Fast fashion is a phenomenon that takes place in our world as a consequence of the rise in the adoption of the capitalist system by countries around the world. Fast fashion mimics designer clothing at a much more affordable price. To make this happen, the fast fashion companies use unethical methods that are harmful to the society and environment alike. Seeking to make profits, the capitalists puts little attention to how the process of maximising the output is done. This research paper aims to focus on the rise of fast fashion and the negative effects it has on the society and the environment, particularly in the practise of modern slavery and overproduction which results in wastage and pollutions. In the first part, we will focus on the rise of fast fashion and how it is linked to capitalism. In the second part, we will discuss on the negative effects it has on the society and environment and in the last part, we will see how fast fashion continues to gain support despite its unethical practices.
In the 21st century, more and more countries are adopting the system of capitalism, defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. This has.resulted in profit-making businesses where the main aim is to generate income. Capitalism practices have successfully introduced many advancements, be it technology or idea, to cut time and costs in order maximize output while minimising input. (Lambert M., 2014) One of the consequences of the capitalist system is the rise of fast fashion.
Defined as a phenomenon in the fashion industry whereby designer-inspired clothes are produced as quickly and cheaply as possible to meet the expectations of consumers, fast fashion is becoming a new trend in the global fashion economy. (Oijala, 2016) Fast fashion requires companies to produce low-cost and trend-based clothings at a very fast speed as it is one of the biggest contributors to business empires. In order to achieve this, exploitative methods are being used. The labour forces and the environment are greatly at stake.
Fast fashion has witnessed deaths of workers due to inconducive work environments and low wages, which makes it hard to sustain life. Besides that, due to mass production, the environment suffers the consequences. Artificial and toxic materials are being used to produce the clothings. Apart from that, both local and international companies such as Esprit and Giordano are facing a huge loss due to the emergence of fast fashion businesses such as Bershka, H, Cotton On, and Zara. (Thierberger V., 2011) This paper examines the fast fashion and the unethical effects it has on the labours and the environment.
1. Fast Fashion
1.1 The History of Fast Fashion
Despite being coined as a term in the 21st century, the concept of fast fashion has been gaining momentum since the 1800s, with the advancements brought to use in the textile-making industry during the Second Industrial Revolution which started in England in the mid 18th century.
Before the industrial revolutions, people adopted the putting-out system, whereby they merchant-employers “put out” materials to rural producers, mostly women, who usually worked in their homes to turn the materials into products meant to be sold. The putting-out process took a long time as the producers had to work manually without the help of any advanced equipment.
The Industrial Revolution, however, introduced new means of production such as the Spinning Jenny, a spinning wheel which sped up the process of spinning wools as it spun eight threads at once. First patented in 1846, the sewing machine made it possible to produce an enormous amount of clothing which resulted in an extremely rapid fall in its selling price (Breward C., 2003). The most dramatic episode in The Industrial Revolution was the introduction of factories which witnessed dramatic economic and social consequences. In textile factories, the workers worked day to night to produce clothings in bulk in a range of sizes. The society resorted to ready-made clothing rather than that made to order as it was cheaper.
Besides The Industrial Revolution, World War II also contributed to the concept of fast fashion. The fabric restrictions in this period forced the producers to adopt standardized production for all clothing. Consumers then became more willing to accept the idea of buying mass-produced clothing as they were accustomed to the standardization in World War II. (Breward C., 2003)
In the 1960s, the concept of fashion trends reached its highest momentum as young people opted for cheaply made clothing to keep up with the trends and rejected the sartorial traditions of older generations. This increasing demand for affordable clothing forced fashion brands to seek for initiatives in order to produce a huge amount of clothing while also making profits. The U.S. and European companies then find themselves opening massive textile mills across the developing world, allowing them to save millions of dollars by outsourcing their labour. (Tokatli N., 2007)
The fast-fashion phenomenon became increasingly acceptable in the late 1990s and early 2000s as consumers began to have more purchasing power which resulted in endless wants and desires while being constantly pressured with the ever-changing trends. When the first H store in the U.S. opened in April 2000, the New York Times applauded it for arriving at the right time as consumers had just adopted the idea of materialism, where it was now “chic to pay less.” (La Ferla R., 2000)
2.2 The Fast Fashion Retailers
The first true “fast fashion” retailer remains unknown as many of the companies that are in the frontline of the industry such as H and Zara started out as smaller individual shops in Europe around the mid-20th century. They eventually expanded around Europe and penetrated the American market in the 2000s. Being the longest running company of these fast-fashion retailers, marking its beginning as Hennes in Sweden in 1947 and reaching the states in 2000, H was established as its founder, Erling Persson was highly inspired by the high-volume retail establishments in the U.S. after World War II. (Erling P., 2002)
On the other hand, Zara founder Amancio Ortega opened his first store in Northern Spain in 1975 which reached New York in the beginning of 1990. Zara has a principle of making speed the driving force as it would only take 15 days for an article of clothing to be transformed from an idea into a garment being sold on the racks, driving the New York Times to label the store with the term “fast fashion.” (Schiro A., 1989)
2.3 Fast Fashion in Asia
In Asia, the fast-fashion companies are getting high consumer confidence, witnessing increasing growth each year. This effect comes with a price as the local brands are losing shares. The garments by the local companies are said to be less chic and trendy, besides being sold at a high price. Hong Kong’s retailers, Esprit had reported 37 percent of fall in shares in 2011, whereas Bossini reported a 4.3 percent drop. In Japan, Uniqlo witnessed a drop of 9.9 percent in its sales. It can be observed that big international fast-fashion players pose threats to deep-rooted local brands.
