Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Fast fashion refers to low-cost, fashionable, mass-produced clothing that has a significant negative environmental impact.

Customers are drawn to these clothes because they are stylish and reasonably priced. These garments, however, are swiftly abandoned and accumulate in landfills because they aren't made to last and quickly go out of fashion.

Fast fashion's ascent has had disastrous repercussions, including its reliance on plastic textiles, massive carbon footprint, and weakening of workers' rights.

What Is Fast Fashion?

"An method to designing, creating, and marketing apparel designs that emphasises making fashion trends swiftly and affordably available to consumers," according to the definition of fast fashion.

Traditionally, designers produced two seasons' worth of clothing each year. Winter and Spring, and Summer.

This enables the creation of new styles and trends and gives consumers time to become used to them.

Fast fashion, in comparison, has 52 microseasons per year and frequently releases many new shipments of clothes each week.

They typically copy popular styles from renowned designers and celebrity culture rather than developing their own style or trend. Daily shipments of new outfits are sent to H&M and Forever 21, while Topshop releases 400 new styles each week.

As soon as a trend hits the shelves, fast fashion firms oversaturate the market, leaving consumers feeling immediately out of step.

At order to prevent customers from growing weary of the same goods in a store and from purchasing far more clothing than they actually need, a "buy now or miss out" mentality is fostered.

In 1960, a typical American adult purchased fewer than 25 articles of apparel annually.

Nevertheless, the typical American family spent more over 10% of their income on apparel and shoes. Additionally, nearly 95% of the clothing sold in the United States was produced here.

But in the 1970s, things started to shift. Huge textile mills and factories started operating in Latin America, Asia, and China.

They could create cheap clothing in large quantities fast by using cheap labour and materials.

A few significant American retail chains started exporting production by the 1980s.

In "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion," Elizabeth Cline claims that "Any company creating garments in the United States couldn't compete." They had to stop operating or switch to importing.

Because apparel is so inexpensive, people can purchase more. Currently, the average American buys 70 pieces of apparel annually, although they only spend 3.5% of their income on clothing.

Currently, approximately 2% of the clothing sold in the United States is created here.

Fashion firms have switched from releasing clothing seasonally (four times a year) to a model of frequent releases due to the market demand for new products.

Many people are familiar with the fast fashion labels Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, and TopShop.

Fast-changing trends

The fast fashion business model is based on people continuously purchasing more clothing.

Brands entice customers by offering incredibly cheap clothing (like Missguided's £1 swimsuit) and frequently-updating new collections.

Shein, a fast fashion retailer, had 21,139 items of clothing listed under the "New in" category on their website as of the time of writing.

Although historically firms would prepare new ranges many months or even years in advance, fashion brands have traditionally leveraged new trends and cheaper pricing to draw customers.

As a result, change happened slowly and there were fewer products available. In contrast, the goal of fast fashion is to adapt as soon as possible to the constantly shifting preferences of the consumer.

For instance, we witness a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner being replicated by Manchester-based fast fashion retailer, In the Style, on the BBC's "Breaking Fashion" programme.

Within 10 days of the celebrity wearing the piece for the first time in public, the company is able to design, manufacture, and put the item on the market.

Social media, celebrity/influencer culture, and the rise of quick fashion are all connected. For instance, when a celebrity shares a picture of themselves wearing a new outfit and their fans ask for it, fast fashion companies scramble to be the first to offer it.

Fast fashion companies also frequently target young people, or so-called Gen Zs, who were raised in an era of social media and influencer culture.

In fact, a recent survey indicated that nearly 75% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 think that influencers might be partly blamed for the surge in fast fashion.

The chain of causation does not work that way, of course; fast fashion companies also generate demand for their products.

But the most important thing to remember is that these brands run on the principle of consistently creating new clothing lines in order to satisfy the insatiable and always shifting consumer demand for all things novel.

Ethical Issues

Manufacturers typically make compromises as a result of pressure from fast fashion firms to produce items quickly and affordably. This pressure results in labourers working increasingly long hours for low wages in out-of-code buildings.

Fast fashion-related disasters have claimed lives, with one of the deadliest incidents being in Bangladesh's Rana Plaza in 2013.

The Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed a day earlier despite warnings that it was hazardous to operate in, trapping nearly 3,000 people within. Over 2,500 people were hurt, and 1,134 people perished.

There were numerous garment manufacturers at the Rana Plaza that produced clothing for Zara, Mango, Primark, and Walmart.

Why fast-fashion retailers are not held responsible baffled them. There are several important factors, but the most obvious is that workers' rights are essentially nonexistent in underdeveloped nations.

