The term “fast fashion” refers to the highly profitable first world fashion industry grounded on the low-cost mass production of clothing, accessories and footwear in third world countries, which allows consumers to purchase new, trendy and readily available garments for the lowest prices.
The word “fast” describes how quickly retailers can place new designs into the stores all around the world, keeping pace with the constant demand for more and different styles. Its origins date back to late 20th century as manufacturing became cheaper with the use of new materials like nylon and polyester. Many companies, such as Zara, H&M and Forever21, started building its business models on inexpensive labor industries in Asia, creating seasonal and trendy designs that easily pierced consumers all over the world due to its low prices. But what is the cost of this rapid turn-over of low-cost garments?
Primarily, we must focus on the significant environmental impacts of fast fashion. Approximately 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased every year, leading mass production of clothing to account for 8% of worldwide carbon emissions and placing the fashion industry in the top 5 of the most polluting industries in the world. Moreover, this industry is considered to be the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply: according to a National Geographic study, each cotton shirt takes 2700 litters of water to be made, enough water to sustain one human being for three years.
On top of that, fast fashion uses pesticides for dyeing and production, leading to a heavy pollution of waterways in many developing countries. This happens because whilst in developed countries governments ban most of these chemicals, in the poorer ones their dependency on the clothing industry does not allow them to do so, which leads us to the main damage made by this industry: its tremendous impact on the countries in which production takes place.
Because most multinational fashion companies set their factories in countries with inadequate labor laws and little to no government control, working conditions are dehumanising and dangerous, as many people do not have the luxury to turn down any form of work and have no choice but to work under these conditions in order to survive.
These conditions include a 14 to 16 hours of work per day, seven days a week while facing physical and verbal abuse from their supervisors and often locked in closed spaces filled with toxic substances and no ventilation. In many countries, minimum wages range from a half to a fifth of the living wage required for a family to meet its basic needs, leading textile workers to be some of the lowest-paid employees in the world.
However, the main issue taken by the fast fashion industry into developing countries is child exploitation. The race between companies to find the ever-cheaper sources of labor, in order to achieve the common goal of maximising profits, has led them to neglect basic human rights and cope with some of the worst forms of child labor. This happens because many employers in these countries actually prefer employing children, as much of the supply chain requires low-skilled tasks and some are even better suited to children due to their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.
Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Pakistan are some of the 51 countries that use child labor in the garment industry, in which millions of children are subject to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and often paid below the minimum wage, which we have already discussed is far from being enough for living a decent life with basic needs. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are around 170 million children aged between five and seventeen years old in child labor, almost 17% of the global population of children. Of these, half are working for fashion supply chains.
But as with most topics, there is another side to it. While the treatment and compensations of textile workers in developed countries is inhumane and a potential violation of basic human rights, there are positive effects that cannot be ignored. The choice between a life on the streets and a modest-paying job is a choice between life and death for many in developing countries. Not to mention children, without a certain commitment to a place to spend their time, tend to fall towards prostitution and drugs as a way to make ends meet. Despite all its flaws, the textile industry is, at the moment, one of the factors that plays a part in deterring the descent of the younger generation into an even worse life.
In addition, this industry employs thousands of workers and, in an extreme scenario where people simply stop consuming, it will cause many who really needs this job, despite its atrocious conditions, to lose it and be in an even worse financial situation. The lesser of two evils.
Nevertheless, the fast fashion cycle isn’t limited to its production in developing countries; a piece of clothing can travel half the globe in its lifetime. Finished products are shipped and sold to Western nations – this is fast fashion’s first pipeline. In developed countries, damaged or unwanted pieces of clothing are donated to charitable organisations, which redistribute them to developing countries – this is the second pipeline.
Therefore, the cycle of self-consuming fast fashion is perpetuated across the globe, incentivising poorer countries to keep producing clothing articles at extremely low costs, as the resulting influx of donated clothes from developed countries is a cheaper alternative to clothing than the establishment of a self-serving textile industry within the developing country.
Let us take the African example: the continent once renowned for its fabrics and textiles, coveted by European explorers, has a dying clothing industry due to overwhelming donations from abroad. The image of an African child in a worn-down graphic tee or a Los Angeles Lakers jersey is all too common. Foreign imports of clothing intensified during the 1980s and 1990s when trade barriers were removed.
Some East African nations, in an effort to reignite their textile industry, proposed a ban of clothing imports by 2019. This plan was swiftly rescinded due to pressures by developed countries such as the US, which stand to gain from fast fashion’s second pipeline – over 40,000 US jobs would be lost. It is important to take into account the negative effects of donating clothing towards developing countries, as they may be causing more harm than good.
All in all, fast fashion is a contentious topic; there is no denying that our lives, as developed nations, have benefited from its fruits. Our easy clothing doesn’t come without its downfalls, however. Where do we draw the line? Many turn a blind eye to fast fashion’s vicious cycle – but we cannot keep ignoring it. Perhaps a more conscious choice of clothing is in order.
Sources: The New York Times & The Guardian