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Behind the Seams - Fast Fashion

Updated: Nov 19, 2023



Think back to last winter when all of your friends were wearing the same cute beanie or trendy snow boots. You felt out of place because you were still wearing the ratty, outdated clothes your older sibling gave you when they graduated and went off to college.


It’s almost impossible in this day and age to keep up with the newest trends since they change so frequently. By the time you convince yourself to splurge on new pair of jeans, everyone around you has already moved on to the next trend.


Fast fashion has taken the world by storm, changing the way we view clothing and accessories. It’s the industry that provides us with the latest trends at shockingly low prices, allowing us to regularly update our wardrobes without depleting our bank accounts. While fast fashion has undoubtedly made clothing more accessible, it’s important to delve deeper in order to understand the issues associated with fast fashion.

 

What is Fast Fashion?


Fast fashion describes low-priced, but stylish clothing that moves quickly from design to retail stores to meet trends. Doesn’t that seem like an amazing deal? You get trendy clothes that look good, fit well, and don’t cost exorbitant amounts of money. When you put it that way, fast fashion sounds like the best establishment of the century.


However, fast fashion has had an extremely negative impact on our environment, and will continue to do so in future years. Clothes in the fast fashion industry are not created to last long. Because of this, shoppers quickly discard them, causing massive pile-ups of fabric in landfills worldwide.


The biggest culprits are fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Nike, and Shein. Each of these companies manufacture thousands of different clothing items annually and sell them in retail stores worldwide. Since trends change so rapidly, a large portion of this clothing sits on the rack for months before it’s discarded, unworn. This business model relies on rapid production processes, low labor costs, and the agility to adapt quickly to changing fashion trends.


Environmental Impacts


The Pollution Problem

One of the most pressing issues associated with fast fashion is pollution. The production of cheap clothing often involves the use of toxic dyes and chemicals. These substances eventually find their way into bodies of water, polluting rivers and oceans.


The fashion industry is also a major contributor to microplastic pollution. Synthetic fabrics shed tiny plastic fibers when washed, which also end up in our waterways and consequently, the stomachs of aquatic animals.


Textile Waste and Landfills

Fast fashion is based on a “buy more, buy cheap” mentality. This encourages consumers to update their wardrobes constantly.


What are the consequences of this? — A staggering amount of textile waste.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a truckload of discarded textiles is either dumped in landfills or incinerated every second. As a result, landfills overflow with clothing that takes decades, if not centuries, to decompose fully. Throughout this process, toxic chemicals are released into soil and infiltrate groundwater, further polluting our environment.


Quality vs. Quantity

Fast fashion styles are often produced with cheap materials to make production inexpensive to major clothing companies. Because of this, clothing associated with fast fashion tends to be low-quality. Most consumers will purchase this clothing anyway to stay up-to-date with current trends, and since it’s cheaper they’ll buy more of it.


People are buying 60% more clothes than they did just a few decades ago, and wearing them for half as long. However, the fast fashion model encourages consumers to wear clothing for shorter periods of time since trends shift so rapidly. Clothing will often be thrown out once a trend has passed, often unworn. This is a waste of both precious resources and money.


Cultural Consequences


Fast fashion is notorious for appropriating designs and patterns from different cultures without understanding or respecting their significance. This has sparked controversy and calls for greater cultural sensitivity in recent years.


In countries like Guatemala, where millions of artisans produce their own clothes, fast fashion’s emphasis on mass production of clothing clashes with the meticulous, traditional approach to clothing production.


Guatemalan girls are taught how to weave and dye clothes by their mothers at a young age. The craft of clothing production puts great emphasis on creating garments inspired by nature and paying strict attention to detail. Sometimes, it can take an entire month to perfect a garment.


Fast fashion companies are able to create those same clothes more efficiently, but lack the personal touch of handmade garments.


Unjust Labor Practices


One of the most pressing issues related to fast fashion is exploitation of labor. In order to

produce clothing at incredibly low prices, fast fashion brands often outsource their

manufacturing to countries where labor is cheap and regulations are lax. This strategy is in

theory, much more efficient, but it does not account for the exhaustion and in some cases,

death, of laborers.


Low Wages

In many countries where fast fashion companies are headquartered, garment workers have

extremely low wages, often well below minimum wage. These wages are barely enough to

cover basic living expenses, leading to poor living conditions and an endless cycle of poverty.

Unsafe Working Conditions

Safety regulations in many of these countries are insufficient, and many people work in

hazardous conditions. The collapse of buildings, factories going up in flames, and other

workplace accidents have claimed the lives of countless workers worldwide.

Long Hours & Exploitative Practices

Workers are frequently forced to work overtime in terrible conditions. They suffer through

inhumane treatment by factory management, and often have no bargaining power or

representation to protect their rights.

They are expected to work for 14–16 hours each day, 7 days per week. Sometimes they are

forced to work until 2 am or 3 am to meet production quotas during the busy season.

Job Security

As the industry employs more than 75 million workers worldwide, these workers often work on

a temporary or contractual basis. They lack job security and benefits like health insurance or

retirement plans. They are easily replaceable, causing them to lack any sort of economic

security.

Child Labor & Gender Discrimination

Child labor is a big issue in the fast fashion industry because much of the supply chain

requires unskilled labor, some tasks being better suited to children than adults. In cotton

picking, employers prefer to hire children because small fingers are less likely to damage

crops.

Additionally, the fast fashion industry is extremely discriminatory towards women. Women

make up the majority of garment workers and usually have to face harassment, judgement,

and exploitation on a daily basis.


 

Recap

Fast fashion, with its allure of affordability and trendiness, has undoubtedly transformed the fashion industry. However, it’s important to acknowledge and learn about the the significant issues associated with it — environmental degradation, labor exploitation, and cultural insensitivity.


As consumers, we have the power to promote change. By supporting brands that prioritize sustainability, ethical labor practices, and cultural respect, we can encourage the evolvement of the fashion industry. Fast fashion may appeal to some, but it’s time to consider the true cost of those budget-friendly outfits and strive for a more responsible and inclusive fashion future.


Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and all of our social media platforms!





Author: Maggie Yang

Editor: Emma Mazzotta


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