February 1, 2018 by Cláudia
Fast fashion is highly appealing: it offers current trends at affordable prices. However, I’ve made a conscious decision to abstain from buying any clothes from fast fashion companies. Fast fashion refers to the garment companies that are inexpensive and that constantly offer new designs and trends. These companies are completely profit oriented and rely on the idea of infinite growth, achieving profits of between 5-20 billion dollars a year. Aiming to maximize the profit as much as it is possible results in unsustainable patterns both in terms of consumption and production.
Consumers are constantly enticed to replace their old clothes with new fresher trendier ones, creating huge amounts of waste. On the other hand, the production factories were dislocated to third world countries where labour laws are so lenient that allow wages to be minimal, working conditions unacceptable and child labour a common practice. These are the two problems that arise with the fast fashion paradigm that compelled me to change my consumption patterns: the environmental impact and the exploitation of workers.
Fast fashion is responsible for the creation of huge amounts of (non-biodegradable) waste, for water and air pollution. Their main goal is infinite growth while using finite resources, which is undeniably impossible. Fast fashion is using more resources than what would be sustainable and creating waste at a much higher rate than it decomposes.
Fashion is now seen as disposable (in fact even fast fashion brands have admitted that their clothes are only meant to be washed 10 times and then should be replaced). In order to achieve maximum profit, people need to buy a lot more than what would have been necessary or even rational. This is achieved by/through three strategies: advertising, planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence.
A big part of fast fashion’s success lies in massive advertising campaigns that focus on hedonistic benefits of buying clothes. These campaigns intend to associate buying clothes with feelings of joy and having fun, consolation and confidence. Furthermore, advertising tries to associate material possessions with deeper feelings such as happiness, fulfilment, intimacy and self-love. Making a purchase gives the buyer a short-lived feeling of euphoria and shopping is frequently associated with happiness. This way, people are convinced to replace their existing clothes with new trendy models. It’s a search for happiness that never ends as there is always a newer model and with it a new promise of fulfilment.
Planned obsolescence relies on the fast decay of the product which forces the consumer to replace it frequently. Unlike sustainable fashion which is meant to be durable, fast fashion does not invest in quality, quite the contrary. As the example of the ten washes shows, these garments are intended to be low quality. Colour fades quickly, seams unstitch and eventually, they are no longer appropriate to be used anymore.
But because the replacement of worn out clothes is not enough to fulfil the greedy ambitions of fast fashion companies, there need to be further incentives to consume. This incentive is called perceived obsolescence and it is the most subtle one. It is based on the idea that even though a product is still functional, it is no longer fashionable. By constantly defining new trends, sometimes making pointless changes, the fashion industry deems older trends as outdated and inelegant.
As we can see, the fast fashion industry relies on compulsive buying behaviours created intentionally through empty promises of emotional fulfilment, self-love and social acceptance. These companies clearly care about nothing but profit and achieve this profit by purposefully and unapologetically offering low-quality products.
Additionally, these clothes are made of synthetic materials or non-organic cotton which negatively impacts ecosystems and even our health. Water pollution is a consequence of both the production and the discard in a landfill, which also pollutes the soil through infiltration and even the air through the release of toxic gas. Whenever we wash a garment, microfibers detach and end up in the ocean because they are too tiny to be filtered, slowly contaminating the ocean with small bits of plastic that end up being eaten by fish and other sea life.
Nevertheless, as bad as the environmental consequences are, the social consequences made me decide to stop buying fast fashion items. Not satisfied with compulsive buying behaviour, these companies maximize their profit by paying the workers that actually make the clothes as little as they possibly can. Reports have shown that workers are sometimes paid as little as 12cents/hour or 21$/month. This doesn’t even fulfil the already low local minimum wages. Workers are forced to work long hours, frequently even on Sundays and holidays.
Working conditions are not acceptable either: news about factories collapses have drawn attention to this. These factories (also called sweatshops due to their poor conditions) often have no windows or fire extinguisher, get overheated and are at risk of collapse. Workers end up developing health problems due to contact with chemical substances in an unaired environment.
The great majority of workers are women and children. Even though child labour is illegal, there are no inspections and employing 15 years old or younger children is a common practice. These children work just as much as the adults but get paid even less.
Despite unhuman working conditions, these workers are in such a precarious situation that uprisings rarely happen. Feeling that they have no other option, these workers fear that the company may relocate the factory and they will lose the only source of economic stability, however unreliable and exploitative it may be. Nevertheless, there have been some protests, which have triggered retaliation: sometimes leaving workers injured or dead.
I think it is absolutely unacceptable that companies with massive profits treat their workers like this. These companies capitalize the fragility of these communities, paying them just enough to barely survive, but not enough to be able to overcome their poverty. Their lives consist almost solely on working in terrible conditions and what they earn is not enough to save up or send a child to school. Given their despair, they have no other choice other than accept the conditions they are offered, however inhuman they are.
Relocating garment factories could be a great opportunity to empower impoverished communities by giving them job opportunities yet it has turned into another way of exploitation. What could be a helping hand in the development of underdeveloped areas actually means that the discrepancy between developed and underdeveloped countries is larger than ever. These workers’ sacrifice allows the consumer in developed countries to be able to buy and discard clothes however they please. Their suffering is perpetuated to fulfil our modern society whims. Once more, the “developed” world asserts its supremacy through the exploitation of others.
- Documentary The True Cost.
- Work faster or get out” Human Rights Watch Report
- “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry” Claudio Luz