Fast Fashion: The Inconvenient Truth

By: Jordan Martin

Fast fashion is an industry that attempts to produce the most amount of clothing for the lowest price possible. In 2021, trends cycle exceptionally quickly and need to be kept up with by not only consumers, but also producers. The rapid and cheap production of clothing leads to environmental strain, human rights violations, and societal stress.

The pressure to reduce costs and speed up production causes the environment to get pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities for companies–placing profit at #1. Fashion is the second most polluting industry on Earth, oil being the first. The textile factories in countries that produce fast fashion output large amounts of toxic wastewater. The textile waste contains pollutants like mercury, arsenic, and lead that are hugely damaging to both aquatic and human life. The rapid pace at which garments are produced and cycled in and out of trend also means that more and more clothes are discarded by consumers, creating an enormous amount of waste. After these clothes are made, they are cycled out of trend extremely quickly and then thrown out. A majority of these items are neither recycled or donated. Instead, they go to a landfill or get incinerated. According to The Ethical Consumer and Greenpeace’s Journal, ‘Unearthed’, if fast fashion carries on at its present rate, we could see the total carbon footprint from the clothing industry reach 26% by 2050. 

It’s not just the environment that is harmed through fast fashion. The cheaper and easier it is for you to buy clothes, the more someone else is paying the price. Fast fashion workers are underpaid, exploited, and abused. 97% of fast fashion is produced in developing countries with deficient labor laws. In order to meet the demands for cost efficiency, informal labor is on the rise. Those in informal employment have nothing to protect their rights and are exploited. There is also discrimination involved in fast-fashion employment. About 80% of garment workers are women. Women are targeted to take on poorly paid work and are more vulnerable to abuse in the industry due to pre-existing gender inequality. Children are even cheaper than women and further subject to the abuse of the industry. These workers are paid far less than what is necessary to survive, are forced to work close to around-the-clock hours, and work in unacceptable health and safety conditions. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, killing 1134 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has shown the real-life tragedies this industry is producing. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to just and favorable conditions of work,”. It is clear that these workers are not experiencing just and favorable conditions of work. 

On top of environmental and human rights negatives, those keeping the industry alive are also suffering. Teenagers are the main target for fast fashion due to their interest in keeping on trend and spending money. I’ve seen more fashion trends cycle through our generation in the past year than I can count on my hand. Unless you are sitting on a ton of extra cash to spend on these fleeting trends, you have to participate in fast fashion to fit in with whatever is trending at any given season. Gen Z is immensely political and cares about sustainability. However, we have not known a world without fast fashion, making it difficult to navigate. Clothing production has accelerated in the past thirty years, easing our society into thinking of clothes as disposable. Generation Z was born as fast fashion was really taking off in the 2000’s. From 2000 to 2014, the average price of clothing declined despite inflation. Young people are conditioned to accept low prices as the norm and learned to depend on fast fashion despite many understanding its harmful effects. These questions of personal responsibility and overconsumption have remained unanswered and unsolved by older generations. You can add fast fashion to the list of things that Gen Z is trying to figure out all alone without the guidance of older generations.

Fast fashion is a plague on the free market in the United States. It is one of those things that can’t be completely solved by everyday people. It is up to the corporations that create it and governments that are meant to protect human rights and the environment to take control of this situation. As individuals, there is not much to be done by us to fix fast fashion, and we shouldn’t feel any overwhelming responsibility to make things right. However, this does not mean that we stop taking accountability for our actions. The biggest way we can help to weaken the fast-fashion industry is trying not to participate in it. Buying clothes that will last a long time or buying from secondhand stores are great ways to reduce participation in fast fashion. Purchasing items that will be used often and not be wasted goes directly against what fast fashion wants and helps to reduce waste. In the end, all these companies want is profit, and they will do anything to get it. If we stop giving them profit, they will either shut down entirely or make changes to be better. It is easy to close our eyes to this issue and not learn more about it, but something needs to change. It’s time to really reflect on this industry and put some real attention on it because our planet is dying and people are suffering. The Environmental Justice Foundation is working to reduce the environmental and human costs of production. More information on them can be found here: https://ejfoundation.org

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