It’s Time to Slow Down the Fast Fashion Industry
July 8, 2021
The fast fashion industry is one of the most harmful, yet profitable industries in the world. Constant consumption of low-quality products creates an unsustainable business model that severely harms both its employees and the environment. Yet, with rising marketing strategies that persuade consumers to buy more than they need, dismantling the harmful practices of fast fashion is a slow and collective process.
Overconsumption in the Fashion Industry
In understanding why fast fashion is so harmful, it’s important to recognize its presence in your life. According to Merriam Webster, fast fashion is “an approach to the design, creation and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”
This business model, which was created by Zara Founder Amancio Ortega, is used by thousands of other companies, including retail stores like H&M, Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. In addition to these more traditional stores, newer online marketplaces like AliExpress and Shein have increased in popularity due to their low prices.
Fast fashion brands have pioneered a new standard in which clothing is being produced and sold. Prior to fast fashion’s invention in the 1980s, fashion brands introduced new collections for each season. Hence, a new collection was available for purchase every fall, winter, spring and summer.
However, in lieu of utilizing the traditional seasonal schedule, fast fashion companies have increased their profits by releasing more collections each year. Stores like the Gap and Topshop don’t release four collections each year; rather, they release 52 collections each year. These weekly collections are known as “micro-seasons,” in which clothes are created with the intention of being sold for a week until the next collection is shipped out the next week.
This model is wildly unsustainable for both textile workers as well as the environment, as it encourages customers to shop on a weekly basis, while simultaneously increasing the need for unsustainable materials such as polyester, rayon and nylon, and the demand for unethical production.
However, this business model only works if customers continually purchase new items from these retailers. While the micro-seasons ensure that stores will always have a new selection of items for a customer to choose from, other strategic marketing procedures are taken to raise profits and continue the harmful fast fashion cycle.
Offering discounts or sales on merchandise in stores is a tactic used to entice customers to buy more than they actually need. The word ‘sale’ has a different effect on the human brain than other words. Neuroscientist and contributing author to Headspace Dr. Claudia Aguirre explains that when viewing the word ‘sale,’ “our amygdala activates, sending fearful memories of that time we missed out on the great sale where the item sold out.” This sense of urgency behind making purchases drives customers to buy more, furthering the cycle of fast fashion.
While constantly running sales and promotions is a prime marketing tactic for businesses, getting new clientele for bigger profit margins is the main objective for fast fashion companies. As technology has morphed into every avenue of our lives, fast fashion brands have begun using social media as a new advertising platform. Most notably, online brands like Fashion Nova and Shein have been utilizing celebrities and social media to attract customers.
Familiar faces like the Kardashian-Jenner clan, Cardi B and Amber Rose have all become Fashion Nova sponsors, posting numerous photos of themselves in Fashion Nova’s low-priced clothing. In his first public interview since creating the company, Fashion Nova’s founder and CEO Richard Saghian explains this newer marketing technique as a “ripple effect,” in which influencers create more online attention for the brand, and the brand exponentially attracts more customers, comparing the recent uptick in sales to “a viral YouTube video.”
These viral stores have gained a lot of attention over the past decade, as consumers have easier access to cheap clothing that can arrive at their homes in a few days. Another online retailer, Princess Polly, has also utilized social media to create the viral store model. In fact, through the usage of ad campaigns with popular TikTokers called micro-influencers, influencers with a few million followers or less, the brand grew to the sixth favorite shopping website for America’s upper-income teens, according to Piper Sandler’s Taking Stock With Teens survey.
Fashion Nova has also risen to a similar level of popularity, as “three-quarters of its customers return to the site within 90 days.” Saghain explains that to meet the rising demand, the brand adds “400 to 500 new styles to the site each week.” These items added to the store’s collections each week only perpetuate the unethical fast fashion cycle.
With the help of pop-culture icons and micro-influencers, a scroll through Instagram or TikTok has turned into one big advertisement. Hundreds of online and traditional fast fashion retailers have created a constant flow of advertising, which has increased both their popularity and sales.
Because social media influencers are so heavily involved in the promotion of fast fashion trends, pressure is put on impressionable teens to buy the newest and hottest clothing.
According to Dr. Anastasia Desinova’s journal on fashion media and sustainability, shopping is a way people value their self-worth. The people who are most susceptible to giving in to the pressure of fast fashion are those who are impulsive.
People often lack reasoning for their impulsivity and can bring home a haul of clothes on a whim, leading to feelings of remorse for spending so much money on clothes. Fast fashion’s cheap prices are a remedy for that buyer’s remorse, but it can also act as a drug to those impulsive shoppers, easily feeding an addiction.
The impact of fast fashion is one that is only negative, as it perpetuates a high level of consumerism on a daily basis which creates an unsustainable future for the clothing industry. Redirecting our purchases to sustainable brands and turning to groups that help mitigate the impacts of fast fashion is the only way to dismantle the plethora of negative impacts fast fashion has on our world’s health.
