While H&M, Forever 21, Rue21, and even online stores like Zaful or Shein are all known for having the latest styles, they also belong to another category: Fast fashion providers.
Fast fashion refers to clothing that is reproduced after being seen on celebrities or fashion shows, but at a cost that the average consumer can afford. As trends shift, stores that produce fast fashion quickly produce the newly trendy clothing. Oversize denim jackets are seen on celebrities and Instagram, then the next week they’re in the stores you know and love. 1990s styles come back on the runway, and all of the sudden Forever 21 has taken a blast to the past with chokers and fanny packs.
For the consumer, this seems wonderful. They can keep up with the latest trends and not have to spend a significant amount of money.
Fast fashion, as it has been dubbed, has grown tremendously in the past years, and is something that is just now being recognized for its adverse effects on the environment. There is a cost that comes with $20 coats and $6 T-shirts, and it’s not just that the quality of the clothing is undermined.
Fast fashion progresses at such a rapid pace that store stock is replaced as much as 15 times per year. This creates a large amount of textile waste and, instead of being donated or sold at a reduced price, the excess textiles often end up being discarded. In 2015, just over 16 million tons of textiles were generated, of which a little more than 10.5 million tons ended up in landfills, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s two-thirds of all the textiles produced annually, left to sit in landfills or incinerated.
Another issue with fast fashion is that for so much clothing to be produced in a small amount of time, many workers must be employed. In the 2015 film “The True Cost,” which investigates the cost behind fast fashion, footage of a factory in Bangladesh producing these clothes shocked the documentary’s viewers around the world. In this Bangladeshi sweatshop sector, upwards of a thousand workers have died due to work-related accidents, and the workers who are still there can be paid as little as $2 daily.
In order to keep the cost of a graphic T-shirt at $4, cheap labor is sought after and, often due to a lack of other opportunities while outside of the eye of the consumers in Europe and the U.S., workers labor in deplorable conditions. In a August of 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that people in America were still working in factories producing these clothes for $6 an hour, much less than minimum wage.
However, as these issues are brought to the public eye, several companies have responded by making decisions, albeit small ones. H&M began its Conscious Collection in 2012, making its signature trendy clothing with organic materials such as cotton or with recycled materials such as recycled polyester.
It’s a good effort, but it doesn’t change the fact that when materials such as these are put in a landfill and left to degrade, they release methane: a greenhouse gas that has the ability to rise to the atmosphere and trap heat, contributing to global warming.
Fashion brands are contracted to ensure that they are not connected with any sweatshops of any kind. However, there is a way that they can work around the rule if the sweatshop is not listed as a manufacturer but as a retailer.
But what can we do? How can we try to counteract these social and environmental issues? First, we must start with the corporations. Corporations need to know that consumers are aware of the detrimental effects of the production of their clothing and that changes have to be made.
As an individual, however, you can do small things that can make a difference. The idea of “shopping sustainably” can sound like something that only people who live a life of zero-waste and only eat quinoa can do. However, a person can ease into sustainability.
When shopping for clothes, think of whether or not you will wear the item 30 or more times. It may sound like a small number, but it’s a lot more than you think. If you don’t think that you will wear it more than 30 times, perhaps refrain from purchasing it. If you have a special event to wear a fancy dress to, if just for that night, consider renting a dress as opposed to purchasing one you’ll only wear once!
If you have clothes you are tired of or clothes that don’t fit anymore, donate clothes instead of throwing them away. Or sell them to a consignment shop. Or have a yard sale! Perhaps someone else will love your clothes.
On the other side, if you need to buy more clothes, contemplate shopping at a secondhand store. Not only are the costs comparable to those of fast fashion, but you can find unique clothes at a generally higher quality than at a fast fashion retailer. Shopping secondhand makes sure that these clothes don’t end up in the dumpster, and that these clothes get as much use out of them as they deserve.
Fast fashion has been on the up rise in the past few years, but its effects on the world need to stop. And we, the consumers, can start that change.