The Dark and Messy Backstage of this Sweeping Phenomenon
By Debadrita C. and Khushi S.
Behind a façade of seemingly cheap, trendy and easily accessible clothes lies the efforts of companies that are willing to stoop to extreme levels to make these clothes so profitable.
Quick crash course: what is fast fashion? Fast fashion is a term used by fashion retailers, which means that catwalk designs move quickly into stores in order to capture current fashion trends. Fast fashion clothing collections are generally based on the most recent fashion trends presented at Fashion Week in both the spring and the autumn of every year – or at least, that’s how it used to be. Fashion originally was organized by two main seasons, fall-winter and spring-summer. Now with the constant demand for the new and trendy, there are “fifty-two mini seasons.”
New York Times journalist Elizabeth Cline in Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion points retailer Zara out as initiating the current fast-fashion concept, bringing in new deliveries to stores twice a week. Fashion “seasons” essentially make consumers feel out-of-date after each season, and motivate them to buy more to keep on top of each new trend. By introducing micro-seasons, the cycles of buying-tossing-buying again become that much faster, thus benefitting retailers.
Colossal amounts of clothing for affordable prices – what could possibly be wrong with that? The recurring sentiment that investigators return to again and again is that there is more than meets the eye here. Fast fashion may be the cause of bad quality in clothing and leads to a completely unnecessary waste of resources. It typically takes seven thousand litres of water to produce a pair of jeans, and two thousand litres to produce the average t-shirt. Approximately 400 billion square meters of textiles are produced annually in the world, of which around 15% are left unused. Out of an overall average eighty billion pieces of clothing produced globally each year, only a quarter is estimated to be recycled or reused – this means the rest end up in incinerators or landfills. Not only are these mass-produced materials wasteful, some can be harmful to the environment as well. Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, have been long used in outdoor clothing, because it has stain resistant and waterproof properties. These PFCs are very resistant to breakdown, with the potential to remain in the environment for hundreds of years after being released.
Fast fashion has led to the usage of not only clothing material as something cheap, but also contributed to the use of employing cheap labour – in the form of child exploitation. Around 260 million children (below the age of eighteen) are employed in the fast fashion industry around the world; more than half of whom engage in physical labour. According to Sofie Ovaa, global campaign coordinator of Stop Child Labour, “there is no supervision or social control mechanisms, no unions that can help them to bargain for better working conditions. These are very low-skilled workers without a voice, so they are easy targets.”
Exploitation of child-labour has been a problem for decades, simply because children are so much more vulnerable than adults. There are countless people, especially in developing countries, living so far below the poverty line that the only way to get by for families is to send every member, including children, to work; and as an effect of the poverty that forced them in there in the first place, the working conditions are dismal at best. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) identified China, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Egypt as the countries most notorious for exploiting child labour in the textile industry. Children can work at all stages of the supply chain, from production of cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, and the different phases of putting garments together in factories in Bangladesh.
What if children were not forced into these positions? SOMO says that if “child labour was banned, labour would become more scarce, which would allow adult workers to negotiate better wages and improve labour conditions.” However, child labour is clearly not a problem that will be going away anytime soon.
Does fashionable clothing with dirt-cheap price tags have to come at such an ethically and environmentally high cost? The answer comes in the form of the efforts of organizations and individuals devoted to reforming the fast fashion industry so that it doesn’t have to.
Greenpeace is one such organization. In 2013, they pressured Zara, fast-fashion retailer extraordinaire, to increase transparency by having at least a hundred of its suppliers in the Global south (including at least forty in China) to publicly disclose data about releases of hazardous chemicals into the environment. Zara was credited by Elizabeth Cline as initiating the fast-fashion concept.
Greenpeace also launched a “Detox My Fashion” campaign in July of 2011 that is meant to have effects reaching into 2020. The campaign asked the textile industry to quickly take responsibility for its contribution to toxic pollution. A “Detox Catwalk” was set up, which was a committee that at annual intervals judged the Detox-committed fashion brands according to different criteria. For example, in the 2016 Detox Catwalk, nineteen brands were judged on their plan for phasing out eliminating hazardous chemicals by 2020, their system for PFC elimination, and transparency of their company. Out of those nineteen, Inditex, Benetton, and H&M were declared to be highly successful and ahead of the curve. Fifteen brands, including Adidas, Burberry, Valentino and Levis were declared to be on-track. The brands Li-Ning, Nike, Esprit, and Limited Brands (behind Victoria’s Secret) were judged to be backtracking their progress and not accepting responsibility for their hazardous chemical pollution.
So is fast fashion the new face of affordable clothing for the masses? The answer, for the time being, is yes. Does fast fashion have to be so toxically impactful in order for it to have the same blinding level of success? The answer to that question is currently being fought out between corporate brands, ethics’ guard-dog organizations, and environmental organizations, with you, the fast-fashion consumers, being the ultimate puppets and puppeteers both. The only thing the average consumer can do in the end is attempt to educate themselves on the products they buy and then come to their own conclusion. Hopefully this article served as a first step, and if you want to know more, try the links below:
(Fun, 2-minute video from Greenpeace about what detox fashion could look like in the future, and includes casual references to the Hunger Games)
(#Isthisreal video released by Undress Runways; interviews of children being told about child labour)
Some of the most prominent “Fast Fashion” brands; /blogs.anderson.ucla.edu/
Photo courtesy of http://www.theisthmus.com.au