The low cost of fast fashion clothing sends a message that the clothing is easily disposable, allowing buyers to be less responsible in their consumption. This is a problem because, according to the World Bank Group, “The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions.” These carbon emissions are “more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
Creating the relatively cheap materials needed for fast fashion clothing is extremely harmful to the environment, seeing as a lot of synthetic materials, such as polyester, are mass-produced in factories that release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Making these materials requires an extensive amount of crude oil, which releases emissions like volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acidic gases. One of the more well-known greenhouse gases it releases into the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.
According to Solveig Fellows’s journal article, “Fast Fashion: The True Cost,” the fashion industry is a large contributor to climate change.
The production of these garments is also harmful to the environment and to people because of the toxic chemicals from the dyes used in the clothing. According to Amit Kalra’s Ted Talk, “10 to 20 percent [of this dye] ends up in bodies of water that neighbor production hubs in developing nations.”
The demand for these materials is increasing every year and according to American medical researcher Luz Claudio’s research on environmental health perspectives, the demand for polyester and other materials alike has doubled during the past 15 years. According to science reporter Morgan McFall-Johnsen’s article on the effects, the fashion industry has on the environment, “On average, people bought 60 percent more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000.”
As the amount of clothing consumption increases, so does the amount of textile waste generated every year. Synthetic fibers in clothing can take as long as 200 years to decompose, according to Sustain Your Style, a platform that promotes sustainable fashion innovations. According to Washington University Global Health researcher Rachel Bick, around 85 percent of all clothing that Americans consume, amounting to about 3.8 billion pounds per year, ends up as solid waste in landfills (around 80 pounds per American each year). This simply goes to show how the culture of consumption has serious, long-term consequences.
An environmental issue that started from consumers wanting to keep up with trends has led to not only concerning health issues but also the pollution of our planet. This is not a new problem, though. For years professionals have been warning the public about how human activities could damage the environment to the point of no return and it is time to take action.
Fast Fashion and Human Rights
Unfortunately, in addition to the negative environmental impact of fast fashion, the actual act of making these garments often violate human rights.
The cheap prices and constant cycle of clothes are only possible because of the unfair wages paid to workers and the long hours these companies demand. According to Retail Executive Syama Meagher’s article on the unethical cost of fast fashion, many manufacturers put workers through agonizing 12-hour shifts. For their work, they only get paid about 3 cents per piece, and the clothing is sold for prices anywhere between 5 and 75 dollars.
These factories are commonly called sweatshops, as workers are crowded and cramped while working close to one another to allow for more people to work and for faster production of clothing. Unsurprisingly, Meagher said that most workers in these shops in Los Angeles are undocumented immigrants. Immigrants make up 71 percent of the “cut-and-sew” labor force, according to the California Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The conditions of workers in countries like Asia are exploitative and similar to slave labor. A tragic example of this was during the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013. According to Sustain Your Style, 1134 garment workers were killed because of unsafe and unregulated working conditions in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The working environment did not have any ventilation, and workers were subject to injuries and death. Another example of this type of labor is in Uzbekistan, where over one million people of all ages are forced to pick cotton in order to seek out material for the country’s fashion industry.
Another major problem in fast fashion is forced labor; according to the International Labour Organisation, about 170 million children worldwide are forced into working. Child labor is common in the fast fashion industry because making garments typically does not require a specific skill set. For example, girls working in the Sumangali scheme in South India, a scheme where young girls are sent to work in a textile factory for several years for only a small amount of money, are overworked in dehumanizing conditions, according to Sustain Your Style.
At the end of day, it’s not about perfection; it’s about progress. We should be celebrating the brands that are even making small steps towards sustainability.
— Anna Copeland, Programs & Research Associate of FTA
Workers in these conditions are also often prohibited from forming unions and are punished by factories for doing so. According to Human Rights Watch, a former Bangladeshi union member said, “Whoever raises their head suffers the most.” Many workers who fight for better conditions are physically and verbally harassed by management.
There are various ways people can help garment workers. One way is donating to charities like The Women and Girls Solidarity Fund to provide women and their families with food and other vital materials. Of course, another way is to hold brands accountable; people can refuse to buy from fast fashion brands unless they implement policies to improve workers’ rights.
Though the complete elimination of fast fashion is difficult, there are various non-profit organizations that are advocating for sustainable fashion and are making a real difference. One such non-profit is Fashion Takes Action (FTA), a Canadian organization created in 2007 that strives to encourage sustainability through awareness and education. They have worked with hundreds of businesses and have had numerous achievements in advocating for their mission, from large stores and brands such as H&M, Lululemon and Canada Goose, to smaller brands such as Giant Tiger and Joe Fresh.
Anna Copeland, the programs & research associate of FTA, said in an exclusive interview with Optic that although fast fashion may not be an ideal way to shop in regards to the environment, it is still a resource for those who genuinely can’t afford to buy more sustainable clothing. When speaking of FTA’s partnership with H&M, she mentioned that “we need to change the conversation” surrounding fast fashion.
“Instead of shaming people for buying fast fashion, these big brands have an opportunity to take leadership on sustainability,” said Copeland. “At the end of the day, it’s not about perfection; it’s about progress. We should be celebrating the brands that are even making small steps towards sustainability. If a brand has 10 percent of its collection as sustainable… it is still making a difference. We don’t want to discourage other fast fashion brands from trying.”
