FAST FASHION AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF CONSUMERISM AT ITS WORST
By Kobika Mohan
Fast Fashion is a term used to describe the way in which new and inexpensive clothing is being introduced to retail shops in more rapid intervals than the usual four seasons of fashion. It is as regular as once a week or more, in order to create and match new trends.
Similar models to fast fashion have existed in the past, like the ‘quick response’ manufacturing model introduced in the 80’s, where production time was rapidly reduced to ensure that clothes being produced were on-trend and still desirable when they hit the retail floor. However, fast fashion in its truest form can find its origin in the 21st century alone, with the top ten retailers growing by 9.7% per annum over the last year, made possible by a combination of cheap labour from developing countries, quicker than ever cheap transport, and rapid communication technologies.
Innovations in fashion and design are, for the most part, something to celebrate and not condemn, but fast fashion isn’t about embracing innovation, even though some corporate leaders might like to pedal this idea. In truth, it is a matter of mass consumerism - the fashion industry is milking the consumers of every last penny they have by bringing down prices, and with them, the quality of products, along with, more importantly, the living standards of the people making those clothes.
Retailers often outsource labour to developing countries since average and minimum wages in these countries is drastically lower than in the countries these retailers tend to operate in. For example, the minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25, whereas in Bangladesh, the minimum wage stands at just $0.13 an hour. If companies can lower the cost of production, they can, in turn, lower the retail price of their products, extending the demand for their clothes, since more people are willing and able to buy clothes at a lower price. The consequences are two fold.
As people become acclimatized to buying a greater quantity of cheap clothes from one retailer, other retailers must lower their prices to keep up demand, often attempting to offer competitive prices to draw customers to their products. As these retailers offer lower and lower prices, they must, in some way, lower the cost of production somewhere along the production chain. To do this, retailers must either improve the productivity of the technology used in the transportation of goods, or they must offer lower wages to the workers in involved in producing their goods. Technological revolutions do occur at times, but for technology to improve at the rate at which retailers demand is impossible for now. Therefore, retailers decrease the already rock bottom wages being offered to their laborers in these developing countries. It is up to the factories’ bosses to implement these budget cuts, and whilst this does mean wages themselves are cut, it can also mean a cut in spending that goes towards the maintenance of factory infrastructure.
If budget cuts are being implemented constantly as a consequence of the demand for lower prices by western customers, the amount of money going towards to upkeep of factories begins to dwindle, and with it, so to does the standard of the infrastructure in which workers must work in, on average, 70 hours a week, but often more. This can lead to factories consistently not meeting building standards and becoming extremely dangerous places of work, whilst more and more workers are crammed into these factories in order to lower costs. As I’m sure you can imagine, this doesn’t end well for the people working in those factories.
The Rana Plaza Collapse. Is that a name you recognize? A news story you maybe briefly heard about, only to forget about it days later? It’s not a story many have heard about, but it should be. It’s a story that illustrates the real-life consequences of the decisions made by higher-ups in multinational fashion corporations on people’s lives across the developing world. On the 24th of April 2013, an eight-story commercial building collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500 more. It was the deadliest garment factory incident in recorded history, and its cause? None other than fast fashion. Primark, Mango, United Colours of Benetton. These are just a few of the retailers that operated in the Rana Plaza building till the day of its collapse.
The Rana Plaza incident happened as a consequence of just one flaw of the fast fashion industry. The fashion industry is the most polluting industry on earth, second only to the oil industry, with polyester production alone producing as much carbon emissions as 185 coal plants, emitting roughly 1.5 trillion pounds of carbon in 2015. It takes 2700 liters of water to produce a single cotton shirt, and with rise of fast fashion, the demand for such items is only increasing, seeing as we’re being 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago.
I understand if environmental concerns and the staggering figures that come with them are hard to fathom and put into context, but maybe this, the suicides of 250,000 farmers in India over the last 16 years, the largest wave of suicides in recorded history, will help you to understand the human consequences of this inhumane industry. The story goes that Monsanto, a company producing cottonseeds, developed a genetically modified seed that would get rid of pests and produce a high yield of cotton. Eventually, as the company gains a monopoly on the seed industry in India and across much of Asia, farmers in areas such as Punjab in northern India, a largely agricultural region, are forced to buy Monsanto’s seeds. These seeds, with their astounding claims, bring with them a hefty price tag, selling a bag of cottonseeds at $11.39, 1700% times the local rates. As farmers come into debt having to pay back the price of the seeds, they realize the promises of Monsanto are false, and that the seeds do not ward off pesticides, therefore farmers must buy pesticides on top of the cost of the seeds. Pesticides are ecological narcotics, meaning that once you use them once, you need to keep using them, and so the amount of pesticides the farmer must buy increases, and with it so does the debt. The effect of pesticides on the environment is vast, but on top of that, the inhalation of the chemicals can lead to a 10% chance that the offspring of farmers having birth defects. So now the farmer must potentially pay for the medical bills of their children’s medical complications, yet another debt to pay back. And when it hits them that maybe they can’t pay back all this debt, they realize, what use is it to live and toil as the debt piles on, and they kill themselves, all for the sake of what? Our cheap cotton t-shirts?
It’s all a lot to take in, isn’t it? To think that an act so simple as buying a new pair of jeans could have such devastating impacts for people on the other side of the world is hard. But if all of this really has made you stop and think, there are ways to help. Explore more ethical clothing brand options, and if those are a bit pricey, which they often can be, consider buying clothes from your local charity chops, or from online shops like Depop. If it’s hard to give up your staple brands, then at least consider buying fewer clothes in general, choose quality over quantity and you’ll definitely thank yourself later. Talk to people about this issue, that’s something you can do for free! Engage yourself in the discussion surrounding fast fashion because awareness of how widespread the impacts of fast fashion are is not as high as it should be.
Fast Fashion is a big issue; the statistics are overwhelming and quite frankly just really gloomy/ it’s not an issue we can take on alone, but if we genuinely do our best, or just do the little things, maybe it will mean a lot in the long run.