Fast fashion – a clear focus on the speedy transformation of high-end catwalk trends to high street fashion affordable to all – is deeply connected to important socio-economic issues, to the extent that it can be called fatal fashion; one of the least desirable developments related to globalization. It means greater accessibility to avant-garde style for the mainstream consumer, but at the same time lower-quality products, human labor exploitation and huge environmental damage. ‘Slow fashion’ is the opposing movement that aims at raising awareness about these consequences and promoting the idea of a well-edited, better-quality and more ethically-responsible wardrobe. Are we going to give up the bad habit of seeing our new clothes like a “one night stand”? It might sound funny, but in fact it’s much more serious…
How they do it
Mega chains of retail such as Zara, H&M, Topshop, Uniqlo, Abercrombie & Fitch, Primark, and Forever 21, supported by advanced technologies and low-paid employees in developing countries, have devised cost-efficient ways of production in minimum time. They detect trends and choose the manufacturers who can deliver cheap knock-offs in as little as two weeks. They manage to squeeze time between a product’s initial sale and replenishment, securing delivery of new items twice a week. Suppliers close to the market reproduce the trendy stuff, while more distant factories – sometimes set up by the retailers themselves – produce the classic ‘core’ items of the brands. With a slight markup on these cheaply produced clothes, one can only make a huge profit by selling huge quantities. That way, H&M’s largest shareholder Stefan Persson and Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega are in the Top 20 richest persons on earth, each being worth tens of billions.
Fast fashion cultivated people’s taste-level but at the same time weakened their attachment and relationship to what they wear. Simon Collins, Dean of Fashion at Parsons The New School for Design, can’t believe how poorly-made some clothes are, often falling apart after a single wearing.
Consumerism and Marketing
To boost the desire to consume fashion, retailers follow a marketing strategy that promotes the idea of disposability, popularizing smaller buying seasons lasting 4-6 weeks. The ‘supermarket’ notion and a new-wave materialism are evident in hundreds of so-called “haul videos” endlessly uploaded on YouTube. Retailers either invest on advertising or store layout, leading 75% of consumer decisions being made on-the-spot in an average of 3 seconds. They even make ‘cheap and chic’ designer collaborations, proven to be extremely appealing, yet pretentious. This is the demoralization, instead of the cunningly-phrased ‘democratization of fashion. ‘
We now spend a lot less of our money on clothes, but we buy and discard a lot more; reportedly 20 billion garments per year only in the U.S. alone. On average, Americans turn over 68 pieces of clothing and 8 pairs of shoes per year.
Our poorly-made fashionable clothes end up in the growing second-hand market across the developing world. If not eligible to be resold, they are either recycled or piled up on already clogged landfills.
There are reported incidents of this irresponsibly profit-making behavior by retail giants such as Victoria’s Secret, H&M and Walmart, easily explained through their effort to avoid competition in the resale market and losses from refund-savvy customers.
Fashion industry has been harming the planet for ages, but dramatically increased demand exacerbated the problem over the last decade. Toxic and greenhouse gases pollute water and air. Distant manufacturers necessitate extensive transportation and the resulting greater carbon dioxide release (also coming from heavy machinery). Synthetic fabric production produces harmful wastewaters. Colored and synthetic clothing is not biodegradable. Polyester made from petroleum gas depletes precious natural resources. Cotton growth is based on extensive pesticide use which kills two million birds annually in U.S. A tremendous amount of water is spent to transform cotton into textiles.
Low wages and costs
To achieve lower production cost, retailers moved the whole process in developing countries, paying wages that once started from 12-18 cents per hour. Consequently, the apparel industry became one of the fastest-dying in America. Today 98% of clothes bought in the U.S. are made overseas, with 1 billion garments imported annually from China, but the surging cost of labor there will soon oblige retailers to resort more often to less sophisticated manufacturers such as in Bangladesh and Dominican Republic. They will need to reassess working conditions there to avoid tragedies such as the Rana Plaza building collapse.
Solutions and Resolutions
We may need to encourage a production process based on less replaceable workforce and more creative design, focusing on improvements in organization and coordination of available resources. A simpler supply chain gets imperative. Fair trade considerations should be a priority too. Mindful consumption is the other side of the coin, meaning that longevity and craftsmanship should regain their allure among clients who had lost their connection to tailoring and mending traditions. Let’s slow down and cut down our buying appetite for the sake of better quality of life across the planet. Sustainable fashion is still a niche market, but that’s an opportunity for large innovative retailers. H&M launched an organic-cotton line in 2010 and promised a 100% use by 2020. We hope others will follow!