2. The Effects of Fast Fashion
It is amazing how we live in an era where we can have our desired garment at the end of our fingertips. We have come a long way from having to spin our clothes manually to having it produced in matter of hours, or even minutes!
Nevertheless, we should not neglect the fact that this convenience comes at a cost of workers right and the environment. Fast fashion poses major problems as its sole aim is to maximize profit. Thus, the detrimental effects such as unjust labour practise and the release of wastes into the environment are not taking into considerations.
3.1 Modern Slavery
Fast Fashion exists because there is cheap exploited labour around the world. More than 90 percent of what is worn by an indidvidual was produced in factories where people were paid a living wage and working in dangerous and unsanitary surroundings. (Cline E., 2012)
As the global fashion market is valued at an almost $3 trillion annual industry, one may think that the main contributor to this value is the high selling price of designer brands garments. This is partly true because the true main contributor to the profits generated by these fast fashion companies are the exploited outsourced labours. To maximise production, big companies seek to outsource labours to developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and India. These workers are paid a very low wage which is barely enough to sustain their lives. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh. The question raised here is how can the exploitation of labours result in enormous profit to the big retail companies? Imagine a worker making a shirt for 50 cents per article. The shirt is then sold by the companies at a much higher price, that is for RM50, for example. The profit gained from this exploitation is 100 times the cost of making it, making it possible for the companies to make handsome profits.
Until the 1960s, 95 percent of Americans’ clothes were produced locally. In 2015, the percentage went down to only 3 percent, and the balance of 97 percent were outsourced. The factors contributing to the outsourcing of labours in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam are their low wages, lack of local labour laws, and agreements of free trade.
3.1.2 Exploitation of Workers
The workers work in a sweatshop, or a sweat factory which is defined as a workplace that has poor, socially unacceptable working conditions. To date, over 4 million, with 85 percent being women, people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, receives a pay of about $67 a month, or $2 a day, amongst the lowest pay in the world. Having no health benefits or any form of financial security, women are forced to leave homes and even take contraception so that they can keep their jobs. Unionization is illegal, so workers have no platforms to voice out their miseries or to show oppositions against the way they are being treated. As a result, they had to continue working to make a living while their working conditions only get intolerable.
These capitalists get away with providing low wages and unsafe working conditions as they are assumed to be providing employments to those in the developing countries. This injustice is brought to attention, however, with tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2013 where over 1,100 workers were killed and 2,500 were injured. Though this incident had managed to draw attention among the masses, little change was made to the devastating conditions of clothes manufacturing in the country as the practice still goes on today.
Besides introducing the culture of modern slaves, the fast fashion phenomenon also resulted in mass production where trend-based clothing is produced in a massive quantity. As shelves are renewed every one or two weeks, the clothes often become outdated, which leads them to be thrown away. This creates dramatic damages to the environment.
The textiles industry is known to be one the biggest environment polluters. This situation is made worse with the emergence of fast fashion as the volume of clothes being consumed rises dramatically. This trend can be observed in developed countries where people own many clothing, exceeding the total that they can wear. To make matters worse, China and India are jumping on the bandwagon, threatening the absolute quantity of clothing consumption to rise at a dangerous rate.
