“The primary objective of fast fashion is to quickly produce a product in a cost-efficient manner to respond to fast-changing consumer tastes in as near real time as possible.”
Fast fashion emerged in the 1980s as a way to deliver high-end designer styles quickly and inexpensively to the mass consumer who could not necessarily afford couture. With fast fashion trumping even the traditional "ready to wear" or, prêt-à-porter, aspiration no longer equated to sheer hopefulness, it could become reality without breaking the bank. Fast fashion plus the emergence of social media influencers, combined with immediate online access to apparel have proven to be a potent combination; since the 1980s consumption of clothing and accessories has grown exponentially.
The downside to the plethora of fashionable but cheap garments made possible by fast fashion leaders Zara (owned by the innovative Spanish firm Inditex), H&M, C&A, and others are abysmal working conditions for the textile workers who stitch the garments and massive degradation to the environment. The irony of fast fashion is that many of the trend setting consumers who represent a large component of the demand for stylish cheap clothing, are the same people who fight for “social justice” and claim to be stewards of the environment.
Think About This The Next Time You Buy A Cheap T-Shirt In 5 Different Colors
The global fashion industry accounts for ~2% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Zara alone can “manufacture over 30,000 units of product every year to nearly 1,600 stores in 58 countries." In a 2015 documentary titled "The True Cost", Director Andrew Morgan travels globally to delve deeper into the provenance of our clothing, the impact on the environment and human rights. According to the documentary’s website, 97% of our clothing is manufactured overseas while global consumption of clothing runs at 80 billion pieces.
After the oil and gas (O&G) industry, the fashion industry is the greatest contributor to environmental degradation. It takes “up to 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric and 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kg of cotton.” The World Resource Institute notes that it requires 2,700 liters of water to manufacture one shirt, which equals enough drinking water for the average person for ~2.5 years. This statistic is even more jarring when coupled with the fact that close to 800 million people – over 10% of the world’s population - do not have access to safe drinking water.”
In large part thanks to fast fashion: “The average consumer bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long.” Unfortunately, the environmental harm done when we dispose of clothing, while not commonly discussed, is remarkable. Depending on the materials of these garments, the impact to the earth can last for centuries. “The synthetic fibers often favored by fast fashion brands, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, are basically a kind of plastic made from petroleum, which means they could take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.” This is a troubling data point, especially since Americans generate ~80 pounds per person of waste from clothing or about 3.5 billion pounds annually.
The environmental practices of O&G companies are well known and in constant debate. That is a good thing. But we would be remiss not to stress that some of the same people who chide the oil & gas industry, holding up signs vilifying companies for plundering the earth's natural resources, destroying its natural beauty and disturbing its ecology are buying, wearing and discarding clothing produced in a way that does exactly the same thing.
Globally integrated supply chains, inexpensive labor, cheap transportation, the internet and social media have transformed the concept of fast fashion into a profitable reality. Production is usually based in factories located in Southeast Asia and Latin America, in developing nations with rudimentary worker protections, or none at all. The pressure to win lucrative contracts with some of the world’s biggest retailers in the US and Europe takes precedence over worker safety. Regrettably, textile workers are easily exploitable and readily replaceable.
In 2013 there was a deadly fire and explosion in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh which claimed more than 1100 lives and injured more than 2500. Scant if any compensation was paid out to workers and their families. While Rana Plaza was the single worst accident to occur in the garment industry, it certainly was not the first time that fatalities had occurred in a similar way. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, at least 35 more textile factory incidents occurred resulting in 491 workers suffering injuries and 27 losing their lives.”
No laborer should have to work in unsafe conditions. That said, although politically unpopular to espouse, we must keep in mind that what a developed nation views as “exploitation” might very well be considered normal practices in the Third World. All countries develop at their own pace. In the early 20th century, working conditions in the American textile industry were analogous to the current conditions in developing nations today. Employees were treated terribly and had little if any recourse. That began to change after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village in New York City, on March 25th, 1911. The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents to date. Over one hundred people died. A disproportionate number of victims were teenage women who toiled in what was then NYC’s garment district in sweltering heat, under brutal and unsafe conditions. “Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked (a then-common practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft) many of the workers who could not escape from the burning building jumped from the high windows. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.”
The fire that killed over 1100 people in Bangladesh was so deadly in part because doors and stairwells were sealed off too. This is reprehensible. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that it is simply not realistic for a developing nation to prioritize safer working conditions and higher wages when a significant percentage of the population is still left without the most basic of resources, even latrines. Unless the market (society) demands it, like it did after the blaze in Greenwich Village almost 100 years ago, change will be difficult to come by.
An Uncomfortable Choice
Western idealists, many of whom source their wardrobe from fast fashion retailers in America and Europe, sometimes make general statements such as “factories should be made safer” or “workers should be paid a living wage.” In theory, we agree. In practice, the dirty secret is that if factories were made safer and workers were compensated with a wage commensurate with their living costs, the entire fast fashion business model would risk collapse. Why? Because too many of the same idealists who advocate – with deep pockets but short arms – to pay workers more and make factories safer, would probably be unable or unwilling to pay a higher price for an article of clothing, especially after they have become accustomed to cheap gear that can be trashed for something new for a few clicks and a few bucks.
It is in everybody’s best interest to work towards a common goal of globally competitive wages and safe working conditions. The uncomfortable reality is that one must often make a choice between safer factories and higher wages or very cheap clothing. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have both.
While there certainly is a lot of hypocrisy amongst people with regards to their indulgence in cheap, stylish clothing, fortunately, this is (very) slowly starting to change. Interest in sustainable fashion is a budding movement that appears to be gaining momentum. A “slow fashion” movement with sustainable designers, that support locally made, ethical small business has taken root. For example, online retailer Net-A-Porter now has a designation on certain design as “sustainable”.
Armed with more information, an increasing number of people are pausing to consider the environmental damage caused by the fast fashion supply chain, and the lives of overworked, underpaid and often mistreated textile workers making our clothes. In the future, hopefully we will reflect back to the fire that killed over 1100 hundred disenfranchised laborers in Bangladesh and come to realize that if there was one silver lining on that horrible day, it was that it turned out to be the beginning of broad based self-reflection and course-correction in the fast fashion industry.