
Laura Alioto

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Kristin Glenn

Kristin Glenn is the founder of Seamly.co, a women’s clothing company in Denver, CO. She is currently Kickstarting a fully biodegradable jacket that can be worn 4+ ways. You can follow her journey in sustainable fashion here.