I’ve been wanting to talk about fast fashion on the blog for awhile. I’ve always marketed myself as a sustainable style blogger, but I feel like I’ve never fully leaned into the title. I’m not sure whether it’s just hard to convey in Instagram photos or whether it’s because part of shopping sustainably is not shopping at all (which doesn’t make for the most exciting content). But sustainability has been a big part of my life for a long time now and I really want to try to embrace it on the site.
Elle UK dedicated its September Issue to sustainability, and as part of this issue they conducted research to find out the attitudes and awareness of sustainability in fashion among young women in the UK (read the Elle UK article here). The results were surprising to me:
- 9 in 10 want to know more about sustainability in the fashion industry
- Two-thirds were unaware that the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters
- 62% are more likely to buy an item of clothing from a brand that values sustainability
- 55% found it important or very important to know where the clothes they buy come from and that they are ethically made
- 51% want to know what they can do to become more sustainable
Now, obviously I’m not in the UK, but I figure these statistics are probably pretty similar in the US. Because I studied Apparel and Merchandising in school, I feel like sustainability in the industry isn’t a new concept. I have this misperception that everybody already knows about it because I know about it. But that’s clearly not the case. I have to remind myself that when I started studying fashion, I knew nothing about the sustainable fashion industry or about how bad the current state of the industry is. It wasn’t until I watched The True Cost documentary in one of my classes that I became more informed and began my educational journey.
One of the statistics that stood out to me most was that 9 in 10 want to know more about sustainability in the fashion industry. That’s something I want to change by making this site a resource. Sooo after that super long intro, let’s get into what fast fashion actually is.
Fast fashion, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” And at it’s most basic level, that’s what it is. Fast fashion companies bring trendy styles from the runway to the mainstream consumer, allowing people to buy current clothing styles at a much lower price. These companies include Zara, Forever 21, H&M, Topshop, Primark, and many others. When you look at it like this, fast fashion seems like a good thing – you’re making trendy clothing more accessible to those who may not be able to afford higher end garments. But, that’s without considering what goes into producing clothing that quickly. Fast fashion has become synonymous with disposable fashion because it is cheap enough that consumers can buy large amounts of clothing items, discard them after a few wears, and come back for more. The human and environmental toll of fast fashion is significant and something that not many people consider when buying a $5 t-shirt from Forever 21. Here are a few of the negative consequences of consuming fast fashion:
Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. Polyester, the most popular fabric used for fashion, sheds microfibers that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. Cotton growing requires high levels of water and pesticides to prevent crop failure that put cotton farmers and the environment at risk (Source: The Independent). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator (Source: Newsweek Magazine).
In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over a thousand workers, making it the deadliest garment factory incident in history. The collapse happened because garment factory owners didn’t abide by health and safety regulations due to fear of disrupting production and losing profits. The rapid pace of fast fashion has people choosing between profits and human safety – and unfortunately people are choosing the wrong one. Workers are having to make a trade-off between earning a living and caring for their health. Long working hours, physical exhaustion, intense work rhythms, harassment, and an absence of representation are all issues that remain ‘invisible’ (Source: University of Sussex).
A living wage means that the wage a worker earns in a standard working week (never exceeding 48 hours) is enough to provide for them and their family’s basic needs. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has defined a living wage as a basic human right under their conventions and recommendations to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 23. Garment workers are not being paid living wages. The lack of a living wage means that many garment workers are forced to work long hours to earn overtime or bonuses, and they cannot risk refusing work due to unsafe working conditions or taking time off when they are ill (Source: Clean Clothes Campaign). Because of traditional store markups, the cost of labor is only a fraction of the cost of a t-shirt. The cheaper that t-shirt costs, the less the garment workers make.
Fast fashion reinforces a culture of overconsumption as retailers must appeal to shoppers with constant newness and convince them the items they already have are no longer fashionable. Items are made to fall apart after only a few washes, forcing you to buy new clothes more frequently. And because clothing is so cheap, why not buy more?
That was fun wasn’t it? This post isn’t to make you feel guilty or blame anyone for the current state of the fashion industry. I think one of the problems with the sustainable fashion movement is that people position it like it’s all or nothing. You either buy ethically or you’re a terrible person, but that’s just not the case. Not only does it take time to change your consumption behavior, but it’s also not always black and white. Sometimes it’s hard to know if something was ethically made. Companies don’t always advertise their policies, and companies that do may not be telling you the whole truth. It’s also not the end of world if you buy an item or two from a fast fashion company. It’s all about making smart purchases that last a long time and becoming more aware of what you are buying and where you are buying it from. Ultimately, the best thing we can do is to keep our clothing in use for longer – and buy less new stuff.
The topic of sustainability in the fashion industry is super complex, so it’s impossible to do it justice in just one blog post. I’m planning on making this into a series. I want to break down some of these topics into bite-sized pieces that I hope will be easy to understand and easy to put into action.
If you’re looking to learn more about fast fashion now, I highly recommend watching The True Cost documentary on Netflix. There’s also some really great books on the topic, including the The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli.
I look forward to sharing what I know about sustainability with you and continuing to learn throughout this process!