Understanding the Problem with Fast Fashion
Fast fashion refers to the production and consumption of inexpensive clothing that is quickly produced to keep up with rapidly changing trends. Even despite the rapidly shortening trend cycle, trendy clothes are more available now than ever before, at lower prices than any of us have seen in our lifetimes. So what exactly is the problem here? Keep reading to discover the dark side of fast fashion in an effort to understand it’s inherently exploitative nature, including understanding the exceptions and what you can do about the problem.
1. Environmental Impact: Fast fashion contributes to environmental degradation in several ways. The production of clothing involves intensive use of natural resources such as water, energy, and raw materials, while commonly using synthetic fibers like polyester that contribute to the release of microplastics into our water when washed. Additionally, the disposal of unwanted clothing leads to a massive amount of textile waste, as most fast fashion items are not designed to be durable or easily recyclable (more on this in point 4).
2. Poor Labor Conditions: Fast fashion often relies on low-cost labor in developing countries, where workers may face exploitative and unsafe working conditions: Sweatshops, long hours, low wages, and lack of workers' rights are prevalent concerns within the industry. There are actually over 75 million people employed in the fast fashion industry, but it’s estimated that only 2% of those people make a living wage - this means that 98% of fast fashion workers are being held in systemic poverty, with at least 75% of fast fashion workers being women aged 18-24. Many garment workers face physical and verbal abuse, unsafe buildings, and restricted access to basic facilities, and fast fashion's relentless demand for quick and cheap production only exacerbates these issues.
3. Human Rights Violations: Fast fashion's supply chains can be complex and involve multiple tiers of subcontractors and suppliers. While large companies like Shein can easily make claims that their factories are run under ethical standards, the complexity of the supply chain makes it difficult to ensure compliance with said ethical standards and contributes to a distinct lack of transparency. Reports have exposed instances of child labor, forced labor, and unsafe working conditions in some factories producing garments for fast fashion brands. This exploitation of vulnerable workers is a severe violation of human rights, and the lack of transparency in the industry makes it easy to disguise.
4. Overconsumption and Waste: Fast fashion encourages a culture of overconsumption, where clothing items are frequently purchased and quickly discarded - this is highlighted by fast fashion haul culture, in which consumers regularly drop hundreds of dollars on ultra fast fashion clothing items that they will ultimately discard as soon as the trend goes away, often after merely 1-2 uses.
Combined with the trend cycle that’s only getting faster and faster, the constant demand for new styles leads to a cycle of "throwaway fashion," resulting in huge amounts of textile waste. Many garments end up in landfills, where they contribute to plastic pollution and take years to decompose. This linear model of production and disposal is ultimately unsustainable.
Addressing the exploitative nature of the fast fashion industry requires a major shift towards more sustainable and ethical fashion practices, including:
Support brands that prioritize sustainability, fair trade, ethical sourcing, environmentally friendly practices and production, or any combination of the few.
Promoting a circular economy where clothing is recycled, upcycled, or reused.
Avoid supporting creators and influencers who contribute to fast fashion haul culture.
Reducing personal consumption:
Opt for quality over quantity.
Be conscious of where you’re buying your clothes from.
If fast fashion companies are ultimately the most accessible to you, either by way of sizing options or price range, shop slowly and carefully, only picking out pieces that you know you will wear over and over again, and taking care of what you’ve picked out to make them last as long as possible.
Keep in mind that it’s impossible to be a purist in this world, and sometimes you will have to make sacrifices that don’t line up with your ethical desires - beating yourself up over necessary sacrifices only serves to bring you down, so instead you should have a neutral awareness on the impacts of your choices while you focus on the choices that you can comfortably make in support of a more sustainable world. (Follow up read: All or Nothing in Sustainability)