Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Fast fashion describes cheap, stylish, mass-produced clothes that have a huge impact on the environment.

These garments appeal to shoppers because they are affordable and trendy. But because they aren't built to last and quickly go out of style, these clothes are quickly discarded, piling up in landfills.

The rise of fast fashion has had devastating consequences, from its reliance on plastic fabrics and its enormous carbon footprint to its erosion of workers' rights.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is defined as 'an approach to designing, creating, and marketing clothing fashions that emphasise making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers. 

Traditionally designers created garments on a two-season a year basis. Autumn/Winter and Spring Summer.

This allows for the designed to bring to life new styles and trends and allows consumers the time to warm up to it.

In contrast, fast fashion has 52 micro seasons a year, and it's not uncommon to have multiple new drops of clothing per week. 

Rather than creating a style or trend, they usually recreate trends from revered designers and celebrity culture. H&M and Forever 21 get daily shipments of new styles, while Topshop introduces 400 new styles a week.

Fast fashion brands oversaturate the market making consumers feel immediately behind in a trend as soon as it hits shelves.

A 'buy now or miss out' culture is created, ensuring consumers never get tired of the same stock in a store and buy many more garments than they actually need.

In 1960, the average American adult bought fewer than 25 items of clothing each year.

Yet, the average American household spent more than 10 per cent of its income on clothing and shoes. And, about 95% of clothes sold in the U.S. were made in the U.S.

But things began to change in the '70s. Massive factories and textile mills opened in China and other countries throughout Asia and Latin America.

With the promise of cheap labour and material, they could mass-produce inexpensive garments quickly.

By the '80s, a few big American retail stores began outsourcing production.

"Any company making clothing in the United States couldn't compete," writes Elizabeth Cline in "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion." "They either had to shut down or move on to importing."

With clothing being so cheap, consumers are able to buy more. Today, the average American purchases about 70 pieces of clothing each year but spends less than 3.5 per cent of its budget on clothes.

Now only about 2 per cent of clothes sold in the U.S. are made in the U.S.

With such hunger from consumers for new items, fashion companies have moved from releasing clothes seasonally (four times a year) to a model of frequent releases.

Common fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, and TopShop.

Fast-changing trends

At its heart, the fast fashion business model relies on consumers endlessly buying more clothes.

Brands tempt consumers by offering ultra-cheap garments (for example, Missguided's £1 bikini) and ever-changing new ranges.

At the time of writing, fast fashion brand Shein featured 21,139 clothes under the 'New in' section of its website. 

Fashion brands have long used new styles and lower prices to attract customers, but previously brands would plan new ranges many months, even years, in advance.

As a result, the pace of change was relatively slow, and there were fewer products on offer. In comparison, fast fashion is focused on responding to ever-changing consumer tastes as quickly as possible.

For example, in the BBC's 'Breaking Fashion' show, we see Manchester-based fast fashion company, In the Style reproducing a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner.

The company manages to have the piece designed, manufactured and on sale within ten days of the piece first being worn publicly by the celebrity.

The rise of fast fashion is intertwined with social media and celebrity/influencer culture. For example, a celebrity posts a photo wearing a new outfit, and their followers want it, so fast fashion brands rush to be the first to provide it.

In addition, fast fashion brands often target young people - so-called Gen Zs -, who have been brought up amongst social media and influencer culture.

In fact, a recent survey found that almost 75% of 18-24-year-olds believe influencers can be held somewhat accountable for the rise in disposable fashion.

Of course, the flow of causality is not that simple: fast fashion brands are not simply reacting to consumer demand; they are also creating it.

But the essential point is that these brands operate based on constantly producing new lines of clothes to meet the insatiable and ever-changing consumer demand for all things new.

Ethical Issues

Pressure from fast fashion brands to create clothing quickly and cheaply leads to manufacturers cutting corners, often with workers taking on increasingly long hours for low wages in buildings not kept up to code.

Disasters connected with fast fashion manufacturers have cost lives, with one of the most deadly cases in 2013, at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

After warnings, the building was unsafe to work in only a day prior; the Rana Plaza, Bangladesh collapsed, with over 3,000 people inside. 1,134 people died, and over 2,500 were injured.

The Rana Plaza contained multiple garment factories manufacturing for Zara, Mango, Primark and Walmart.