The sales of clothing had risen from $1 trillion to $1.8 trillion in 2002 and 2015 respectively. The amount is predicted to rise to $2.1 trillion by 2025. (Statistica). Here, we can see that the amount of production had almost doubled in less than a decade. Compared to 15 years ago, the average person now buys 60 percent more garments and keep them longer in their closets (Remy N., Speelman E., Swartz S., 2016). This trend of overconsumption is different across the world. In North America, the average person bought 16kg of new clothers in 2014 while in Middle East and Africa, each person bought only 2 kg (Textile World, 2015). China is forecasted to be following the trend seen in North America as an average person consumes 6.5 kg, which is 1.5 kg higher than the global average of 5 kg per person. This rate could increase up tp 16 kg/person by 2030. However, even if the consumption per head remains constant, the rise in the population in China and India still promises that the absolute consumption will nevertheless increase. The huge consumption by the people around the world is further encouraged by the growth of online shopping, with China overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest digital market in 2014 (Kingdom of the Netherlands., 2014). The online shopping facility fuels the fast fashion phenomenon as people are able to get their hands on the newest collections in the comfort of their homes.
3.2.2 Disposal of Waste
High consumption leads to more waste created, creating “fashion landfill.” (Cline E., 2012). People are more drawn to get rid of cheaper and mass-produced fashion items than those bought at a high price. As fast-fashion is becoming more dominant, people are more likely to buy cheaper clothing, and dispose them. What is worrisome is the fact that there are very limited spaces to store these disposed items. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.
It is estimated that 95 percent of the clothes disposed with domestic waste and could be reused or recycled (Lu JJ & Hamouda H., 2014). However, most of the garments are thrown out with household waste which in turn ended up in landfills or incinerators. Millions of tonnes of textiles that is landfilled or incinerated become a threat to the environment as they create more pollution, such as emissions of hazardous chemicals and greenhouse gases.
Policymakers are not showing interest in this issue as updated and accurate figures on the volume of used clothing and the waste it creates are not compiled. Another factor to this problem is the lack of transparency from the fashion industry about the amounts of resources wasted in the process of making garments.
In the European Union, approximately 2 million tons of used fashion items are compiled annually, but only 10% to 12% are re-sold locally and the remaining figures are sent out to be discarded. 70% of the 540,0000 tonnes of reusable clothes collected in the United Kingdom are exported while the United States marked a total of 53% of 800,000 tonnes. Since 2000, the export of used clothing has increased, marking 4.3 million tonnes in total in the year 2014. The main exporters include the USA, Germany, the UK, South Korea, Japan, Netherlands, Malaysia, Belgium, China and France (WRAP, 2016) and the main importers are Pakistan, Malaysia, Russia, and India. However, some of these countries act as a “checkpoint” where the clothes are reprocessed and re-exported to other countries. Much of these imported clothes are unsaleable due to its poor quality. Saleable items are receiving challenges from cheap imported clothing from China (Newsweek, 2016). Reports finds that in India, only 30% of used clothes are suitable for resale while the rest is reprocessed into yarn for cheap blankets (Wall Street Journal, 2016).
This global trade of used clothing, however, threatens local clothes production and development in some countries in Africa, South America and Asia. 42 countries have placed a ban for imports of used clothing. The likelihood of similar ban by the East African Community countries of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda worries the UK as it will impact the country’s exports (Brooks A., 2006). The system of second hand clothing trade is facing a risk. This is partly contributed by the rise of the fast fashion phenomenon which resulted in the production of cheap and low-quality garments (Newsweek, 2016). The deterioration of this system will result in a worse situation where there wouldn’t be any place to store the unwanted, but reusable cothes (Wheeler A., 2015)
3.2.3 The Release of Hazardous Chemical
Greenpeace has organised a Detox campaign, receiving support from 78 companies, where the objective to achieve greater transparency by the companies and zero discharges of hazardous chemicals in their supply chain manufacturing by 2020.
Environmentally, the consumption of fast fashion is threatening as the landfilled and incinerated clothes release greenhouse gases and hazardous chemicals. This challenges the Earth’s capacity to absorb the existing pollutants. Besides that, fast fashion poses depletion of resources.
First, there is an issue of the usage of electricity. A huge amount of power is required in the production of 150 billion fashion items annually. Most producer countries are those that are run by coal power. Thus, it is evident why the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of all carbon emissions globally (Muthu, 2014). There is also an extremely huge water consumption involved in the production of clothes. Every year, 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced, where a pair takes up to 7,000 litres. A t-shirt, on the other hand, takes 2,700 litres of water to be produced. The polluted water used in the production of these garments are the released into the ocean, the source of worldwide water supply.
