By C. Petersen, Trinity Times Staff Writer
“Fast fashion” refers to the business model employed by some fashion companies. It emphasises quick and cheap production to bring in-demand garments into the hands of consumers faster. Fast fashion has been the business model of choice for fashion retailers such as Zara since the 1980s. It allows designers to produce trendy designs in shorter turnover cycles at more affordable prices. Yet such convenience for consumers and producers can come at a terrible human and environmental cost.
Although the model allows more clothes to be given to hungry consumers more rapidly, this celerity comes at the expense of product quality, environmental concerns, and human rights. Nevertheless, the diminished quality of clothing often does not perturb the average consumer, given the dramatic reduction in the wear time for fashion pieces in recent years: According to the United Nations Environmental Program, “the number of times a garment is worn has declined by thirty-six per cent in fifteen years.” The reduction indicates that consumers are throwing away and replacing their wardrobes at a significantly faster pace. However, this statistic does not answer whether reduced wear is an intentional decision or a forced consequence of reduced quality and lifespan. Nonetheless, this trend further creates a feedback loop and encourages the business model of disposable fashion.
The lack of longevity of clothing produced under the fast fashion model raises pressing concerns about its impact on the environment. With shorter garment-wear cycles and accelerated discarding, a great deal of fast fashion clothing finds its way into the oceans and onto shores. The clothing items pose a tremendous risk to human and marine health due to their low-quality compositions consisting of polyester, which decays into one of the most commonly found microplastics in the ocean. The fashion industry thus plays a material role in the appearance of microplastics in the ocean, as recognized in a 2018 study by Beverley Henry, et al., published in Science Direct, “On a global scale, [it is] estimated that of all primary microplastics in the world’s oceans, 35% arise from laundry of synthetic textiles. Some estimates are lower, but even a value of 20% for 2014 … means that the equivalent to 19 million tonnes of textile microfibres enters the marine environment in a single year.” Moreover textile production involves toxic substances that can subsequently entering oceans. Given these companies usually conduct operations in countries with lax environmental and labour laws, there is an excellent chance for those chemicals to enter humans the environment. Fast fashion thus introduces toxic micro pollutants into the environment during both production and disposal, a fact that underscores the issues with this industry.
Another environmental impact caused by fast fashion is wasteful water consumption. Fashion production, especially certain items of clothing such as blue jeans, utilizes enormous quantities of water in its production processes. The Princeton Student Climate Initiative also offers this data, “The fashion industry consumes one tenth of all of the water used industrially to run factories and clean products … [It] takes 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton or approximately 3,000 liters of water for one cotton shirt… Approximately 20% of the wastewater worldwide is attributed to this process, which accumulates over time.” As fresh water scarcity increases (you can find a recent Trinity Times article dealing with this issue by my colleague Liam Sherlock at https://trintimes.ca/news/aqua-vitae/), this rapid consumption of water by fast fashion is becoming increasingly alarming.
Moreover, as the climate crisis worsens, another deadly impact on the environment by the fast fashion industry is high carbon emissions. A recent article by Kirsi Niinimäki, et al., in Nature, emphasises how the carbon footprint of a synthetic fiber such as polyester is generally higher when compared to a traditional fabric such as wool, polyester production producing 3.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram of fabric. Thus, fast fashion’s creation of synthetic fibers (especially those derived from compounds found in petroleum) contributes to the worsening climate situation, especially as cheap synthetic fabrics dominate the production of such apparel due to flexibility of use and cost.
On top of these environmental impacts, the industry also includes a distressing human cost. The business model of fast fashion requires expeditious production for a low price, incentivizing companies to outsource their labour to developing nations where workers face sweatshop conditions and earn little compensation, often far less than a dollar an hour, or even outright slavery, with a ongoing French probe against Zara for allegedly sourcing from China’s Ugyur forced labour camps. Even aside from such blatant violations of human rights, according to an article from the University of Alabama, “Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.” Beyond this, these cost-optimized conditions can have more immediate impacts on their communities as in the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh when a Dhaka garment factory collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1134 workers and seriously injuring thousands more after a directive shutting down the building due to cracks in the foundation was roundly ignored. While the immediate aftermath sparked international outrage and promises of improvement by guest corporations, little real improvement has been seen since, with both the New York Times, and various local sources reporting a gradual return to the status quo ante of general neglect, collusion, and corruption still compromising worker safety.
It should be clear to any informed consumer that fast fashion is an unethical business model. It provides inferior quality clothes, wasted inordinate amounts of both water and raw materials (through non-recyclable waste), and oppresses developing nations with atrocious working conditions and exploitative wages. It is a business model that should no longer exist in a more socially and environmentally conscious world, but still does. Why? Us. It’s easy, it’s nice to have new, cute clothes regularly, even with limited means. It feeds into our consumerist lifestyle. And above all, for many people, there is no affordable alternative. It is everyone’s problem; it is everyone’s fault; and it seems no one can do anything about it. Nevertheless, rather than relying on corporations to grow a social conscience, the burden falls to us, the consumer to reduce our impact, be it through thrifting, sustainable and local sourcing, or personal handiwork. So next time you see that cute new skirt or cool jacket or statement t-shirt or funky tie, think about if you really need it? Think about if you can thrift or save and buy something that will not only not end up on the garbage heap in a third world country in six months, but will be a treasured and timeless piece for you for years. Or at least donate your clothes when you’re done with them. It is the Season for Giving, after all.