Fast Fashion: At What Cost Do Young Consumers Say No?

Grace Brian

In the pursuit of appearing on-trend for bottom-dollar, consumers are contributing to an epidemic in the fashion and textile industry. The emergence of Fast Fashion, the industry’s equivalent to a McDonalds or Burger King, grew from the demand for designer clothing at inexpensive prices.

Fast Fashion is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasize making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to customers” (Merriam-Webster). Although the effects of the current production and marketing methods of major retailers are widely unknown, Fast Fashion has an impact on everyone – from the consumers and makers, to the environment.

Not surprisingly, consumers under the age of 35 are the biggest perpetuators of Fast Fashion (but, not the only ones). “Go-to” stores such as Zara, Forever 21, and H&M are the trail blazers of the Fast Fashion philosophy. They produce product quickly, cheaply, and frequently for buyers.

HOW IT STARTED

Beginning in the 1950’s, mass produced clothing gained popularity. Starting in the 1960’s, young people sought out cheap, trendy clothing and retailers had to keep up with the ever-increasing demand. With cost and speed in mind, fashion companies outsourced most of their production overseas (Fashionista).

Today, Fast Fashion, or disposable fashion, is more accepted than ever before - even celebrities are flaunting the latest H&M dress. The speed of communication today plays a role as well. Consumers can watch a runway show on Snapchat and a few days later buy a similar garment, for cheap, at their favorite retailer online.

THE PRODUCT LIFE CYCLE

Consumers participate in a very small portion of a garment’s life. To understand the impact of Fast Fashion, it’s helpful to be aware of a product’s life cycle. In short, many of the negative effects caused by Fast Fashion practices, either take place before or after the consumer is in possession of the good.

For instance, the manufacturing and transportation required to get the product on to the sales floor creates textile and toxic waste, hazardous environments for workers, and carbon emissions. In addition, the amount of natural resources and water to produce these fabrics is staggering.

Once the consumer disposes the garment, either because it’s out of fashion or no longer wearable, it ends up in the garbage or thrift store. In the landfill, garments made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester, could take hundreds of years to decompose. While decomposing, textiles can potentially release toxic chemicals into the soil. If the garment is thrifted, which is ideal, it’s sold and worn again (and this process starts over), sent as salvage to a foreign country, or recycled.

NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF FAST FASHION

Now more than ever, the true cost of clothing (and many other goods) isn’t what you see on the tag. Fast Fashion is based on producing huge quantities of clothing, quickly, for the lowest price possible. Retailers mark-up goods as much as 150%, which means the cost of the product to retailers is a fraction of what consumers see on the price tag.

We've all experienced shrinking on the first wash, buttons falling off, and stitching coming loose on the first wear. Customers are purchasing product that's intended to fall apart. These practices not only take advantage of the consumer, but also the makers and environment.

OVERCONSUMPTION

The fashion industry thrives on consumption. The marketing tactics deployed by retailers are intended to convince consumers they need the “next best thing” to stay on-trend. Aside from the obvious affect on young consumers’ wallets, these techniques have successfully created a culture that celebrates overconsumption.

“…the fashion industry is churning out 52 “micro-seasons” per year. With new trends coming out every week, the goal of fast fashion is for consumers to buy as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible.” (Huffington Post)

The demand for cheap clothing and the newest, on-trend styles doesn’t translate to high-quality goods. Today, “fashion, more than any other industry in the world, embraces obsolescence as a primary goal” (Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands)”. For the Fast Fashion model to work, customers must continue purchasing product and retailers must ensure their product will be undesirable or unwearable within a short period of time.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

The fashion industry is notoriously known as the dirtiest one in the world. Manufacturing methods of cheap clothing have wreaked havoc on the environment. These methods include dyeing, finishing, fiber manufacturing, and reject waste.

"Fast fashion has paved the way for outright disposable fashion. It's not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it's not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.” (US News via The Fashion Law)

The Fast Fashion model encourages consumers to dispose their clothing after a short period of time. Most of the time, these clothes end up in the garbage. In fact, the EPA estimates over 5%, or over 21 billion pounds, of landfill mass can be attributed to textiles (Council for Textile Recycling).

WORKING CONDITIONS

Aside from special cases where retailers need garments very quickly, most manufacturing is outsourced abroad. Countries such as China, India, and Bangladesh serve as some of the largest textile exporters today. In these countries, companies can produce large amounts of clothing for extremely cheap – at the price of the workers.

Although the textile industry provides many people with employment, often the working conditions are unsafe. Many factories dismiss safety codes, resulting in instances such the 2012 Tazreen Sweater Factory fire in Bangladesh, where over 117 people were killed. Shortly after, 1,129 workers perished at the Rana Plaza collapse, the deadliest textile industry accident in history.

In addition, “the industry estimates suggest that 20 to 60 percent of garment production is sewn at home by informal workers” (Lucy Seigle, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World via Huff Post). Children often need to work stitching with their parents to make ends meet.

Fast Fashion is the cornerstone of every young person’s expectations – cheap and trendy. But, at what cost do consumers say “no”?

Instead of celebrating an industry that encourages disposal and inhumane practices, let’s change the way we think about fashion. Slow Fashion, Fast Fashion’s counterpart, is a more resourceful approach to clothing production, which encourages less consumption, respecting artisans, and using natural materials.

Although young consumers contribute to Fast Fashion, they can also be the change. Small changes in buying habits, over time, can revolutionize the industry and create a more sustainable future.


Stay tuned for our follow up post on ways you can celebrate the Slow Fashion movement! We'll give you inspiration and tips on how to lead a more fashionably sustainable lifestyle.


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