The American mall is home to some of our favorite retail stores. It’s where we go to browse for the latest clothing trends or to try on those boots we’ve been wanting. You see a shirt, try it on, decide you look dashing in it and, if you agree with the price, you buy it. What rarely crosses our minds throughout this process is how that shirt was made and who made it. After all, we worked hard for our money, which we have a right to exchange for the shirt. In this seemingly innocuous transaction, however, you have just been unknowingly swept up into the vicious cycle of fast fashion.
Fast fashion is defined as the rapid creation and sale of the most current fashion trends. The goal of this strategy is to expedite the production of products so trends get to retailers as quickly and cheaply as possible, incentivizing customers to return frequently. Prior to the fast fashion model, new clothing designs emerged just a few times a year with the arrival of each season. Now, new and affordable products are introduced several times a week so there is a constant flow of fresh products onto the clothing racks. Rather than reorder items when they run out, retailers, including Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo, Gap and Zara, simply replace old products with new ones. While some may argue that we work long and hard to earn our money and should thus be able to choose what we spend it on, the goods we purchase have an extensive moral price tag. The consequences of fast fashion particularly harm our fellow human beings and the environment.
Just because we, as consumers, do not witness the atrocities of the factories in which our garments are manufactured does not mean we are not inadvertently harming people we do not know. On a macro level, fast fashion increases the widening gap between wealthy developed countries and poor developing ones. American and European retail companies prey on developing countries as they take advantage of outsourcing cheap labor. Factory owners in countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh are pushed into a corner when clothing companies need larger orders in a shorter time frame and at an increasingly lower cost. If the owner refuses, retail companies can easily find another factory eager to meet their needs. Meanwhile, prices continue to decrease, allowing us to purchase more and more.
On a micro level, fast fashion hurts individuals in developing countries who have no better prospects than factory work. Workers have high production targets, which may require them to work overtime without pay, foregoing bathroom and water breaks to reach these targets. They often suffer from malnutrition and ill health as they continue to live in poverty. These stresses result in retirement around age 40. In 2013, 1,130 workers died and 2,500 were injured in Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh. The employees, many of whom were women, were making clothes for Walmart and other Western companies when the derelict eight-story building burned down due to a lack of fire and safety codes. The lack of strict and fair labor laws in these countries cause unjustified suffering and death. Although Bangladesh has recently increased its garment industry-specific minimum wage of about $64 a month, it is hardly a living wage; Bangladeshi need about $180 per month to live on and support their families, which is almost triple what they make in the factory.
Fast fashion also harms the environment. Cheap clothes allow us to buy more clothes, which inevitably leads us to dispose of more clothes. Imagine the massive carbon footprint of these clothes, which may have started as water-intensive cotton was made into fabric, sewn into garments and transported to the store. Many of us try to do the right thing by donating clothes we no longer want to those in need. The problem is that only about 10 percent of the 82 pounds of textile waste the average American discards per year is sold in thrift stores. The rest of the clothing ends up in landfills or — ironically — is given to people in developing countries, such as Haiti, who made the clothes in the first place. Donated garments also erode these local economies and cultures because local businesses cannot compete with free. When these businesses ultimately fail, cultures lose the traditional clothing they produced.
Fast fashion has invisible but costly consequences. Our constant desire for new things perpetuate this cycle of abuse. While the clothing production industry is a major example of social, environmental and economic injustices, these issues extend beyond the clothing. Almost everything we own was made in a factory: blankets, desk lamps, trash cans and even our beloved iPhones. We cannot forget that there are many hands behind the manufacture of these products. As customers, we hold immense power because we have the capacity to decide what we want to buy or, even better, decide that we want to buy less. As consumers, we have the ability to take social responsibility for our purchases.
We can start by decreasing our addiction to fast fashion and impulse buys, mitigating some of the consequences saving some of our hard-earned money. While choosing to purchase clothing from socially conscious brands such as Everlane or Patagonia rather than fast fashion stores like Forever 21 and H&M is a step in the right direction, the better — and cheaper — actions are to buy gently-worn clothing from thrift shops and to own less quantities of clothing worn over a longer period of time.