Wednesday 21 October 2020

What's So Bad About Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is a hot topic, and one I talk about frequently (on this blog, in other articles, on social media and in real life conversations). The term often gets thrown around without much background discussion into what it actually is, and when people publicly condemn it, the reasoning behind this condemnation is sometimes overlooked, instead simply just calling for boycott without detailed reasoning as for why. So what actually is fast fashion, and what’s so bad about it?

What is Fast Fashion?


Fashion Revolution defines fast fashion as ‘cheap clothing, with quick turnover that encourages repurchasing’. Fast fashion encourages us to buy more and use less. This has only increased since the invention of the Internet, with online shopping helping to aid a culture of quick buys and constant newness. Marketing strategies have pushed the idea that we need more items, that new products will solve our problems. And with social media sites designed to get us addicted constantly bombarding us with brightly coloured images of cheap clothes we are told we need to buy, how can we blame consumers for doing as they’re told? 


This fast-paced nature of our modern fashion industry is detrimental on a whole number of levels. In this post I will highlight the main offenders, and explain what we mean when we say that fast fashion is unethical and unsustainable, as well as going into a little bit about how many of these brands are problematic even when you take out these factors. 


Ethical Issues – Workers’ Rights


The treatment of garment workers is the main reason many people (including myself) have a problem with the fast fashion industry. In order to allow fast fashion brands to sell their clothes so cheaply, their suppliers are under pressure to sell them garments for as cheaply as possible. This need to reduce cost leads to a whole range of issues, and undercuts most of the ethical issues found within fast fashion supply chains.


The main result of this is that many garment workers are paid less than a living wage and work incredibly long hours. In recent years, Bangladesh, where the garment sector accounts for 80% of its exports, has been gradually increasing its minimum wage, but even then factories are working beneath those requirements and trying to find loopholes where possible. 


This is not just an issue in countries in the Global South, (most prominently Bangladesh), it also happens in countries such as the UK, as we have seen with the repeated allegations of sweatshops present in Leicester. The latest report on the factories in Leicester highlighted how suppliers for brands such as Boohoo were paying their workers as little as £3.50/hour, well below the minimum wage, and to work in unsafe conditions, resulting in a spike in coronavirus cases in the area. 


Cutting costs also leads to many safety issues in factories. This is includes frequent workplace disasters and injuries. The most famous of these is the Rana Plaza disaster which occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April 2013. Structural instability within the building caused it to collapse, leaving 1,134 people dead and a further 2,500 seriously injured. Before the factory collapsed, workers had protested as they could see large cracks in the walls, increasing day by day. While higher paid people with admin roles had been evacuated days previously, the garment workers were forced to remain working inside the building under threat of losing their jobs, and therefore their livelihoods. While other incidents like this have been happening for years beforehand, and continued afterward (for example at Tazreen Garments in 2012, also in Dhaka), the collapse of Rana Plaza was the biggest of its kind in recent history, and marked a huge change in attitudes toward the fast fashion industry globally. Fashion Revolution, perhaps the most prominent non-profit in this area, was founded in reaction to it, with Fashion Revolution Week now occurring annually to both commemorate the people who died in Rana Plaza and to campaign for change in the industry. Many legislative changes were made in its wake, but despite the global uproar which occurred around Rana Plaza, the problems which led to the disaster weren’t solved. Factory disasters still occur, often as smaller collapses and fires. These issues also link to other major incidents across the world. For example, although in completely different areas and circumstances, I cannot help but see clear links between the Rana Plaza collapse and the fire at Grenfell Tower.


The need to rapidly produce garments for Western consumers means that immense pressure is put on suppliers to cut costs and maximize efficiency. As a result of this, garment workers are often denied toilet breaks and paid leave (including maternity leave). They are also exposed to dangerous chemicals and fire escapes are often blocked to prevent them from leaving. There are also many cases of child labour and sexual harassment and abuse, although many cases aren’t known because of the potential consequence of the victim being let go and therefore losing their income. 


Factory managers also often threaten to fire workers if they take a day off or if they protest or form unions. This has been seen many times and across different countries. For example, in a recent case in Myanmar, hundreds workers at factories supplying Zara and Primark were fired after they formed a union in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and brands refusing to pay for orders which had already been made. Some have since been reinstated


It is important to remember the demographics of these garment workers. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of garment workers worldwide are women aged 18-24, while factory owners and brand owners tend to be men. In factories like the one in Leicester, these women are more likely to be migrants with less English, and therefore more vulnerable to modern slavery and other forms of exploitation. Fast fashion is a feminist issue, and it cannot be treated differently.


The dynamics of the fast fashion industry are those of neo-colonialism. Resources are taken from previously colonized and often poorer countries, then transported for use in richer countries who had previously been the colonisers. While the resources may have changed, the same power imbalances remain. This system is dependent on white supremacist patriarchy for survival, and it is also those systems we must aim to eradicate when we’re seeking for change in the fashion industry. 


