The concept of fast fashion
The fashion industry is very complex and a fundamental sector of the global economy, accounting for 2% of global GDP (Fashion United, 2020). With globalization and trade liberalization, fast fashion has started to rise. Fast fashion or ready-made garment (RMG), is identified as a business model that offers the perception of fashionable clothes at a very cheap price and that supports a high demand for supply of periodically changing trends (Caro and Martinez-de-Albéniz, 2015). Hence, to be successful, this business model needs high rates of consumption and production.
In Western countries, fashion is marketized as the means to express one’s identity, thus, people are encouraged to buy clothes and other accessories so they do not “waste time” to build their identity (Bruggeman, 2018). And since new collections come in stores every two of four weeks, consumers are urged to buy new as fast as they can to not lose any item. People are told by the market that they need more clothes to show who they are and to be fashionable, and this changes very rapidly so people need to keep up.
The fast fashion industry is fueled by social media where influencers share their latest purchases, inspiring their viewers, mostly younger generations, to want more clothes as well (Kovacevic, 2018). Indeed, in the last 15 years, clothing production has approximately doubled (EMF, 2017). The natural consequences of this rise are that real clothing utilization has fallen sharply as items are often discarded because they are out of style or because they are worn out (EMF, 2017).
If it is so cheap, so rapidly changing and available on a huge scale, what are the costs that are not taken into account?
The human cost of fast fashion
It is no secret that this industry functions by outsourcing certain processes in places where labor is cheaper and there are less regulations on safety and hygiene on the workplace. The fast fashion industry is made of retailers, in the Western world where consumers are induced to buy more and more items, and suppliers, mostly in developing countries, where workers are paid low wages and have few labor rights (Clarke-Sather and Cobb, 2019). Hidden from multinationals’ marketing, more than 60 million people work in the garment industry and most of them are young women, coming from rural backgrounds (Oxfam Australia, 2016).
The top textile exporting countries are China, Vietnam and Bangladesh and this industry played a significant role in their recent growth, however labor and safety rights are not regulated. Ready-made garment work is physically demanding and exploitative for women, as they are often victims of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and frequently forced to work in unsafe conditions (Hossain, 2011). Moreover, working extensively in contact with fibers, makes garment workers exposed to synthetic fibers chemicals and to pesticides used in cotton farming, which can have toxic effects on them (Esri, n.d.).
The Rana Plaza Example
On April 23rd, 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing some 1,134 people and leaving some 2,000 injured (Jacoby, 2018). The Rana Plaza was one among thousands of buildings converted in textile factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was an eight-stories tall building and, although it was clear that there were many concerning cracks on the walls, workers had been ordered to enter and get to work at the risk of losing their jobs (Hendriksz, 2018). In response to this terrible accident, a group of retailer textile firms and NGOs established two private remediation and governance programs, the Accord on Building and Fire Safety and the Alliance for Workers Safety (Ahlquist and Mosley, 2018). Both were aimed at asking retailer firms to take responsibility for working conditions in supplier factories and both created a system to inspect and fund repairs in those factories.
Overall, working conditions have improved and workers are in relatively safer buildings compared to the conditions before the Rana Plaza accident and the subsequent remediation programs. However, higher costs for safer buildings have increased production costs for RMG entrepreneurs and, at the same time, retailers pressure garment factories to keep down prices (Bossavie et al, 2019). This has resulted in a decrease of wage, especially for women, and a decrease in likeliness of getting a written contract, which, in turn, results in additional welfare losses (Bossavie et al, 2019). However, this is not enough.
The linear business model
The current system for producing, distributing and consuming clothing operates in an almost completely linear way (EMF, 2017). In this way, an infinite amount of virgin materials is needed to produce an unlimited number of clothing which will be bought and very soon disposed of. Fast fashion companies have created 52 micro-seasons – compared to the once prevalent two: fall/winter and spring/summer – which inevitably generate an incredible amount of waste (The Borgen Project, 2019). This is a focal point of the industry: the item should be worn few times, then, due to bad quality, falls apart and most of the times, it ends up in landfills.
The industry is exploiting a finite number of resources – cotton, wool, plastic – in order to produce every year a greater amount of clothes. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned, and, if nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget (UNEP, 2018).
