Around 30 years ago, fast fashion emerged as a new business strategy that completely revolutionised the fashion industry. Instead of producing four seasonal collections per year, fast fashion aims to bring the latest trends to stores in the quickest and cheapest way possible.
With new collections constantly hitting the high street, fast fashion lets us buy a dress for £8.99 that looks like it just jumped off the runway. And while wearing the latest trends on a budget sounds great, have you ever stopped to think ‘how on earth is this so cheap?’.
How can fast fashion retailers such as H&M, Primark or Zara conceivably make any money while keeping their price tags so low? The answer is simple: fast fashion retailers have simply forgone responsible production forcing others to pay the price.
To keep costs down, fast fashion retailers often outsource production to low-cost countries where labour is cheaper. In fact, a Defra report estimates that nearly 90% of UK clothing is imported from developing countries.
The governments in these countries know that if costs become too high, retailers will simply move their operations to cheaper nations. For instance, H&M are moving much of their production from Bangladesh where the minimum wage is £55, to Ethiopia where an average textile worker makes between £28 and £37 per month. Because developing nations are so desperate to keep the fashion industry’s business, governments will purposefully keep down minimum wages and avoid enforcing labour laws. This sadly results in poverty wages and slave-like labour conditions for many of the garment workers that fast fashion depends on.
The perilous conditions of the world’s garment workers was most famously brought to light when a large garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza disaster took the lives of over 1,000 factory workers and injured roughly 2,600 more. Prior to the collapse, workers complained of unsafe conditions, cracks in the ceilings and warned of the building’s instability. However, they were ignored and forced to continue working in confined and dangerous conditions until the building’s ultimate collapse. The factory produced for well-known brands such as Primark, Mango and Benetton.
While fast fashion giants plead ignorance to what happens abroad, this is a problem at home too. In 2010, researchers from the University of Leicester found that 75%-90% of the UK textile workforce was paid less than half the legal minimum wage. The point is, you can’t pay fair wages and charge so little on the shelves. So if the price tag seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The people who are involved in making our clothing aren’t the only ones paying the price for fast fashion. After oil, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world!
Fast fashion is hurting our planet from the first stage of production, right until it is thrown away. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton agriculture represents 24% of global sales of insecticides, and 11% of global sales of pesticides. Not only do these chemicals harm the workers, they end up polluting local waterways and surrounding ecosystems. Unfortunately, toxic chemicals are commonplace throughout clothing production. Even worse, environmental regulation is relatively low in the developing countries where most of our clothing is made. This means that hazardous chemical waste is often freely disposed with little regard to its negative impact on surrounding areas, or those who live there.
Moreover, by choosing to outsource, fast fashion retailers are racking up the airmails on the dress you just bought for £8.99. For instance, the cotton may very well have been grown in India, dyed in Cambodia, and manufactured in Bangladesh before finally being shipped to its final destination. And what happens when you don’t want it anymore? Clothing and textile waste is a huge contributor to landfill pollution. In the UK alone, roughly 1 million tonnes of clothing are discarded every year. Natural fabrics will eventually decompose, but an increasing proportion of clothing is made from non-biodegrable plastic-based materials such as polyester or nylon that will rot away in landfills. This is why it is important to think about the environmental impact of our clothing before and after we wear them.
Go Slow or Go Home
Fast fashion continues to gain momentum and shows no signs of slowing down. As much as we may want businesses to change their ways, they will continue to disregard basic worker’s rights and the safety of our planet unless we stop them. We know too much now to continue supporting companies who are so shameless in their production. Next time you buy something, ask yourself, who else is paying the price?