Since the Covid-19 pandemic, Remake's #PayUp campaign has been highly publicized in both the traditional media and social media. As a result of closing stores etc., many brands cancelled thousands of orders, many of which had already been completed (or at least partly completed). This was devastating for garment workers, leaving them without pay for potentially months on end and risking starvation. This campaign has resulted in several brands reversing their decisions and paying their suppliers, meaning that so far $22 billion has been recovered. I urge you to sign the latest #PayUp petition and read through the seven demands Remake are asking of brands.

Image credit



Fast fashion also brings up a whole load of environmental issues. Frankly, the rate of production many of these brands operate on is just not sustainable in any way. Those with the fasted rates of production include Boohoo, Missguided, Pretty Little Thing, Shein, Fashion Nova, and yes, H&M. In their recent Channel 4 documentary, Missguided CEO Nitin Passi revealed that the company releases over 3,500 new products each month. He also stated how 50% of their stock is less than a month old and 90% is less than 3 months old. That’s a hell of a lot of new clothes, many of which will be made of damaging materials such as polyester (i.e. plastic). This combined with a culture of disposability surrounding clothes is incredibly damaging. Even if they used sustainable materials, this level of production will never be sustainable, simply for the amount of energy and resources it uses. 


In an effort to salvage their reputations, many fast fashion brands our now using recycled and other sustainable materials, often releasing their own ‘eco-friendly’ collections (see: H&M Conscious). However, these attempts at sustainability often only amount to greenwashing. What is greenwashing? It’s essentially when a company markets itself to be environmentally friendly when in reality they are anything but. This often includes using buzzwords such as ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘vegan’, ‘eco’, and ‘green’ (which aren’t restricted in advertising in anyway) as well as visual imagery like green and neutral colours, etc. to suggest links to nature. 

H&M marketing material

One of the most popular means of being more sustainable is by using recycled materials. Often, garments are only made using a small proportion of recycled material. This can often be as little as 5% to mean they use the term ‘recycled’ on their label, and therefore their marketing. Many brands have used this method, both fast fashion brands and smaller businesses which are more sustainable and ethical all round. However, even though they use materials which are overall less damaging to the environment, their rapid production rates still have a huge impact. If they truly want to have less of an environmental impact, brands should slow down their production rates, otherwise their efforts mean nothing. 


The materials are also something which need to be taken into account. It can take 2,700 litres to produce a cotton t-shirt. There are ways of reducing this, as outlined by WWF, for example by using organic cotton. The world’s most commonly used material is polyester, which is essentially a type of plastic and is derived from oil, and takes up 65% of all fibres used in textiles. It is a revolutionary material, being cheap, easy to wash, easy to blend with other fibres, easily dyed as well as having a whole load of different ways it can be used, so it’s easy to see why it’s now so popular. However, it is very damaging to the environment. I would highly recommend looking through the briefing Common Objective did on polyester if you want more detail, but it’s essentially like all other plastics. As garments made of polyester get washed, they shed microplastics which end up in the oceans, being consumed by both humans and animals alike. 


The Brands Themselves


Then there’s the public image of fast fashion brands themselves. They often use false claims of feminism and ‘girl power’, bandwagoning onto social movements and activism circles when in reality for a marketing ploy. Brands such as Missguided market themselves on their apparent ethos of ‘empowerment’ and body positivity, when in reality their gender pay gaps are at 46% and they are shown to make fatphobic comments in a documentary series which was supposed to be promotional. When you look behind the sparkly smokescreen, the supposed ‘wokeness’ of these brands is nothing but performative. There are so many examples of this, I could go on for ages about brands behaving horrendously. Another repeat offender is Shein, who this year tried to sell Islamic prayer mats as decorative rugs and also used swastikas on necklaces


In addition to this, these companies turning over hundreds of millions of pounds each year (and often owned by billionaires) are frequently called out for outright copying the designs of small businesses. From M&S (who are generally better on workers’ rights and sustainability, and are generally slower than other high street brands) stealing designs from Stay Wild Swim, to Pretty Little Thing trying to pass off Do Not Subverge’s designs for their own. This happens across the industry, but particularly with brands who are releasing new designs by their thousands each month. These businesses are often a lot more ethical and sustainable than these big name brands, and black-owned businesses are frequently victims of this kind of behaviour. 

In 2017 Missguided were called out for only
stocking a 'feminist' tee in sizes 8-14

As you can see the problems with fast fashion are extensive, and its domination over the fashion industry is an issue which will not solve itself overnight. To find out more, you can check out the vast amount of information in my Fast Fashion 101 Resource Doc, and if you have any questions, I am always willing to try my best to answer them. 


It is important to remember that there is not one solution to this issue, and we should not be blaming consumers. Yes, as consumers we should do as much as we are able to slow down our fashion consumption but it is ultimately the responsibility of the billionaire CEOs who are profiting off exploitation to change it. As they are unlikely to make that decision on their own, we have to hold them to account and lobby for change. One way to directly support garment workers is by becoming a patreon of the Remember Who Made Them campaign, a non-profit which supports garment workers to unionise. They have options for as little as $1 a month. 

If you liked this post you might like: Quitting Fast Fashion: Where to Start

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