FTA seeks to encourage more fashion brands to take part in sustainability through events such as their “W.E.A.R (World Ethical Apparel Roundtable) Webinar Series,” an event bringing the fashion industry together to discuss sustainable fashion, launched in 2014 as an annual conference. In 2020, the conference was virtual because of the pandemic.
“We saw this as a good opportunity to expand our reach, audience and message, so it became a monthly webinar series in 2020,” said Copeland. “By doing this, we were able to bring together the entire fashion industry to learn, network, collaborate and create a platform that allows for these meaningful conversations [about sustainable fashion].”
The W.E.A.R webinar series has a different theme each month. May’s theme was, “Material, Innovation and Sustainability.” According to Copeland, the theme for June is “Innovation for a Sustainable Future,” which will be a “virtual demo day showcasing innovative technologies and solutions to address the social and environmental impacts of the apparel industry.”
“We feature brands that are doing things like using mushroom leather instead of synthetic leathers,” said Copeland. Copeland also mentioned that the conference has Q&A portions to encourage audience members to ask questions about sustainability practices. Throughout the series, FTA has hosted over 350 speakers and has drawn an international audience.
FTA has also created an initiative with the “Textile, Recycling, Feasibility” study, with research partners that include Ryerson University, Seneca College, George Brown College, Goodwill Industries and the CTTEI, in Ontario, Canada. “We have so many items [in Ontario] that people throw away or donate that don’t end up doing anything or benefiting anybody,” said Copeland. “FTA has recently convened the first cross-sector collaboration in Ontario to address textile waste diversion, and we’re in the process of initiating a pilot project for a river textile recycling program in Ontario.”
FTA also has a youth education program called “My Clothes, My World,” where they deliver a virtual workshop to children as young as eight-years-old, encouraging them to get involved in sustainable fashion. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions. — The World Bank Group
The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions.
— The World Bank Group
“It allows us to build a relationship with students and inspire them to become climate leaders,” said Copeland. FTA also encourages youth to make changes in sustainability through programs such as their Global Youth ambassador program. “These are youth aged 15-25 who are looking to learn more about the industry, get some volunteer hours or just want to learn more about the industry,” said Copeland. “They help amplify our message through social media and blog posts, and we are always accepting applications no matter where you are in the world.”
Making a Change
Outside of joining non-profit organizations, there are numerous steps that an individual can take to keep their wardrobe ethical. This is what we would call utilizing slow fashion practices. Unlike fast fashion, slow fashion refers to clothing that is produced with a quality over quantity mindset. Slow fashion brands take time to produce a collection of clothing that is new and interesting, releasing collections on their own timeline. Production is slowed down, and it is more sustainable and ethical. Slow fashion promotes the idea of intentional consumption, and long-lasting clothes, in an attempt to cut down the amount of waste produced by discarding clothing. In order to keep this pledge, slow fashion companies often keep production local so that they can oversee and monitor what is happening at production sites.
The first step to helping out is to use what is in your closet. Be sure to have clothes in your wardrobe that make the most sense for your lifestyle; try to create a closet filled with only things that you will wear and that you need. Another alternative to buying new clothes is renting or borrowing clothes. Companies like Rent the Runway allow individuals to rent clothing for a period of time and then send it back to be reused. This way, a person is able to try something new, but the item does not go to waste.
Also, know where your clothes are coming from, and do your research. Look for brands that have taken steps towards creating more eco-friendly clothing. Any step taken by a brand to be more environmentally-conscious is an improvement.
A lot of companies are able to mask their lack of environmental awareness by distracting customers with irresistible deals. Try not to impulse buy and resist the sneaky deals from fast fashion brands. Instead of constantly buying discounted fast fashion, save and invest in better quality products. Take care of the clothing that you have to slow down the process of clothing turnover.
Buying clothes that are gently used, donating clothing to charity, giving it to a thrift store, giving to a friend or family member, or even creating something new out of it, are all good ways to recycle clothing, instead of the alternative, throwing them away.
There are many places within Westfield and nearby areas where you can responsibly donate your clothes. Some thrift stores in Westfield include: The Westfield Service League Thrift Store (which you can read more about on page 22), Hope Chest, Janus’ Closet and Midtown Authentic. In neighboring towns you can visit the Jumble Store Thrift Shop in Cranford, Scotch Plains Thrift Shop, and Best Friend Thrift Store in Scotch Plains.
Donating clothing to charitable organizations like The Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Goodwill, USAgain and GreenDrop is not only an environmentally-conscious way to get rid of clothes but also give to people in need. When giving clothing away, make sure to research all of the options beforehand to ensure that the clothing is going into the best hands possible, and the option you choose is the best fit for the items being given.
Slow fashion living may not seem ideal and requires extreme attention to detail, but it can help lead to a better and longer future for all of us.
With the deteriorating state of our planet, it is more important than ever to inspire and educate each other about fast fashion and work towards sustainability.
Together, we can reduce the effects of fast fashion and move towards a healthier environment.