What is Fast Fashion & Why is it SO Harmful?
The way in which we consume has changed drastically throughout the past several years. Previously, we would buy for necessity and place a higher value on the clothing we buy and produce because it was all being made meticulously by hand. As a result, the time to make a single garment would take longer and each one became more unique, personal, and one-of-a-kind. There was a cycling system of clothing and an appreciation for the skill—when your clothes no longer fit you, they would be passed down to family members or friends, creating less of a waste mentality. A drastic change happened in the 19th century with the introduction of new machinery, like the power loom and the spinning jenny. Industrialization meant clothing became less scarce and cheap, allowing for everyone to be stylish and attempting to blur the social class hierarchy. With clothing being produced in higher quantities, and at quicker speeds, everything is able to get discarded faster than ever. This makes clothes less meaningful, driving style to evolve into cheap, convenient, and consumable products that make trends. Our consumption patterns are thereby determined by the introduction of new trends, seasons, and styles, resulting in the emergence of fast fashion.
The Emergence of Fast Fashion
These detrimental consumption habits emerged as what we call: fast fashion. Fast fashion is defined as the “rapid manufacturing process of trendy clothing designs.” This fastness relates to how fast retailers, like fast fashion champions Zara and H&M, can take designs from the catwalk of runway shows to their retail stores. By replicating high-end fashion, these brands are able to have trendy styles and designs available for everyone at a more affordable price. Fast fashion is one of the biggest drivers of today's detrimental consumption habits.
Globally, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased each year. Approximately 85 % of the clothing Americans consume, nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, is sent to landfills, amounting to nearly 80 pounds per American per year
This amount of buying and treating clothing as disposable all comes at the cost of global health, the environment, and garment workers. There is a lack of interest and thought when it comes to who is making our clothes and what effects it has on the environment. There have also been several industry disasters throughout the years that should have been a wake-up call for the industry to enact change. Three of the biggest disasters are the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the textiles fires in Karachi and Lahore in 2012, and lastly, the biggest of all, the Rana Plaza factory collapsing in 2013.
The environmental hazards during production can be a result of textile production: “Approximately 90% of clothing sold in the United States is made with cotton or polyester, both associated with significant health impacts from the manufacturing and production processes." Polyester is a synthetic, non-natural, fiber which means it's a non-renewable fabric that's derived from oil. Inversely, cotton is a natural fiber, meaning it already exists in nature. The issue with cotton is it uses large amounts of water, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers to grow and be available in large quantities since it’s the most popular textile being used. Not only does our choice of fabric create negative impacts on the environment, but the dyeing process is also extremely toxic; this affects the workers who are in contact with these chemicals and the communities surrounding these factories. The wastewater from the dyes is released into local water systems, resulting in the release of these toxic chemicals that negatively impact the animals and the locals of the community.
Once the fabric has been produced and workers need to assemble the garments, there are many occupational hazards. Usually, the faces behind those who make our clothes are hidden, undervalued, and taken advantage of. This doesn't make sense because the fashion industry is hugely dependent on their labor: “The global textile supply chain employs 40 million workers around the world. LMICs (low-middle income countries) produce 90% of the world’s clothing.” The safety standards are not enforced due to poor infrastructure and organizational management, resulting in respiratory hazards (poor ventilation), long hours, child labor, low wages, inability to unionize, and little to no regulations.
Once clothing has been made, bought, and worn, the next phase in a linear economy is to throw it away, making textile waste another huge problem. Fast fashion almost incentivizes textile waste, as it encourages us to view clothing as disposable and replaceable. As mentioned earlier, Americans throw away around 80 pounds of clothing a year and what doesn't end up in landfills gets exported from the US to lower-income countries as second-hand clothing. Second-hand that isn't sold in the US is compressed into "1000-pound bales" and exported, but most of these un-sold clothes also aren't useful in these countries so it ends up piling up, rather than in the US where it was created.
A Prime Example: SHEIN
The biggest fast fashion giants, along with social media trends, can be to blame for these destructive consumption
habits. There is a blatant disregard for the disastrous implications that these companies' business models generate. Recently a documentary was released about Shein, a Chinese-based brand that has surpassed fast fashion giant Zara in sales and overtook Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app: “In 2022 alone Zara [launched] around 11,000 new designs and Shein a staggering 314,877." Shein drops around 700-1,000 new items on their site every day, taking Zara’s fast fashion model of producing clothes and putting it on "steroids." In this documentary, Inside the Shein Machine: UNTOLD, journalist Iman Amrani has someone go undercover in their factories in Guangzhou, China to reveal the working conditions, while also unveiling how influencers helped in making the brand worth $100 billion.
After watching the documentary it's clear that Shein’s business model is "exploitation." Amrani has someone go undercover with hidden cameras to disclose what actually goes on inside Shein production factories. Garment workers finish around 2:00 am, working 17-18 hours per day and getting one day off a month. Their monthly base salary is 4,000 Yuan ($582) but they have a minimum quota of 500 pieces, individually, per day. Every worker gets their paycheck after their first month working and if they make a mistake or want a day off it gets deducted from their paycheck—around $14 per piece gets deducted, which is almost ¾ of their daily wage. This creates a tense and inhumane atmosphere in the factories where everyone is pressured to deliver hundreds of products in record time with no mistakes. Since the salary is dependent on the number of garments they complete (500 min.), the number they are promised to earn isn’t a reality. They are also provided with factory accommodation so the workers can be more efficient, however, the toilets are oftentimes broken, there's no hot water, and the walls have mold. This all goes against Chinese labor laws where they are only supposed to work 40 hours per week, should be paid for overtime, and be given a more positive quality of life.
Shein’s big success is not only a result of the ridiculously low prices but also thanks to TikTok influencers. They work with influencers by gifting them 5 products a month to show off and give their viewers discount codes that inevitably drive up the sales to billions since it's so cheap and easy to buy. This gives Shein a lot more exposure and makes the influencers become the face of the brand. Trending hashtag #SheinHaul is incentivizing people to continue purchasing without realizing the negative effects. These “hauls” are pushing people to buy large quantities of clothing for cheap on a regular basis.
To disguise all the malpractice that Shein is causing they donated $50 million over the next 5 years to tackle textile waste and published a sustainability report to assure their customers that they can be held accountable and will improve. This is an extreme example of greenwashing since it's allowing people to turn their eyes and let Shein continue with their business as usual—you can’t say you are committed to solving a problem, like textile waste, when you are the one creating it. This seems to be Shein’s way of throwing money at a problem, creating a temporary solution that makes people think it's okay to continue shopping there and relieving them of a guilty conscious. Shein’s sustainability report also revealed that of their 700 suppliers, 83% require corrective and immediate action, but through Amrani’s documentary it’s clear that they are not implementing new policies or improving the conditions.
Next time you buy something new, ask yourself: if a dress is $15 or a t-shirt is $4—how much can the workers be paid? If you can only wear an item of clothing once or twice—what is its true purpose? This careless and excessive amount of consumption is making consumers spend more money since they have to keep repurchasing items that are single-use. This detaches us from our clothing and makes trends define our shopping habits. Instead of 4 seasons, fast fashion has created thousands of seasons that make customers have to keep buying to always be up to date. It’s a never-ending cycle that isn’t unique to Shein. There are numerous fast fashion brands with the same business model, and with influencers impacting everyone through many different channels on what to buy, it’s important to realize the power you hold and the responsibility you have to influence more positively.
Next time you shop research, buy less, buy better quality, and always remember:
To shop RISA VENEZIA is to shop with intention, to promote Italian craftsmanship, to be circular, and to care.