Fast Fashion: Ethics Over Aesthetics

If by some chance the term fast fashion strikes you as unfamiliar, don’t worry, you guys are much more acquainted than you’d initially imagine. It’s kind of like finding out what Miss Bellum looks like. You know who she is, you just haven’t put a face to it yet. Except the face reveal I’m about to make is a lot more sinister and dark than you’ve been led to believe.

What originally popped up in the 2000s as a revolutionary business model pioneered by Zara, reformed the utility of clothes to commodities instead of keepsakes. The manufacturing process of clothing has been accelerated ten times with clothing retailers knocking off designs within the span of two weeks from concept to sale.

And well, why not? This ‘see-now buy-now’ approach amounts to hefty profits with Rebecca Minkoff making as much as a 211% increase in sales the first season and up to 264% the next just by incorporating the fast fashion business model in her practices.

From niche to necessity

Keeping in view the pace of our contemporary society, our lifestyles are a projection of the niche transformed necessity that we’ve welcomed into our wardrobes at an alarming rate. In a world driven by social media and visually appealing aesthetics, wearing the same dress twice just doesn’t cut it anymore. What in fact was the norm in the early 1900s is taboo now. According to Jennifer Hyman, the C.E.O. of Rent the Runway, “the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty per cent of which are seldom worn; twenty per cent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away.”

The fast fashion business model is conditioned to create artificial consumer demand by marketing trendy clothes with ridiculously low prices and as much as 600–900 designs being launched weekly. This allures customers to frequent shops and is equally enticing for retailers that make huge profits with little worry of failure. Any losses incurred are easily recovered by launching designs the next week due to the highly dynamic nature of business.

To encourage sales, retailers do not replenish stocks of any sold out items, they launch new designs which increases the consumer’s price elasticity and impulsive purchasing as they’re aware the item won’t be available for long.

Drowning in our clothes

Apart from satisfying our insatiable desires with a never ending variety of cheap, trendy clothes, (the true cost of which will never be projected in a price tag) fast fashion doesn’t do much good for the planet. What if I told you that the t-shirt you’re wearing is worth almost three years of drinking water? Or that it took 1800 gallons of water to make your favorite pair of jeans. How about if you started uncluttering the clothes in your wardrobe, would you find yourself submerged in water? Water, that’s contaminated with 1900 individual microfibers every time you rinse your synthetic garments. And when you find yourself choking on them, will you finally understand how meaningless it is to kill a 100,000 aquatic animals and cut down 75 million trees (thousands of hectares of which are endangered) just to produce clothes, 85% of which end up in landfills for hundreds of years?

According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, of which 400 billion dollars is discarded prematurely annually. These clothes are then sold to third world countries or charities that pay millions of dollars to dispose of unusable donations by dumping or burning which further ads to the prevalent 1.2 billion tons of CO2 emitted per year from factories (more than air travel and shipping combined).

Global degradation of soil

As if things weren’t bad enough, now we have people actually posing the question, what if we run out of soil? And for good reason. 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is either degraded or seriously degraded. We’re losing soil 10 to 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. This is bad because we need healthy soil for food production but also to absorb CO2.

93% of the soil degradation around the world is caused by overgrazing, deforestation and agriculture. All three major culprits of stripping carbon from soil. It’s high time we look for alternatives to synthetic fibers and dissolve our obsession with cotton that accounts for 40% of global textile production before Mongolia becomes the next Aral Sea. Only with less water and more desert.

Controversy turned reality

You’d think with the world under lockdown the fashion industry would finally be forced to remodel, but there’s little expectation for change. In fact this might just make things worse. With small businesses unable to sustain losses and manage operations, they will be forced to shut down which will further mitigate competition in the industry for market leaders like Zara, Gap, Topshop etc. whose business models are based on growth and profitability opposed to the slow or conscious fashion driven objectives of small scale businesses. This will leave consumers with less options for sustainable clothing and less accountability for these textile giants with a dark history of environmental and humanitarian injustices. The most prominent of which is the Rana Plaza incident in Dhaka killing 1,134 people and injuring 2500 among others in 2006 and 2012, where more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers died in factory fires.

According to non-profit Remake, 75 million people are making our clothes today, and 80 per cent of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24 who receive only 0.6% of the actual price we pay. Wages paid are 2–5% less than what is required as a livable standard.

Additionally, due to the coronavirus crisis many brands have cancelled or postponed orders, asking for discounts on shipments as well as refusing payments altogether under the ‘force majeure’ clause of contracts that allows them to suspend operations. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association reported that 2.81 billion worth of work orders made to 1025 factories had been cancelled. This creates a situation where factories are unable to pay workers on time or at all resulting in mass layoffs. And with the COVID-19 pandemic looming over our heads, workers are unable to gather and riot making it hard to exercise rights.

However after recent public outcry a number of companies like Zara, UNIQLO and H&M have agreed to offer legally mandated or regular pay in addition to back pay. However there is still ambiguity regarding whether payments will be issued to direct employees or these purveyors will cater to the long chain of intermediaries involved in the production process of which even they are unaware as was cited in the recent New York Times expose on fashion nova.

How we can fix fast fashion

I know what you’re thinking, 2020 is a wreck. So far I’ve walked you through three global crises and there’s the impending doom of the corona virus but it’s not all bad news. We can put an end to this absurd cycle of buying to dump the same way we started it. It’s time we reprogram ourselves to eliminate this idea of a disposable society and encourage more sustainable, ethical clothing that doesn’t just last us till midnight. And it’s possible. Just by wearing your clothes for 9 months longer, you can reduce your carbon foot by 30%.

If everyone bought a used article instead of a new one this year, they could reduce 6 pounds of carbon emission. That’s equivalent to half a million cars removed off the road for a year!

A change in behavior goes a long way. It was reported that 68 per cent of those who watched the ABC’s War on Waste second series changed their habits. The series triggered Woolworth’s supermarkets to remove 3.2 billion single-use plastic bags a year from its checkouts, inspiring cafes and customers to adopt reusable cups, and leading to hospitality businesses eliminating single-use plastic straws.

As Wayne W.Dyer quotes, ‘Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.’

Is it still just a bunch of harmless clothes if you know that they come at the cost of invaluable lives?

Can we really rely on these conglomerates to make ethical decisions when their entire business’s agenda thrives on supplying clothes at the lowest cost possible with as much as 24 collections being put out each year? Any expectation of change from them will only result in heavy lump sums of money invested in green sheen and CSR reports that provide no insight into their supplier chain of logistics. Initiatives to counter unsustainability are merely ploys to generate income, i.e. H&M starting a recycling program offering 15% off on the next purchase. This had little actual outcomes except a higher repeat purchase rate. Not to mention most of these materials are blended with polyester or elastane to make fabrics that cannot be recycled again.

The only way we can make this mass overproduction less profitable is to send cheap cast-offs back to their producers and force big chains to pay for the afterlife of their garments so that they’re compelled to choose ethics over aesthetics.

As Wangari Maathai said in her famous 2004 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech,

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

This post first appeared on Medium.