Over the past few weeks we have been exploring topics about the fashion industry’s relationship with the environment - elaborating on buzzwords that are permeating the market and discussing how to have a better understanding of our fashion carbon footprint. Today, we wanted to spotlight a factor that we believe gave rise to the dark side of the industry: fast fashion.
WHAT IS FAST FASHION?
"Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand." - Good On You
"Fast fashion" is a juggernaut that in many ways has defined the fashion industry for the past few decades. The model is for companies to capitalize on designer trends at the height of their popularity by producing as many styles, as quickly as possible, at the lowest cost. Sometimes this means that these companies get these styles in their stores before the designers that created them and showcased them at fashion week. Fast fashion companies' margins and profits are not yielded in the investment of a singular innovative design, but rather in turning out as MANY units in a trendy style prior to the emergence of a new, more dominant trend.
The model works. Fast fashion companies like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop have unbeatable economies of scale and are only growing in their share in the market. Zara processes one million garments a day from their Spanish headquarters and (as of 2009) Forever 21 was buying more than 100 million pieces of clothing a year (Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion). With top-tier brands and designs increasing in cost (price of high-end women's dresses climbed an average of 250% between 1998 and 2010), fast fashion companies seemed like the antidote to making trends accessible to the mass public (Overdressed). Unfortunately, producing at these levels and speed has lead to an overproduction making the fashion industry one of the world's greatest culprits in pollution.
FAST FASHION EXAMPLE: Birkenstocks
I am going to highlight fast fashion in action to give a more tangible understanding of how quickly it can operate. In February 2021, InStyle wrote an article about celebrities choosing Birkenstocks as the new "it" shoe for everyday comfort. Based out of Germany, Birkenstocks retails for an average of $100-150 per pair, and the classic double buck Arizona design retails for $135. With that in mind, as this particular design picks up in popularity companies such as ASOS and TJ Maxx have already turned out their own creations with similar designs, yet a very different price-point (see photo below).
CONSEQUENCES OF FAST FASHION
By 2030, it is estimated that the fashion industry will consume resources equivalent to two earths, with consumption and the demand for clothing to increase by 63% in less than a decade (Good On You). Already a titan in the way its shaped the industry, fast fashion is on track to take over an even greater share of the marketplace reaching its zenith in the future, not the past. The consequences of fast fashion are tangible, measurable, and daunting. I will link the articles that I pulled the facts from below, but I wanted to detail some noteworthy points of the impact of fast fashion on the earth, people, and the industry itself.
Simply put, "a fast-paced model requires fast-paced production" (Good On You). This speedy production unfortunately opens up the flood gates for environmental waste and damage.
Approximately,93 billion cubic meters of water are consumed every year in the garment industry, enough to meet the needs of 5 million people. This mass consumption of water not only poses a cause to water scarcity, but when water does get pumped back into our water systems they are introducing chemicals and toxins threatening the health of the animals that consume it, including us. About 20% of our world’s wastewater directly results from fabric dyeing and treatment during fabric production. Most fashion companies partner with factories overseas, so while our water systems may not necessarily be as severely contaminated by fabric production, communities in the developing world are ultimately paying the price for these companies' choices and our newest outfit. Fortunately there are brands (like Boyish) that have become mindful of the fashion industry's use of water. They are making intentional steps to not only minimize water usage (Boyish utilizes about 1/3 of the regular amount of water it takes to produce an average pair of jeans) but are also using less harmful and toxic chemicals, instead investing in plant-based alternatives for fabric dyeing.
Due to the model of fast fashion, we are encouraged to partake in as many trends as possible and with the "affordability" of each garment, we then treat each piece as though it is disposable. By 2030, humans are expected to discard more than 134 million tons of textiles per year. Even though there are more options to resell or upcycle our clothing responsibly than ever before, 84% of our clothing is still being sent directly to landfills - which can take 200 years to decompose. Much of donated clothing gets exported overseas to be resold in low/middle-income countries, and any unsold items oftentimes end up in the municipal waste systems of these communities clogging rivers, greenways, and parks (Good On You). Once again, it is easy for us to overlook the toxicity of our own textile waste as it oftentimes is not our personal environment or ecosystem our clothes are poisoning. Out of sight unfortunately can mean out of mind.
For tips on how to recycle or resell your clothing responsibly I suggest you check out our Resolutions For a More Sustainable Wardrobe blog post, where we elaborate and give you a deep dive on companies that do the work for you so you can know that your discarded clothing has a sustainable second life.
