“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said. To some, fashion is a horrible reality we must survive. Fast fashion has created an economic war against human rights, but how did we let it get there?
A typical year for fashion used to consist of two seasons: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. The biannual Fashion Week acted as a platform for designers to display their work to the public and with that, pave way for the trends of the season. As we’ve become more and more connected through social media, trends no longer wait until the next season. To keep up with changing trends, manufacturers began producing cheaper clothing for consumers to buy. Since trends only last a couple weeks now, the focus has shifted from quality to quantity. While 50 years ago there were two seasons, there are now approximately 52 “micro-seasons” every year. To get customers to buy into the new trends before they fade, prices are increasingly lowered and sales act as a justification for unplanned purchases. I have found myself making unnecessary purchases just because they were “too hard to pass up.” But these low prices come with a greater cost. In the case of some countries, many would argue that fast fashion has more influence over the government than the people.
“There is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers,” says Orsola de Castro, designer and activist, on the constantly growing pollution caused by the textile industry. Pollution and China’s manufacturing industry have practically become synonymous in the past few decades. Los Angeles once faced a similar situation in the ‘90s, but as domestic conditions improve, those abroad deteriorate. Rather than conforming to new industry standards, big businesses relocate factories to countries where regulations are looser and manufacturing is cheaper.
One thing we can do is buy less. We must not need as much as we buy, otherwise, 11 million tons of textiles wouldn’t end up in landfills every year (this is in America alone!). Clothes have become practically disposable, both in the sense of cost and personal value. The poor quality of fast-fashion clothes isn’t much of a secret (sometimes it’s obvious even before buying), but the false sense of recyclability assures consumers that their old clothes will be put to effective secondhand use. The most popular path for used clothes is donation; however, only 10% of all donated clothing actually ends up sold in stores. Some companies have begun to use recycled yarn made from old textiles to produce new clothing. This may sound like progress, but China recently released an import ban on 24 materials, which includes textiles used to produce this repurposed fabric.
Fast fashion is tearing apart not just the environment, but humanity. April 23rd, 2013. Savar Upazila, Bangladesh. A five-story garment factory collapses, killing 1,134 workers and injuring about 2,500. If you pleaded ignorance about where your clothes came from before, that ended here. The poor treatment of sweatshop workers was exposed once more, yet little was done to fix conditions. The people of Bangladesh were silenced under rubble and textiles. They would continue working, or they would not get paid.
The garment workers of Phnom Penh took a different approach in 2013 riots, protesting for a raise of the national minimum wage to become at least $160 a month. Officials responded with open fire on the crowds and the igniting of a riot. Once again, however, nothing was done to change conditions. Workers are forced to work in these poor conditions out of necessity. When prices are forced down by companies, factory owners have to cut production costs to maintain the business. If they do not make cuts, they will lose customers and nobody will get paid at all. It forces these people into a system where they are constantly suffering for the sake of big businesses overseas.
With all this information taken into consideration, the fast-fashion industry has to cover for itself in some way. Online, fast-fashion retail chains present statements describing ethical procedures they “follow.” Forever 21’s website features a page labeled “Social Responsibility” in which they state that they only “[hire] legally qualified workers, pay them wages which are fair and legal in their jurisdiction, and provide an environment that complies with their legal requirements.” This doesn’t sound bad initially until you realize that many of the countries they source work from have vastly different laws than those of America. Often, their labor laws are not fair to begin with, and workers are underpaid in poor working conditions.
Even if these big businesses were to be accused of not following their own guidelines, they legally cannot be held responsible. Since they don’t own the factories they send work to, they are not technically responsible for the poor conditions inside the factories. This is why they are able to continue their unethical practices after tragedies like Rana Plaza.
But what can we do about all of this? I often hear people say they will boycott these companies by no longer buying from their stores. However, this can do more harm than good if not executed efficiently. If sales are low and stock doesn’t move for long periods of time, companies will have to shut down factories to save money. As I stated before, to most people these factories are the only opportunity for work. If we cause them to close, they will just lose money. It would be a different story if every customer stopped shopping there—this would force companies to completely reevaluate their business strategies, and give an opportunity for the people to voice their concerns.
Instead, a better option is to buy less and buy smarter. Don’t buy that shirt just because it’s on sale, because chances are it won’t last. Make more clothing investments that’ll pay off and won’t just be a one-and-done type of deal.
Try thrifting more of your clothes. I think they often get a bad rap, as many people believe they are only for people who can’t afford new clothes. This is untrue, though! Often, I find brand-name apparel in thrift stores, and at pocket-change prices. The more you thrift, the less production of clothes is occuring. Plus, you never know what you’re going to find!
Another alternative is a bit surprising, but it’s catching a wave of popularity: rentable clothes. Sure, you can rent a tuxedo for formal events, but have you ever considered renting your jeans? The Dutch company MUD has launched a service through which you can rent your choice of jeans for a monthly fee. If you are satisfied with them after a year, you can choose to keep them; if not, you can send them back, and they will recycle the material to make a new pair. Not only will you be helping the environment, but you’ll be helping to jumpstart an economic movement.
But if you really want new clothes, you can always buy from independent designers or just designers who practice sustainable business techniques. You can find unique pieces this way, and if they are local, you can even request to have certain pieces custom fit so you don’t have to bring them to a tailor!
The possible change isn’t in how the workers work, or even who we buy from. The change starts with the system we live in. The constant demand for new products, after all, is what ultimately fuels fast fashion. The system needs to be adjusted so that the workers can reap the benefits of sales, pushing them out of poverty and with that, giving them better working conditions. As a capitalist country, we rely on consumers to buy more and more to solve their problems. What we use is turning into what we use up, and that needs to change. Once we start buying smarter and being enlightened on how our clothes are made, we can advance as a society.
As Solitaire Townsend said, “Wear clothes that matter.”