The darker side to the clothes you wear.
Think fast! How many pairs of clothes do you have? Okay…how many of them will still be there after a year or so? Yeah, I thought so. Not many, right? Maybe they’ll get too short for you, maybe you won’t like them anymore, or maybe—they’ll wear out super fast.
Planned obsolescence is a term used to describe the intentional defection of a product so the consumer keeps on consuming. For example, an antivirus company might fix the virus on your computer but also install a virus themselves so that you will keep on requesting their services.
A lightbulb installed in a fire station in Livermore, California has been working for 120 years. If 19th-century technology can live this long, why can’t that of the 21st?
Fast fashion is another example that is rapidly growing in size. The ‘fast’ in fast fashion comes from the fact that the fashion pieces wear out extremely quickly. It’s no secret that brands like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M create clothes that look nice, but don’t often last too long. So why do people buy them?
Fast fashion brands (like Forever21, Zara, and others) are constantly working to meet the latest trends. This means that they release new clothing several times a month, and also, the clothing tends to be inexpensive and non-durable. Fast fashion brands have and will get behind a plethora of the latest trends from fringe bags, to oversized blazers, to cropped cardigans.
Two words: Feeling. Rich. Fast fashion revolves around making pieces similar to those of luxury brands, but with low quality. Of course, people would want to feel rich without being rich! It’s everyone’s dream — including mine. But what is the impact these brands have? How satisfied are customers? How are employees treated? Let’s find out.
The average garment worker in a country like Bangladesh might earn the equivalent of 33 U.S. cents per hour and struggle to pay bills even working 60 hours a week. Many worked much more than that — putting in almost triple the legal amount of overtime. An investigation of the brand UNIQLO revealed that working conditions were shockingly terrible, having caused fatal accidents from electrocution and explosions due to cotton dust.
It’s no secret that most of the world’s labour is done by developing countries, like Bangladesh, China, and Mexico, in large part due to the lack of labour laws or designated minimum wage. According to the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, “Only 5 [fast fashion] brands (2%) publish a time-bound, measurable roadmap or strategy for how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across their supply chains.” Similarly, only 5 brands release data about how much they pay their workers.
But for such horrendous truths to be revealed only when an investigation is conducted is simply unethical and wrong. Do we as consumers not deserve to learn about where our clothes come from?
This is part of the reason fast fashion tends to be so cheap - the cost of labour isn’t being paid by you, but by the labourers themselves. Because garment workers in developing countries are underpaid, a t-shirt can be priced at $15, a historical low for any kind of garment. In fact, this is the first time in history that clothing is this cheap and being produced in this volume. All at the cost of the lay workers in Dhaka, or Shenzhen, or Aguascalientes.
In 2018, it was revealed that luxury brand Burberry had US$37 million worth of unsold products doused in flames. That’s a lot of waste. Even used clothing isn’t free of this: the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing each year into landfills.
As consumers purchase more and more clothing, textile waste ends up in landfills faster. The volume of fabric waste has doubled in the last 20 years and is likely to triple if we don't make a change.
It also doesn’t help that the fashion industry uses 79 billion cubic metres of freshwater annually — that’s approximately 2/3s the size of the Dead Sea. Water is used for fabric production, dyeing, finishing, and washing clothes.
So the oceans are dying, fast fashion is evil, and the world is on fire. What else is new? Well, given that wool, a major part of the clothes we wear comes from sheep, the fast fashion industry needs a lot of grazing space. This can often lead to overgrazing, which ends up eroding the soil or even causing the land to degrade. Wood-based fabrics (like rayon and viscose) contribute to deforestation more directly, as rainforests are felled to make space for the plants which will make these fabrics.
Luckily, there’s a possibility for change.
A Forbes article described how consumers are now shifting to slow fashion instead. Slow fashion, of course, being pieces that are more eco-friendly and designed to last longer. The article also reported that half of fast fashion brands have reported a decrease in sales as people look to find more sustainable prices instead.
So there you have it! The rise, and possible fall of the fast fashion kingdom. Of course, getting rid of fast fashion, poor working conditions, and the environmental hazards that come with it entirely is just wishful thinking. But, as any good fairytale will tell you — where there is a will, there is a way.
Some parting thoughts: be more sustainable, and support more transparent brands. People are becoming more aware of the brands they buy from. And so, together, maybe we can strive towards a (hopefully!) slower, and steadier future in fashion.