One final fact that I would be remiss to bring up about the relationship between fast fashion and the environment: currently 10% of global carbon emissions come from the apparel industry, only second to oil (Good On You). These calculations are attributed not only to the emissions released during the actual production of clothing, but also when you account for global transportation from these countries to our closets. With most of fast fashion pieces finding their way to landfills, it makes us wonder the actual cost of these "low-cost" items.With 85% of our clothing finding its way to a landfill, it makes the environmental cost of production and the rendering of emissions absolutely inexcusable.
Many in the fashion industry have made an intentional choice to move factories overseas to low-income countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam and the Phillippines hiring mainly female (80%) factory workers for work. The cost savings by moving operations to these countries are extraordinary and at the root of fast fashion. The working conditions for these facilities are significantly below the standards of that of their domestic counterparts, with one out of four garment workers reporting some type of abuse at the workplace (Oxfam 2019 report). With the amount of goods and materials suppliers needed to meet the demands of fast fashion, and the small margins they are operating with per garment, there is very little investment in the conditions of the workplace and in ensuring the health and safety of these workers. As of 2019, 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and 1% of Vietnamese garment workers earn a living wage (Oxfam 2019 report).
As Dakota noted in our Sustainable Fashion Guide, there is an increase in the demand for fair trade goods and robust certification for these factories. Not everything produced in one of these developing countries means that it originates from one of these factories, but for fast fashion companies producing as much as they can in a short amount of time, there is very little incentive for them to partner with artisanal or boutique makers that demand fair wages and working conditions.
In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline prompts the question to her girlfriends "can you name the fashion trends of each decade?" For the 80's - hammer pants, neon, poofy sleeves, and for the 90's - grunge, midriffs, combat boots and so on. Once they arrived in the 2000's and 2010's the list of trends just kept growing longer and longer....oversized sunglasses, mini sunglasses, fitted blazers, oversized blazers, track suits, athleisure, skinny jeans, high-waisted jeans, body-con dresses, oversized fits. It goes on and on. Trends are the new trend. One of our closest friends recently pointed out to us how she sees mini ruffle skirts (shout out to Abercrombie circa 2005) everywhere nowadays asking, "when did that come back?" We are living amongst fast fashion even if we aren't actively thinking about it and these companies are recycling old trends just to have something new to catch our eyes and entice us to make a purchase.
Fast fashion companies are no longer relying on catwalk or luxury designs to inspire their collections, they're seeking out inspiration elsewhere from vintage-inspired clothing to even small designer labels. In 2011, Forever 21 produced a line of tops from a small, domestically produced label called Feral Childe. Their "Teepees" print showed up on a collection of garments for a 1/10th of the price (Overdressed). A boutique label investing in domestic production at a smaller scale simply cannot compete with a $15 top with similar design, and when a small designer only has so many chances to make it, we are seeing it become harder and harder to break into the industry. Anecdotally, Dakota and I have even seen this happen with Spell-like prints from different makers, some of which even making their way to window displays around town.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
"We don't need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly." - Anne-Marie Bonneau
The above quote is a sentiment I firmly believe in when it comes to my own approach to fashion. Mindful or "good" consumerism is not black and white - there is no one way to build a conscious closet. People's preferences, price tags, sizes all vary and telling one person how to shop and what to buy has never been something we have ever advocated for.
To me, the best (and easiest) thing you can do to slow down fast fashion is practice mindfulness. Be discerning in the trends you want to incorporate into your wardrobe, shop for your style and only invest in trends and pieces when they make sense to your life. I have 'fast fashion' pieces that year after year I continue to wear (even as they become worn) just because I love them that much, but then I have also resold top-tier items after wearing once just because they never really seemed to suit me. Nothing is black and white. The right way to consume is to be thoughtful and aware at every step of the way: seek out and demand transparency from suppliers, buy with longevity in mind, prolong the first (or second) life of everything in your closet and, when it's time, recycle and resell responsibly. Practice that imperfectly and you are the solution, not the problem.
With all of that said, there are incredible grassroots and nonprofit organizations like Fashion Revolution and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, advocating change and if you would like to get involved or donate, know that they're doing amazing work in pushing the industry forward.
We highlight this issue and want to shed light on it not to terrify or discourage, but to educate and stay true to our intention of transparency. No brand or company is doing anything perfectly, but we are doing our best to build an assortment of clothes we love with values we align with. The fashion industry and the clothes themselves bring so many joy and avenues for self-expression, giving confidence to be ourselves, uplifting creatives and designers who look to make a statement through art. With so many small brands, and even a select few larger fashion companies, working their way to increasing their sustainable practices and reworking the model to help rather than harm, we remain hopeful for tomorrow's fashion giants. And remember, at the end of the day, change will be driven by one person's demands: the customer.
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