What's wrong with fast fashion?
If you're anything like me and grew up in the 90s and 2000s, you probably spent much of your teen and college years astutely aware of how much stuff - clothing, jewelry, makeup - you wanted but couldn't afford. I try and pinpoint when I evolved (devolved?) from a happy-go-lucky tomboy, blissfully ignorant about what I had compared to others, into a consumption-obsessed, insecure young woman.
Maybe it was my first allowance that I could spend on ANYTHING I WANTED, maybe it was watching TV shows like Friends and wanting to figure out how I would ever be able to look that great. I'd probably need all those things - the hair, the clothes, the jewelry. And so I'd head to H&M, my gateway drug to Forever 21 and Zara. Walking through these vast high street stores blasting loud, sexy music fueled my need and desire for more stuff that was cute, up-to-date and inexpensive.
Fast fashion is best defined by Ellen Macarthur's 2017 report, A New Textiles Economy, an incredible, in-depth report about the state of the fashion economy.
Fast fashion encompasses fashion with quicker turnaround of new, trend-forward styles, increased number of collections offered per year, and, typically, lower prices.
This was the answer to my teen angst that lasted well into my twenties. I wanted it all but for less. If I only wore it to that one party, who cares? I'd spent $12 on it. It was practically disposable in my mind, especially since it would cost more to dry clean than to buy something new! Little did I know just how terrifying the reality would be about what it takes to make clothing at that speed, at that scale, and at the prices I so loved.
READ ON TO GET TO KNOW...
- How fast fashion took on runway designers.
- Why driving costs down in a linear system puts pressure on the environment and society.
- How fashion has become like grocery shopping.
Runway style chic, but make it cheap!
The brilliance of fast fashion was to recreate (copy) trendy runway looks for the masses. Quickly. Starting in the 1960s in full force, retailers started to respond to consumer demand for trendy fashion at affordable prices by leveraging overseas mass production capabilities.
It sounds wonderfully democratic - enable everyone to enjoy runway trends, not just the 0.1% who can afford it. Over the years, brands such as Zara increased the number of collections they released to the tune of over 50 collections a year, one every week. Famously, they could recreate runway looks from design to delivery in under two weeks. To this day, you'll see e-tailers such as Boohoo, Urban Outfitters, and Revolve gloating over the new styles dropping every DAY.
FAST & Cheap requires cheap labor and cheap materials
Research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that global clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, with garments on average being worn much less (36% less) and discarded quicker than ever before. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.
It's estimated that more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing under-utilization and the lack of recycling. Furthermore, this linear model of take-make-dispose has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts. Many of you will be familiar with the infamous Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 (pictured below) where 1100 people died and 2500 more were injured in a factory fire in Bangladesh due to unsafe factory conditions.
In order to sell at lower prices, brands need to produce at much lower prices to maintain their profit margins. That meant leaving the US, Europe and China for cheaper labor in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. And it meant using cheap, synthetic materials like polyester and rayon that are difficult to breakdown at the end of their life-cycle.
Wages in countries like Bangladesh are exceptionally low and conditions within factories are often inhumane. Obviously, not all are bad. And not all expensive factories are good. But, it is evident that, at the speed and cost with which these factories are churning out new product, mistakes will happen, safety training will be negligible, and wages will be minimal.
COMMODITIZATION OF FAST FASHION
Fast fashion grew up around the same time as Amazon.com, thus catapulting a fast supply chain into an even faster end-to-end customer experience. How could this be wrong? If the customer is satisfied and we all have the ultimate convenience for anything we could ever possibly want, we all win, right?
When I was browsing the shop floors of Topshop in London in the 90s and 2000s, I wasn't expecting two-day delivery of the product as well. Today, there's a whole ethos of speed around fashion that makes it feel a lot more like stocking up for (hip, sparkly) garbage bags than buying something you love and will cherish for years. The new norm for the industry is that, if you don’t get product to customers as soon as they desire it, you miss your window.
Are consumers really that fickle? It seems so. And brands have fed into that fickleness. And customers love what they get. On and on in this seemingly never-ending cycle; it's hard to know when it will break or if it will need an externality (like climate change) to break it.
We are all accustomed to everything being at our fingertips when we want it and it requires a lot of awareness to catch yourself from shopping mindlessly. That instant gratification may come with a cheap literal price tag but the costs behind the price tag are huge and irreversible. For us at Public Habit, slow fashion is about slowing down and making only what we sell and shipping from the source. In the scheme of things, however, our 21-25 day delivery promise is really fast given that it includes time to make, inspect, package, and ship the product to the customer. Join us in slowing down and taking a pause before you add to cart. In less than an hour, you may realize you don't really want it anymore.
As always, if you have questions or think we missed something, please comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.