The second issue is that retailers typically only contract with factories rather than owning them, which prevents them from being held accountable.

Fast fashion garment manufacturing requires highly competent workers, yet the majority of their earnings don't reflect that.

"In nations like Bangladesh and Vietnam, there are less restrictions around what a decent wage is, so designers can push their factories to make more clothes at a lower cost to the employees, all the while reaping profit," explains Jenna Flood, an ASI fashionable and ethical fashion blogger.

According to an Oxfam research titled "What She Makes," women who work in the clothing industry earn less than 37 cents per hour, and a 1 percent increase in the price of a garment may result in the payment of an adequate living wage.

The Problems With Fast Fashion

Although consumers may like having affordable, fashionable clothing, fast fashion has come under fire for its negative ethical and environmental effects.

Textile Waste

Cheap, trendy clothing is more likely to be thrown out than expensive, classic clothing. Only 2.5 million tonnes of the 17 million tonnes of textile waste produced in 2018 were recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 1

The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that every year, the average American discards around 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles.

2 According to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based organisation working towards a circular economy, one garbage truck's worth of clothing is disposed of in landfills or burned in the United States every second.

According to the report, clothing that is rarely worn or not recycled results in an estimated $500 billion in annual losses.

Water Pollution

These clothing articles can contribute to marine pollution in addition to CO2 pollution. Microplastics can be found in clothing made of synthetic materials.

These minute pieces of plastic are flushed into sewer systems and eventually end up in the ocean when they are washed or if they are in a landfill and exposed to rain.

The plastic fibres can enter the stomachs of marine animals, including some that become seafood, according to studies.

According to a study that appeared in Environmental Science and Technology, a synthetic garment can lose more than 1,900 fibres on average in only one wash cycle.

Untreated hazardous wastewater is a consequence of textile industries in nations that mass-produce fast fashion items.

Why is it flawed? Lead, mercury, and arsenic are three chemicals found in this textile waste that are particularly dangerous to aquatic and terrestrial life.

  • Direct discharge of wastewater into rivers occurs in garment companies. 22,000 tonnes of toxic waste from tanneries enter the waterways each year in Bangladesh alone.
  • The health of the wildlife and the residents who live along the banks is impacted by this hazardous water. Eventually, it flows into the ocean, polluting it as well.
  • One tonne of fabric can require up to 200 tonnes of freshwater to dye and finish.
  • 3.6 billion people, or nearly half of the world's population, are at risk of water scarcity at some time each year, according to research by Extinction Rebellion and the U.N.

Unsafe Labor Conditions

Items are frequently not ethically created in order to mass-produce so many inexpensive outfits so quickly. Instead, factories are frequently dangerous sweatshops where employees toil away long hours for meagre pay.

According to EcoWatch, children are frequently employed, and fundamental human rights are abused.

Fast fashion companies must reduce their expenses to the following levels in order to sell clothing at extremely low rates.

Lowering the pay of garment workers along the supply chain is one of the key approaches to do this.

For years, brands have searched the globe for nations with the lowest labour regulations so that garment workers can be readily taken advantage of. This practise is known as "chasing the cheap needle."

But regrettably, many U.K. fast fashion companies have discovered the less expensive needle closer to home, frequently in somewhat legal factories in places like Leicester.

Workers may operate in hazardous conditions where safety is not a priority and may be exposed to caustic chemicals and dyes.

Greenhouse Gasses

We might see the entire carbon footprint of our apparel reach 26% by 2050, according to The Ethical Consumer and Greenpeace's Journal, "Unearthed," if the demand for fast fashion keeps growing at its current rate!

Here are a few reasons why:

  • The millions of clothing manufactured each year require a lot of energy to produce, manufacture, and transport.
  • The majority of our clothing is comprised of synthetic fibres that are produced using fossil fuels.
  • The three nations that create the majority of our clothing are China, Bangladesh, and India. They are virtually exclusively coal-powered.

How fast fashion is polluting the planet

The clothes business is the second-largest polluter of pure water, according to the Institute of Sustainable Communication.

Fast fashion retailers pollute clean water resources with harmful chemicals since the creation of apparel uses a lot of land and water.

Fast fashion raises ethical issues in addition to environmental ones due to the environmental impact it has.

Although it only contributes 2% to global GDD, the fashion business is second only to the oil industry in terms of pollution. Fast fashion is largely to blame for the pollution produced by the fashion sector, which climbed by 9.7 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Additionally, due to the disconnect between product distribution and the location of manufacturing, it takes a lot of oil (a non-renewable energy source) to send clothes around the globe. Another thing to think about is that when you shop at a fast-fashion retailer, you are not purchasing clothing from your community.

