By Emma Nickse
In recent years, the fashion industry has seen a skyrocketing of new stores, suppliers, and buyers. Access to the most recent trends right off the runway can be found at your local Forever 21, H&M, and Cotton On at a much more affordable price. It allows people from all incomes to dress their best, while avoiding an empty wallet. However, fast fashion has a dark side that not many consumers think about. Where do these clothes come from? Who makes them? What happens when my good-for-a-month crop top goes in the garbage? Unfortunately, none of those answers are good ones. We as consumers hold so much power with our dollar, and the causes we choose to support. Through this story, I hope to educate more on the topics of the development of fast fashion, how it affects the world, and what we can do to be more conscious of our fashion footprint.
To start off, a quick and modern definition of what fast fashion essentially is. Fast fashion is described as companies imitating styles and trends seen on the runways at different fashion events, and recreating them at a much lower price and quality to sell to the mass market. A little bit of history precedes this definition, which in past centuries meant an efficient way to use fabrics in a “cookie-cutter” process to make clothes readily available. From the 1880s and on, this is a system that’s been perfected. New ways to produce clothing garments during the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. made construction easier, and most importantly, cheaper. According to Fashionista.com, “first patented in 1846, the sewing machine contributed to an extremely rapid fall in the price of clothing and an enormous increase in the scale of clothing manufacturing.” While these developments boosted different high fashion hubs, this separated the lower-class clothing-makers into the “sweaters,” and gave a glimpse into how most of today’s non-designer fashion would be made. World War II led to the conservation of fabric being used to make mass-produced styles, which led the people of the ‘60s to embrace sacrificing quality for what’s right off the runway. Today, “1 out of 6 people alive today work in some part of the world’s fashion industry,” according to Krugstore.com. China and Bangladesh are the world’s biggest apparel exporters, where more than 5,000 factories make clothing for the popular western brands you would see at your local mall. Also according to Krugstore.com, the “USA produced 95% of their clothes in the 1960’s. Today it is only 3%,” which shows how time has proven our reliance on outsourcing our products to other countries. The industry is like a bullet train speeding through the competition, and our dependence only makes the need for change more apparent.
In recent years, it’s become more and more apparent that the cost of producing fast fashion is starting to outweigh the benefit. Not many people think about the conditions in which their favorite jean skirt was made, or how much a person got paid to stitch a logo on a baseball cap. Because most apparel companies outsource clothing from other countries, they don’t have much motivation to monitor the environments they’re produced in, and the well-being of the people who make them. Consequently, a lot of ethical and environmental corners are cut to make up for the rate these pieces have to be manufactured at. On average, the salary for a worker in Bangladesh “is just US$0.13 per hour, which is the lowest in the world” according to Brandongaille.com. They have to work 70 hour weeks just to make an average income, and most of that is spent in dirty, hot, and sometimes abusive sweatshops. On the same note, most of the fabric has to go through a lot of processing before it gets assembled, so workers are exposed to numerous chemicals and this poses a major health risk. As unfortunate as it is, most of the clothing the workers produce won’t even be bought due to the overproduction of temporary trends. Consequently, those same clothes and the toxic chemicals produced alongside them end up in landfills that could eventually affect the surrounding earth and water supply. That’s when this epidemic translates from a human problem to an environmental one. The Independent.co.uk speaks on textile dye as being “the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture.” Synthetic materials that also make up the clothing items get swept away, deconstructed, and ingested by local wildlife. Polyester, a microfiber that has a makeup identical to plastic, can make its way into the oceans and get eaten by smaller creatures. This contributes into an entirely new issue about the detrimental effects of plastic, which is an entire novel of its own accord. The trends of the season shouldn’t be worth the underpaid workdays, or millions of sea creatures’ lives. If this goes unchanged, we will continue to pay for our world to be destroyed, both in life and spirit.
There are a plethora of things that an individual can do to help bring awareness and curb this rising issue. Changing our mindset on excessive consumerism (rationalizing how much of one clothing item we truly need) is a great place to start. For example, realizing an individual’s need to buy so many winter coats are a concept that Patagonia’s Chief Product Officer Lisa Williams proved unfounded. On Sustainyourstyle.org, she stated simply that “the most environmentally sustainable jacket is the one that’s already in your closet.” Decreasing the amount that’s spent on these companies will not only send a statement, but it will train our habits on impulsive spending. Thrifting and buying from sustainably sourced clothing brands also helps with making your dollar count in the right places. Most thrift stores give a portion of their profits to charity, which impacts the local community. It’s my personal favorite way to be conscious about how I fill my closet, and also inadvertently adds unique and standout pieces to my wardrobe. For college and low-income individuals, this is the way to go to keep great clothes out of the landfills. If you have the funds to purchase higher-quality ethical clothing brands, Sustainyourstyle.org has an entire section dedicated to a range of companies and price points. Making the most out of our clothing sources promises change in how clothing in other countries are produced, and keep the companies accountable.
There is still a lot to be done about raising awareness on how our favorite outfits are made. Not only is this affecting a large percentage of eastern workers, but it is also killing our planet. Although sustainability is becoming a more widespread concept, working on the inside is crucial to change how manufacturers process and take on their work environments. We have a long way to go when it comes to cleaning up the clothing industry, and there’s no time like the present to do so.
Header photo from Faubourg.