They were confused as to why fast-fashion retailers aren't held accountable? There are a few key reasons, and the most obvious is that workers rights in developing countries are virtually non-existent.

The other reason is that retailers won't usually own the factories and, instead, only contract them, which means that they can't be held accountable.

The workers who make fast fashion garments are very skilled, and however, for the majority, wages don't reflect that. 

Jenna Flood, ASI stylish and ethical fashion blogger, says, "in places like Bangladesh and Vietnam, there are fewer laws around what a living wage is, so brands can squeeze their factories to produce more garments with a lower cost to the workers, all the while earning profit." 

A report by Oxfam called 'What She Makes' found that women garment workers were being paid less than 37cents an hour, and a 1% increase in the price of a garment could mean a fair living wage would be paid.

The Problems With Fast Fashion

Although consumers might enjoy having inexpensive and stylish clothes, fast fashion has been criticised for its environmental and ethical impact.

Textile Waste

We're more likely to throw away cheap, trendy clothes than more expensive, timeless pieces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 17 million tons of textile waste were generated in 2018, of which only 2.5 million tons were recycled.1 

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.2 The equivalent of one garbage truck of clothes is dumped in landfills or burned every second in the U.S., according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based charity working towards a circular economy. 

According to the report, an estimated $500 billion is lost annually because of clothing that's hardly worn or not recycled. 

Water Pollution

In addition to CO2 pollution, these clothing items can contribute to marine pollution. Clothes made out of synthetic fabrics can contain microplastics.

When they are washed or if they are sitting in a landfill and are subject to rains, these tiny shreds of plastic are flushed into wastewater systems and eventually make their way out into the ocean.

Studies have shown the plastic fibres can end up in the stomachs of marine animals, including some that wind up as seafood.

A study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that a synthetic clothing garment can shed more than 1,900 fibres on average during just a single trip through the washing machine. 

A byproduct from textile factories in countries that produce fast fashion items en masse is untreated toxic wastewater.

What's wrong with it? This textile waste contains substances like lead, mercury and arsenic that are extremely harmful to aquatic and human life.

  • Wastewater from clothes factories gets dumped directly into rivers. In Bangladesh alone, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries goes straight into the waterways every year.
  • This toxic water affects the health of the wildlife and people who live along the banks. It eventually runs into the sea and pollutes that as well.
  • It can take up to 200 tons of freshwater to dye and finish just one ton of fabric.
  • Extinction Rebellion and the U.N. have also found that 3.6 billion people (almost half the world's population) are at risk of water scarcity at some point during the year.

Unsafe Labor Conditions

In order to mass-produce so many inexpensive garments so quickly, items often aren't ethically made. Instead, factories are often sweatshops where labourers work in unsafe conditions for low wages and long hours.

In many cases, children are employed, and basic human rights are violated, reports EcoWatch.

In order to offer clothes at ultra-low prices, fast fashion brands need to lower their costs to below.

One of the main ways of doing this is to drive down the wages of garment workers in the supply chain. 

For years, brands have 'chased the cheap needle' worldwide, seeking countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be easily exploited.

But, unfortunately, many U.K. fast fashion brands have found the cheap needle closer to home, often in quasi-legal factories in cities such as Leicester.

Workers can be exposed to caustic chemicals and dyes and may work in dangerous situations where safety may not be a concern.

Greenhouse Gasses

According to The Ethical Consumer and Greenpeace's Journal, 'Unearthed', if the demand for fast fashion continues to grow at its current rate, we could see the total carbon footprint of our clothing reach 26% by 2050!

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Producing, manufacturing and transporting the millions of garments produced each year uses a lot of energy.
  • The synthetic fibres that most of our clothes are made of are generated from fossil fuels.
  • China, Bangladesh and India are the countries that produce the majority of our clothing. They are powered almost entirely by coal.

How fast fashion is polluting the planet

According to the Institute of Sustainable Communication, the clothing industry is the second-highest polluter of clean water.

Retailers of fast fashion dump toxic chemicals into clean water supplies because clothing production is a land- and water-intensive industry.

On top of the ethical questions that come along with fast fashion, there is the environmental footprint it is leaving behind.

The fashion industry accounts for 2% of global GDD but is also the second-largest polluter behind the Oil industry. Much of the pollution caused by the fashion industry, which grew by 9.7% between 2010 and 2015, has a fast fashion to blame. 

