The High Price Tag of Cheap Fast Fashion

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What is Fast Fashion?

Although we may not realize it, many of us have been avid, fast fashion customers. Fast fashion describes the profitable business model that mass-produces catwalk designs and luxurious, high-fashion trends at low costs. In order to stay trendy, many companies produce new products each week, challenging traditional fashion houses that produce on a regular seasonal basis. Zara alone produces 20,000 designs annually, and many other popular brands among millennials, such as Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Nastygal, similarly overproduce.

Fast fashion has exploded in popularity for various reasons, but a big draw for consumers has been affordability. Social media’s prevalence has bolstered the industry’s growth, as influencers bombard users with new content daily, wearing the latest trends and contributing to consumers’ growing appetite for new clothing.

According to McKinsey, “the average person today buys 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago. But consumers keep that clothing for only half as long as they used to... 1 in 3 young women consider clothes ‘old’ after wearing them once or twice. 1 in 7 consider it a fashion faux-pas to be photographed in an outfit twice.” Although the younger generation seems to have a disposable mindset, the same study found that “younger generations are more interested in sustainable clothing than older consumers” with their “passion for social and environmental causes.”

There seems to be a dichotomous disconnect among fast fashion’s biggest target market. Many don’t realize the problems underlying the industry. The quick production cycle means fewer wash tests and wearer trials, leading to poor quality and durability, and it inherently encourages overproduction and waste. These are only the start of a plethora of problems associated with fast fashion.

Environmental & Social Consequences

The 26 billion pounds of textiles that end up in landfills each year make the fashion industry the 2nd most polluting industry in the world after oil, according to the Savers State of Refuse’s 2017 report. The industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping. By 2050, the global fashion industry could use more than 25% of the global carbon budget, associated with a 2ºC temperature rise.

Even more devastating than the industry’s contributions to global warming are its impact on water. The fashion industry is the 2nd largest polluter of water and accounts for 20% of the world’s wastewater. In order to cut costs, many fast fashion clothes are made from synthetic fibers as opposed to natural materials. Every time consumers wash their clothes, microfibers from these fabrics are released into waterways and bodies of water. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash.

Since the fibers are very small, they’re consumed by fish and other wildlife. The fibers accumulate and concentrate toxins in larger animals higher up the food chain, poisoning them. Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. Even companies that use recycled plastic to conserve and reduce waste might be doing more harm than good since the plastic has now been broken up into minuscule fibrous bits that will accumulate in the water anyways.

The problems with fast fashion don’t stop at an environmental level. The business model’s profitability depends on cheap prices, coming at the cost of workers’ wages, which are often driven down to unsustainable levels. The Global Labor Journal’s report details “how a Gap supplier factory planned to move from Bekasi, West Java to a nearby town with significantly lower minimum wage by reducing its permanent workforce from 6000 workers to 1500, with the majority of workers retaining contract statuses.”

Brands often do little to provide relief, as many are global companies that outsource production to Tier 1 companies, who then subcontract to outside, often unauthorized, manufacturing companies. These manufacturers are not affiliated with the brands, which negates any legal responsibility on the brands’ parts and prevents government intervention.

These workforces largely consist of temporary migrant workers who are overworked and taken advantage of. Add the fact that many workers are female, and factories often are riddled with gender-based abuse, violence, and harassment. The dismal working conditions in factories have been a persistent problem. Leicester, a city in England, is known for its countless garment factories. Boohoo, a popular online retailer, recently came under fire for producing its clothes at one of these Leicester factories that “forced workers to come into work while sick with COVID and doubled up on the workforce to handle surges in online orders during quarantine.”

Unfortunately, there are more problems that continue to plague the industry, and the consequences continue to build with fast fashion’s growing popularity.

Sustainable solutions

Many recognize that the best solution to fast fashion is a long-term shift in consumer mindset. However, this is something that will take time -- quite frankly, too much time. However, there are some short-term solutions for customers to mitigate the problems on a smaller scale.

Recently there have been many companies created to promote the “buy less, wear more” ideology by popularizing clothing rentals. Rent the Runway is a subscription service where people can rent designer styles, while Swap Society allows people to exchange clothes with other users. Although slightly more difficult to do so in the current pandemic, customers can also shop at local thrift shops to find clothing at lower prices. thredUp is an online consignment and thrift store that sells secondhand clothing.

Other companies like Everlane, Reformation, Patagonia, and Project Cece have made sustainable fashion a pillar of their mission to minimize their waste and energy footprints. Still, others have started campaigns to raise awareness of sustainability, such as Levi’s Water<Less campaign to develop techniques to use less water and Adidas’ collaboration with Parley, a nonprofit organization focused on saving the ocean.

Overall, consumers can and should be more conscious of what they buy. Read labels, research companies, and be aware that the impact of each purchase goes beyond your bank accounts.

More posts by Eunice Chong.
The High Price Tag of Cheap Fast Fashion
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