Do you ever wonder why you see brand new styles every time you walk past the window of an H&M? That’s a result of fast fashion. Fashion brands used to release four lines per year, bringing you the relevant looks for each change of season. Now they can come out no less than 52 times.
Retailers churn out new designs every week because, quite simply, more clothing lines mean more profit. But faster, cheaper production has costs that are often unseen. They come in the form of labour abuse and environmental pollution.
As fashion journalist Lucy Siegle points out, “fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying for it.”
That someone is a marginalised garment worker. That somewhere is our planet. Retailers are engaging in a dangerous race to the bottom regarding forced labour and environmental concerns. As this happens, Fast Fashion is bringing a storm of human rights violations and environmental destruction on a global scale.
This Fast Fashion epidemic has us thinking: If there’s anything we learned from the classic childhood tale, The Tortoise and The Hare, it’s that it doesn’t always pay to be fast. Taking it slow is a better strategy for almost every area of life. So, when it comes to clothing production, we should really be taking it slow.
We should be thinking about using materials that have a lower environmental impact and leave minimal waste. We should be thinking about using factories that don’t abuse modern slavery.
Unfortunately, these aren’t major concerns for retailers of Fast Fashion.
Fast Fashion refers to retailers’ practice of producing cheap clothes as quickly and as frequently as possible. Since the prices on these items are so low, they encourage consumers to buy en masse without thinking too much about their purchases. The result is that retailers are majorly overproducing. Consumers are buying clothes they don’t really want and definitely don’t need just because they’re inexpensive. And all this is causing major clothing waste.
The faster some retailers produce clothing lines, the faster other retailers are doing so in order to keep up.
Retailers like H&M and Forever 21 come out with new collections weekly. The message to consumers is that they should be buying new clothes every week to keep up with current trends. And, unfortunately, the fact that these clothes are so cheap means people can afford to buy them weekly.
Designers are forced to churn out a myriad of new ideas every week. This design pressure means that they’re less concerned about crafting beautiful designs and more concerned with just creating new ones.
So, this is our message to you: just because you see an orange ruffled crop top donned by the faceless central mannequin at H&M, doesn’t mean orange ruffled crop tops are suddenly coming into style.
It might just mean the designers ran out of other ideas.
Fast Fashion production wouldn’t be possible without major corner cutting both in terms of labour and the environment.
The pressure for companies to produce cheaply means that they often don’ pay their factory workers fair or minimum wages. Garment workers are often forced to work extreme overtime hours and lack access to trade unions. Further, the majority of these garment workers are women and girls who are vulnerable to verbal, physical and sexual exploitation from their superiors. This is especially true in Asia, where most manufacturers take their business because of the looser labour restrictions.
Still, what’s even more startling is the amount of labour abuse that’s actually happening on UK soil, especially in factories in Leicester. A 2016 Government report on Modern Slavery found that of 71 leading retailers in the UK, 77% believed there was a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chains. Fast Fashion brands often play suppliers against each other in a competition to offer the lowest prices and shortest lead times. This results in low wages, poor working conditions, and a shift towards modern slavery.
Fast Fashion is also no friend to the environment. The excessive textile production needed to keep up with Fast Fashion results in overwhelming CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to polluting the air, Fast Fashion is also polluting the earth’s water. It takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. This statistic is startling when we consider how many cheap cotton t-shirts we see on sale daily. The dyes that go into most brightly coloured Fashion pieces are also environmental polluters. Finally, the cheap textiles used in Fast Fashion (namely Polyester) shed microfibres that contribute to ocean pollution.
Maybe the biggest problem with Fast Fashion is the culture it creates. The overabundance of inexpensive items means that we start to view clothing as cheap and disposable. We end up buying more often and keeping pieces for shorter amounts of time. And this process leaves us with a lot of clothing waste. Looking at you, orange ruffled crop top. So what actually happens to all these unwanted pieces? Charity Shops are drowning in an oversupply of unwanted clothes. A small number of lucky items are given a second life. Still, the majority end up incinerated (releasing CO2 emissions) in landfills, or shipped abroad, a practice that has its own negative implications.
The other problem is that many garments aren’t even given a first life. What happens to all the items that don’t sell? Again, they’re looking at the landfill or the fashion funeral pyre. Since Fast Fashion brands rarely produce sparingly, this sad fate awaits tonnes of items weekly.
Fast fashion retailers are aware of the change in consumer wants and needs. A survey conducted by McKinsey found that 67% of consumers now pay more attention to the environmental impact their clothing has. With this in mind, retailers are claiming to move towards more sustainable forms of clothing, using eco-friendly wording to convince consumers of their ethical sourcing and production.
However, it’s important to know that ‘green claims’ can be false. In fact, a recent analysis found that 40% of online green claims were misleading. The CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) have recently begun an investigation into three retailers - Boohoo, ASOS and George Asda.
The CMA is concerned that the language used by such retailers are too broad and vague, misleading consumers into believing their clothing is more sustainable than they actually are. A study conducted by Retail Week found that many shoppers are falling for this type of greenwashing. In a survey where people were asked to name the most sustainable retailers and brands, Primark, Nike, M&S, Amazon and H&M were all in the top 5. Sadly, proving that greenwashing is working.
Do you want to know more about greenwashing and how you can avoid it both as a consumer and a business owner? Check out our previous blog with tips on making sure you don’t let greenwashing impact your decisions.
Recently, there’s been a burgeoning dialogue about the cost of Fast Fashion. Initiatives in favour of sustainable fashion, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan have gained traction. Most importantly, consumers are starting to think more seriously about purchasing and seeking out ethical brands. As this happens, there’s a growing movement toward “Slow Fashion.” Slow Fashion is a term somewhat synonymous with “sustainable” or “ethical” fashion but designed specifically to roast Fast Fashion practices. So, if Fast Fashion is the industry’s foolhardy white hare, now we finally have a cute tortoise to put our money on.
While we wait for the bigger brands to get on board our slow and steady reptilian friend, basic change can happen on an individual level. Don't buy seven £5 dresses that you’ll ultimately toss. Invest in a great £35 dress that’s going to last you. Buy clothes you love because you love them, not because they’re cheap. As a general rule, if you don’t think you’ll wear it 30 times, it’s probably not worth buying. Small choices like this will ultimately make a big impact on the ethos of the Fashion Industry. And remember, when it comes to fashion, just like when it comes to life, it’s better to take things slow.