If you are like me, who enjoy purchasing almost all the apparel from fast fashion brands like Zara, Topshop and H&M… etc.; have you ever wondered what are the costs behind the fashionable but magically inexpensive clothes? It might seem like a win-win for both the consumers and the fast fashion brands as it make fashion more affordable to the mass public, and at the same, time its unique business model bring those companies a considerable amount of profit . However, the truth is that its business model is environmentally unsustainable and often involved unethical treatment of labours. To begin with, let’s define what is fast fashion. The term “fast fashion” is used by the fashion retailers to express the ideas which the designs on catwalk and the most recent fashion trends are captured quickly, and then the magics take place within their supply chain systems —the designed products are quickly manufactured at extremely low costs, and delivered to the retail stores to enable the mainstream consumers to buy them at a low price. While it is true that fast fashion has brought considerable consumption that prospers the fashion industry, and that its low prices allow people to satisfy their desire of shopping and owning trendy items even when they are on a budget; the downsides of the industry are horrendous and too big to ignore.
Fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards.The industry’s major negative impacts include environmental damages and the violation of human rights in developing countries, as more than 97% of the items are outsourced to countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. According to Greenpeace, the global apparel industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. First of all, one of the most common sources of textile is cotton, which is the most toxic and water-intensive crop on Earth according to the Organic Consumer Association in the United States. It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogramme of cotton, and using more than 25 percent of insecticides in the world, making cotton a very environmentally unsustainable source. For example, the irrigation needed for giant cotton plantation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are one of the culprits of the desertification in central Asia. Another cheap and widely-used synthetic fabric in fast fashion is polyester, which has an energy-intensive manufacturing process that required a large amount of crude oil. What’s more, the emission of noxious gases and volatile organic compounds releasing during its producing process can cause severe diseases. These textile manufacturers are therefore considered to be hazardous waste generators, yet this is only the start of the clothing life cycle. As most artificial fabrics are non-bio-degradable, it is essential that these clothing are recycled properly, or else the waste can take more than 200 years to decompose.
Violation of Human Rights
As the fast fashion industry is a very labor-dependent industry, human capital is a fundamental part of the supply chain, namely the most costly part of the production process. The global fashion industry is now a nearly 3 trillion industry, and most of these fast fashion brands are becoming enormous with continuous global expansion and keeping the production cost as low as possible. They tactically benefiting from the use of cheaper labours by signing contracts with the factories which are able to manufacture at a comparatively low cost, and switch to another when the new alternatives provided an even more tempting offer. Since these companies do not directly hire those labour, they can sidestep the responsibility of the protection of the workers’ basic human rights — a fair living wage, a safe working condition and a reasonable working hour. As above mentioned, the fast fashion industry is influential when it comes to supporting their partnered factories to safeguard their workers. However, in recent year, there are numerous large-scale labour protests alleged that these factories are sweatshops and only care about their profitability and being cost-effective regardless of the working condition of their employees. Many garment factories workers in Bangladesh earned roughly only two dollars a day, and it is claimed by the factories owner that the low wages are necessary to keep the business in the country. In 2013, the collapse of Savar building in Dhaka, Bangladesh shed lights of the dirty shadows of the fast fashion industry. With a death toll of 1129, it is the deadliest garment-factory accident in the history. Human negligence is involved in this fatal incident, as the investigation revealed that the owner of the building was well aware of the potential danger that the building would collapse but still insisted his employees return to work. The factory was constructed without authorised permit. Several well-known European retailers including Mango and Primark are found sourcing from the factories that were functioning in the collapsed building. Besides, this is merely one example of how some of the high street brands are not exerting their effort to take responsibility for the profit margin they earned.
Since the business model of fast fashion is based on the consumers’ desire to shop for new items, the companies have to brainwash the shoppers into believing that if the clothing goes out of fashion, they should keep buying new ones to replace them even though the old ones are still wearable. It is done by advertising and campaigning since they are the best way to convey their message across as well as improve the reputations, which are linked to the profitability of the brands. That is, for example, the advertisements will tie the purchases with messages like “once you own these products you will be content and loved”; or some of the H&M campaigns like Conscious collection and the World Recycle Week which make the consumers into believing that fast fashion can be sustainable while it is not. When people are making a buying decision, they used to think more thoroughly regarding the practicability and the quality of the clothes before the fast fashion became the mainstream; but ever since the clothes become cheaper and the fashion cycle decreased steadily, clothes develop into something that is disposable. When fashion becomes fast, cheap and disposable, the only winners are the owners of those fast fashion brands. As the customer’s buying cycle has shortened drastically, the increase of demand are implications of more environment damage and more unnecessary purchase decision as more clothes are ended up in the landfill while they are still wearable.
There are advocates against fast fashion calling for a fashion revolution stating that the fundamental problems of the entire industry are its business model. Values such as materialism which has been promoting by the retailers are unsustainable. In practical, contrasting to fast fashion, the “slow fashion” movement is supporting practices that are sustainable and ethical. Firstly, slowing the rate of fashion consumption — people do not normally need to buy new clothes biweekly or frequently replacing “less trendy” items even they are still in good condition. Secondly, it is important to educate yourself about what is behind the finished product and its price tag. We are often too disconnected with the impacts of our buying decisions, that is, what kind of actions we are supporting by buying the product. And the quote that “every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want” precisely captured how influential your decision is. Choosing clothes with sustainable or recycled fabrics that are produced by brands that cared about their workers involved in the supply chain, and only purchase the items that you will certainly wear more than a few times. Next time when you go shopping, think twice before you buy; your choices matter!