We currently purchase 80 billion new articles of apparel each year on a global scale, 400% more than we did 20 years ago.

Australia is currently second only to the United States in terms of its contribution to fashion pollution.

We dispose away around 27 kg of new textiles per person annually, or 85% of the textiles we purchase, in landfills every year.

The constant production of new clothing has a high environmental cost.

The industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, enough to supply five million people's needs, and it is responsible for around 20% of the industrial water pollution brought on by the treatment and dyeing of textiles.

The materials and methods employed have a lot of issues as well. For instance, 6 percent of the pesticides and 16 percent of the insecticides used globally are used in the production of cotton.

Additionally, the sector has a significant carbon footprint, contributing up to 10% of the world's overall carbon emissions, which is predicted to rise by 50% by 2030.

The production of clothing requires a great deal of freshwater and energy, both of which contribute significantly to glasshouse gas emissions. Fast fashion companies love synthetic fibres because they are made from petroleum, which takes up to a thousand years to biodegrade.

a millennium! Polyester, nylon, and acrylic fibres, which are petroleum-based, also discharge plastic microfibers into the water.

In one machine cycle, a single synthetic garment can produce up to 1900 microfibres, which are then devoured by marine life, according to a 2011 study.

Because we consume the same fibres that the fish do, this impacts not only marine life but also those of us who eat fish.

The fashion sector pollutes water in addition to using it excessively.

90% of textile wastewaters from underdeveloped nations (where the majority of fast fashion is manufactured) are thrown untreated directly into rivers. Lead, mercury, and arsenic are just a few of the harmful compounds found in textile wastewater.

When contaminated waters enter the sea, it is damaging not just to the local species but also to the numerous millions of humans that reside there.

Manufactured trends and the greedy shopper

The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee estimates that the fashion sector generates $1.2 trillion (£960 billion) in revenue annually, of which $250 billion (£200.4 billion) comes from only the United States.

Fast Company estimates that the fast-fashion sector makes 150 billion pieces of clothes annually.

Many pairs of jeggings, indeed. But why are people eating garments in the first place?

Because quick fashion is less expensive, Elizabeth Cline claims in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, people purchase more goods than they actually need.

Cline claims that Zara, one of the industry leaders in fast fashion, receives supplies of fresh inventory twice weekly. Topshop releases 400 new styles per week on its website, and H&M and Forever 21 receive daily supplies of new products.

By oversupplying the market with options, consumers are overloaded with opportunities to be stylish.

Therefore, people may unknowingly become greedy purchasers out of a desire to follow trends.

By releasing new designs, fast-fashion merchants encourage you to buy a lot of the latest fashions.

However, these businesses also count on customers feeling "out of the loop" or "uncool" if they don't purchase the newest style.

Your clothing ends up in landfills.

The Huffington Post estimates that 80 billion pieces of clothes are consumed worldwide each year.

The problem with quick fashion is that the clothing's quality isn't meant to last.

The sustainability consulting firm Eco-Age asserts that fast fashion has no lifespan since consumers view it as disposable clothes.

This group makes the observation that people only keep fast-fashion clothes and accessories for an average of 35 days before discarding them after wearing them less than five times.

According to the Global Fashion Agenda Pulse Report, in 2019 75% of consumers regarded sustainability in the fashion industry as important or extremely important, and social media mentions of sustainability grew 33% faster than overall social media growth in 2015 and 2018.

Jenna Flood predicts that society's perception of sustainable fashion will advance and transform in a good way, becoming a prerequisite for firms and customers in the world of fashion.

FAQs About Fast Fashion 

Why is fast fashion an ethical issue?

Manufacturers typically make compromises as a result of pressure from fast fashion firms to produce items quickly and affordably. This pressure results in labourers working increasingly long hours for low wages in out-of-code buildings.

What is bad about fast fashion?

Untreated hazardous wastewater is a consequence of textile industries in nations that mass-produce fast fashion items.

Lead, mercury, and arsenic are three chemicals found in this textile waste that are particularly dangerous to aquatic and terrestrial life.

Additionally, wastewater from clothing companies is immediately discharged into rivers.

Why fast is fashion so cheap?

Fast fashion businesses frequently use international factories with outsourced, frequently underpaid labour to keep costs down. As a result, labour conditions and manufacturing practices—which can be contaminating the water, air, and land—frequently go unchecked.

How much does fast fashion make?

The global market for fast fashion was worth 36 billion dollars in 2019.

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