There is also an economic loss in this linear model as an estimated value of 500 USD billion is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and lack of recycling (UN Fashion Alliance).
The environmental cost of fast fashion
The environmental impacts are massive. Producing textiles implies using a huge water supply. According to a recent report by the Global Fashion Agenda, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water, enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools (2017). The production of a regular cotton T-shirt demands around 2,700 liters of water (The Conscious Challenge, 2019) and around 7,570 liters of water for a pair of jeans (UNEP, 2018). These figures are alarming considered that the Earth’s water resources are running low and that the ready-made garment consumption is deemed to rise by 63% by 2030 (The Conscious Challenge, 2017).
Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces, less than 5 mm in length and textiles is their primary source (Fashion Revolution, 2019). Furthermore, around 50% of our clothing is made from plastic and up to 700,000 microfibers, a type of microplastic, can come off synthetic clothes during a typical wash (Textile Exchange, 2019). Consequently, if the fashion industry continues as it is, between 2015 and 2050, 22 million tons of microfibers will enter the oceans (Fashion Revolution, 2019). They can be ingested by marine animals and can have catastrophic effects on the entire marine ecosystem.
According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide attributed to the dyeing of textiles (EMF, 2017; UN Fashion Alliance).
Fast fashion during the coronavirus pandemic
Self-isolation measures during the pandemic are keeping shoppers and stores closed and the global fashion industry has been hit very hard by COVID-19 (Huet, 2020). The sector is facing an “inventory crisis” because the clothes that were supposed to be sold during this season were produced six/seven months ago. Clothing sales plummeted by 34% in March, as people do not have many occasions to wear them in this period (McIntosh, 2020).
Many low-skilled people work in South-East Asian countries in the textile production and the coronavirus pandemic has hit even harder those workers. The garment industry is fundamental for thousands of garment workers employed in the production of clothes because it represents emancipation and independence, especially for women (Hossain, 2020). However, due to the impossibility of selling the clothes, whose sales were scheduled for this period, around 900 billion pieces of clothing have been canceled and garment workers have lost their job or are working unpaid (Hossain, 2020).
At the end of April, despite the national lockdown, garment factorieshave reopened in Bangladesh, but workers were forced to return to work in cramped conditions with almost no measure in place to avoid COVID-19 infection (Ellis-Petersen and Ahmed, 2020). Although the government has allowed to resume operations only if factories guarantee social-distancing, no such measure has been ensured and now workers are exposed to increased danger or they are fired if they refuse to work in these conditions (Ellis-Petersen and Ahmed, 2020).
Some final reflections
This article is not aimed at explaining all the negative impacts of fast fashion onto the people and the environment, rather, it is a call for a mindset change. Once we learn about something distressing, we cannot overlook it anymore. Regarding fast fashion, we now have the knowledge of how it works, why it works like this and what are the horrific consequences, even more enhanced during the current pandemic. We should rather act, in our small way, to make a difference and not pass by it as nothing happened. As consumers, we have a voice because we have the rational choice to purchase what we believe is ethically and sustainably made.
We do not see those costs, they are not accounted for in the price pay for clothes, so they are taken out from someone and something else. On one hand, clothes are very cheap in fast fashion because multinationals do not pay proper wages to their workers and do not guarantee them a safe working space. On the other, the Planet is paying the environmental cost, through increased air and water pollution, huge amounts of waste and exploitation of soils to grow cotton and other fibers.
It is crucial to change our individual habits to influence global fashion value chains and demand for labor rights for garment workers and to protect the environment. A different model is possible and it implies slowing the process of production and reuse materials that are already existing. This can be done by making the fashion industry a circular system, where old clothes can be repurposed into new ones. Fast fashion seems cheap because we do not account for hidden costs, however, we cannot create cheap clothing items by respecting the boundaries of social and environmental sustainability. Hence, as consumers, we should set our mind of owning less, higher quality pieces that last longer, that pollute and exploit less the environment and the artisans who made them are properly paid and respected. This is the challenge for the future, and we should start to act now.
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Autore dell’articolo *Roberta Croce, addetta alla comunicazione ed esperta in sviluppo internazionale del think tank Trinità dei Monti. Dottoressa in Politics, Philosophy and Economics all’Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma e studentessa di Master of Public Administration in Development Practice presso University College Dublin. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.
* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.