Apart from that, in order to produce clothes in huge quantity at a fast rate, synthetic fibers are used as the cultivation of natural fibers is time-consuming. This has resulted into the enormous usage of petroleum in the making of plastics and fabrics. According to the article in Fast Company, cotton has now been substituted with oil-based polyester as the number one fiber in the production of clothes. Polyester is relatively cheap and easily available. It is now used in 60% of our garments; in 2016 about 21.3 million tonnes was used in clothing, an increase of 157% from the amount used in 2000, which was about 8.3 million tonnes (Textile World, 2015). The dependency on polyester is harmful to the environment. The emissions of carbon dioxide in the production clothing in 2015 amounted to 282 billion kg in 2015, 3 times higher than those for cotton, at 98 billion kg (Kirchain R., Olivetti E., Miller T R., and Greene S., 2015). Polyester is resistant to decomposition; synthetic chemicals are released from clothes when they are washed, eventually making their way into rivers and seas. Microfibres can have a range of impacts once they reach the aquatic environment, such as impacts on feeding activity (Watts, A., Urbina, M., Corr, S., Lewis, C. & Galloway, T., 2015) or carrying invasive bacteria that can be harmful to humans. These problem are made all the worse by the fact that the dyeing process of these garments are highly toxic as 1.7 million tonnes of various hazardous chemicals are used in the process.
3. How is Fast Fashion Successful?
4.1 Consumer Ignorance
It brings to curiosity as to why the fast-fashion chains continue to gain profits despite the unethical practices that have been made public. The answer is ignorance. Most consumers do not put much thoughts into how their clothes were made, as long as they are cheap. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that over 55 percent of American consumers make zero effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of this, so they continue outsourcing labours to avoid the financial risk of local manufacturing. Above all, the pressure for companies to lower the price finds its way back to the consumers demands. The clients are constantly pressuring the fast fashion companies to lower the price. (Hertzman E., 2016)
4.2 Trend Savvy Culture
Fast fashion companies update their shelves as fast as every week, instead of two seasons as practised by luxurious brands. As an effect, these brands have 52 seasons a year (Whitehead S., 2014). Consumers now have more choices to wear as they are more trend savvy. To keep up with this culture, producers have to produce clothing according to trends. In order to maximise profit while supporting the mass production, the companies resort to sweatshops in the developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. The factories are forced to produce garments at a lower price should the Western retailers wish to lower their selling price. As a direct consequence, the workers who are already being paid low wages get paid lower.
4.3 Democratization of Fashion
Besides that, the fact that fast fashion brands recently received a high profile co-sign had also encouraged the people to jump on the bandwagon. Prominent women Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama have been spotted wearing dresses from retailers like Zara and H. The acceptance of “disposable fashion” by such leading ladies would have been unheard of just a few decades ago as fashion was associated with power. Privileged individuals would wear exclusive garments of limited edition. However, the rise in liberalism and the “democratization of fashion” enabled by mass production, allowed more people to express themselves through clothing regardless of their social and economic backgrounds.
The system of capitalism adopted by various countries had enabled us to witness new technological and ideological advancements. However, besides all of the positive impacts it has on our world, we should not overlook its negative impacts. One of it is the phenomenon of fast fashion, which feeds the desires of every fashion lover as it enables them to get luxurious-inspired articles of fashion at an affordable price. To achieve this result, the capitalists around the world have used unethical and inhumane methods which pose severe threats to the environment and humanity. Women are being denied of their rights to be mothers, besides being paid low wages which are barely enough to feed them. Environment is being destroyed as productions with the sole aim of making profits take place. These problems are not made any better when consumers continue to invest in fast fashion, ignoring the true cost of it.
However, there is a spark of hope as more and more people are coming together to fight fast fashion and the negative consequences it has on humanity. People are now coming up with new ideas to create sustainable fashion. These abuses done by the Western companies did not get unnoticed. More and more parties are trying to raise consciousness on the true cost of the clothes people wear daily. In 2012, Forever 21 was charged for having its unsanitary and unsafe factories, besides refusing to submit documentations on its labor practices. UNIQLO faced the same fate in 2011 when a Japanese journalist Masuo Yokota published the book The Glory and Disgrace of UNIQLO which criticised the “sweatshop-like” factories where the workers were seen an slaves. In 2013, Gap Inc. was condemned by The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights for setting strict and inhumane requirements where its workers must work 100 hours per week and paid less than 25 cents per hour.