The disparity between product distribution and place of production also requires a lot of oil (a non-renewable energy source) to ship clothing worldwide. If you're shopping a fast-fashion retailer, you're not buying clothing locally—another thing to consider.

Globally we are now consuming 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year—400% more than we were consuming just two decades ago.

Australia is one of the biggest contributors to fashion pollution, and now only second to the U.S.

We send 85% of the textiles we buy to landfill every year, equalling up to about 27 Kilograms of new textiles per person per annum. 

The endless creation of new clothes comes with a heavy environmental price.

Every year, the sector requires 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people and is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution due to textile treatment and dyeing.

There are also numerous problems with the materials and processes used. For example, cotton production uses 6% of the world's pesticides and 16% of insecticides. 

The industry also has a heavy carbon footprint, responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions and is estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

The fashion industry uses masses of freshwater and energy to produce goods, and the dwindling resource emits huge quantities of greenhouse gasses. Synthetic fibres, a favourite of fast fashion brands, are made from petroleum, which can take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.

A thousand years! Petroleum-based fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic also release plastic microfibers into the water.

A 2011 study noted a single synthetic garment could create upwards of 1900 microfibres from one machine cycle, which is then consumed by sea life.

This affects not only marine life but also those of us who eat fish because we are ingesting the same fibres that the fish ingest.

As well as using an excessive amount of water, the fashion industry also pollutes it.

In developing countries (where most of the fast fashion is produced), 90% of textile wastewaters are dumped directly into rivers, untreated. Wastewater from textiles contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

This is harmful to wildlife, the millions upon millions of people who live in the surrounding areas, and finally, globally when contaminated waters reach the sea.

Manufactured trends and the greedy shopper

According to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the fashion industry brings in $1.2 trillion (£960bn) per year, with $250 billion (£200.4bn) from the U.S. alone.

According to Fast Company, the fast-fashion industry produces 150 billion pieces of clothing per year.

That's a lot of jeggings. But what's the real reason people are devouring clothes?

In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline writes that fast fashion is cheaper, so consumers buy more items than they need.

According to Cline, Zara, one of the leaders in fast fashion, gets deliveries of new merchandise twice per week. H&M and Forever 21 get daily shipments of new merchandise, and Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website.

By flooding the market with choices, shoppers become overwhelmed with endless possibilities of opportunities to be chic.

And so, a lust to stay on trend can turn people into greedy buyers without them even realising it.

Fast-fashion retailers are setting you up to binge on clothing trends by putting out new looks.

But, at the same time, these retailers are banking on people feeling "left out" or "uncool" if they don't cop the latest look.

Your clothing ends up in landfills.

According to The Huffington Post, the world consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing each year.

But, here's the deal with fast fashion: the quality of the clothing isn't meant to last.

According to the sustainability consulting group Eco-Age, the lifespan of fast fashion is non-existent; people treat fast fashion like disposable clothing.

This group points out that people wear fast-fashion clothing and accessories less than five times and only keep them for 35 days on average before tossing them.

The Global Fashion Agenda Pulse Report shows that in 2019, 75% of consumers viewed sustainability in fashion as important or extremely important, with mentions of sustainability on social media increasing a third faster than overall social media growth in 2015 and 2018. 

According to Jenna Flood, society's attitude towards sustainable fashion will continue to grow and change for the positive and become a necessary requirement for brands and consumers in the future of fashion.

FAQs About Fast Fashion 

Why is fast fashion an ethical issue?

Pressure from fast fashion brands to create clothing quickly and cheaply leads to manufacturers cutting corners, often with workers taking on increasingly long hours for low wages in buildings not kept up to code.

What is bad about fast fashion?

A byproduct from textile factories in countries that produce fast fashion items en masse is untreated toxic wastewater.

This textile waste contains substances like lead, mercury and arsenic that are extremely harmful to aquatic and human life.

In addition, wastewater from clothes factories gets dumped directly into rivers.

Why fast is fashion so cheap?

To keep prices low, fast fashion companies tend to use outsourced and often underpaid labour in factories located overseas. As a result, there's frequently little oversight of working conditions or of manufacturing processes, which may be polluting the water, air, and land.

How much does fast fashion make?

In 2019, the global market value of fast fashion was 36 billion U.S. dollars.

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