By Aaron Adriaan
Main stream consumer culture and unsustainable fashion
The concept of fast fashion is one that has been circling the fashion industry for the last few years with new emphasis being placed on sustainability. Following the Paris agreement, members of the United Nations have agreed to reduce their carbon emissions and have implemented plans and restrictions on companies to accomplish this. This agreement has affected many industries as those that do not comply with the new restrictions will be issued hefty fines.
Companies like ZARA, H&M, Forever 21, and Topshop have all been named as fast fashion retailers by Forbes magazine and Teen Vogue, to name a few, who are major business and consumer publications with a wide reach. Fast fashion is essentially the practice of clothing retailers accelerating their production and management of their supply chain to provide customers with new items quickly. The way this is accomplished is by using cheaper materials and simpler methods to produce the garments. They are also often made in countries with very low minimum wage requirements, high rates of poverty, low quality of life, and limited worker rights. This then reduces the cost of labour and production of the clothes you find on the racks of various retailers. The fast fashion industry works by observing the “high fashion” market and its various trends at events like New York fashion week. Events like these define seasonal trends through their power and influence. With brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Jean Paul Gaultier being at the centre of these conversations.
In following the trends set by the seasonal release of clothing at the various fashion weeks, and smaller collections released intermittently by brands, these companies must regularly be designing and releasing new clothing items. However, the result of this is a large portion of clothes being produced and placed on the shelves of retailers before the last collection of items has had a chance to sell. This demand does not come from nowhere. The willingness of consumers to follow trends and regularly purchase new items determines whether these brands will produce new items regularly. This level of consumerism, low cost of production, and affordable price points at sale, allow companies to have a reasonably high profit margin with a limited number of items being sold at any one time. Because the speed of production and consumption is so fast, items that go unsold at full price, which at times is much higher than the cost of production, can go on sale with little effect on the company’s profit margins.
The main criticism of fast fashion is the disposability of the clothing due to the quick obsolescence of the trends that created the garments in the first place. While, for the consumer, having new trends available cheaply can be wonderful, the unseen cost is very high and consumers need to be aware of this. As consumers very quickly buy and dispose of clothing as trends progress, there is inevitably a large amount of waste when perfectly good clothing is thrown out. The ecological damage that coincides with the production of resources required to make the clothing is an aspect people are often not aware of. Cotton farms, for example, require a large amount of natural resources such as water, land, and pesticides that can damage the natural environment. This occurs through toxic pesticide run-off, deforestation and the conspicuous consumption of water in some cases. There is also the matter of the labour required to produce these clothes; Where they are being produced, how, by whom and whether the production of the clothing is ethical or legal. Through the years there have been scandals surrounding the conditions of factories in Bangladesh where 142 people died in the collapse of Rana Plaza, Savar. This building reportedly housed factories producing clothing for western retailers, according to the New York Times, and it was discovered that the building itself was not up to standard and in a state of decay.
What is most concerning, being that this is merely the tip of the iceberg, is that fast fashion has been linked to many other issues that pose ethical questions. Companies that produce fast fashion have been linked to sweatshops, and in turn slavery (not excluding child and sex slavery), plagiarism, large amounts of excess waste and ecological damage from production processes. These all pose as sources of concern for people interested in human rights and global issues. It can be said that, as consumers, we sometimes fail to consider where our products are coming from. However, there needs to be a consideration about whether we are perpetuating a questionable practice in fashion. This leaves you, the consumer, to decide whether the products you are buying are a part of that industry. A question we should learn to ask ourselves is: Wouldn’t a garment in my wardrobe, or in a second-hand store, not be equally as good as something fast and new from off the racks?