The Cancellation of Fast Fashion


Marcus Loke on Unsplash

How can we prevent the continuation of environmental impact and infringement of human rights that occurs in the fashion industry?

Since the documentary The True Cost premiered in 2015, fast fashion has become a topic that “woke” Instagram influencers have been spouting about to their followers. It has become such a prevalent issue that people from protesters on Pearl Street Mall to celebrities like Emma Watson have become advocates for its destruction. Fast fashion is a subsect of the garment industry that produces inexpensive clothing in response to the latest trends. Fast fashion brands range all the way from those expected—like H&M and Fashion Nova—to what some consider to be expensive and more high-end brands such as Adidas and Urban Outfitters.

Textile workers often face poor working conditions and are drastically underpaid. (Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash)

At first glance, fast fashion seems like a simple and good way to get cheap clothing. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the business, cheap garments require cheap production, so manufacturers often cut corners. Corporations do this by exploiting workers overseas. Workers in India are known to work 12 hour days and have 100 unpaid overtime hours in a month. In Sri Lanka, factory workers earn $92 a month on average, which is $98 less than they need to make ends meet. The Asian Floor Wage Alliance (AWFA) was founded to end these practices which they consider to be modern-day slavery. In their documentary Living Wage Now!, AWFA shows what it’s really like to live with not even enough money to support your family and the lengths that garment companies and governments will go to prevent the increase of wages. AWFA’s goal is for garment workers to earn a comfortable living wage that would allow them to support themselves and their families with money left over to save. Wages and overworking aren’t the only things that make these workers’ lives hell; conditions inside factories can be appalling. With exposure to toxic chemicals and high noise levels, buildings are often poorly maintained and are not up to structural standards (evidenced by the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse that led to the death of 1,134 people). Since the disaster, factories have become more regulated and Bangladesh saw a minor win of a 77 percent increase in minimum wage. Although both of these changes are good, a terrible disaster should not have to happen for changes to be made. Clothing companies need to come so much farther in order to provide living wages for their factory employees.

Almost everyone in the western world can agree that fast fashion must be held accountable for its poor labor practices in factories. An argument must also be made against fast fashion’s environmental impact. This is where the true ethical debate over fast fashion’s status resides. In first-world countries such as the United States, the majority of clothing is produced in other low or middle-income countries. The areas surrounding textile mills are burdened with the drastic environmental impacts associated with processing clothing materials. These repercussions aren’t always visible here in the United States. The majority of clothing items sold in the United States are made out of cotton or polyester. Cotton requires extensive amounts of water and pesticides to grow, which negatively affects the health of local animals and people. Textile dyes also include harmful toxins that often enter the water system through unprocessed waste-water. Perhaps the bigger issue (or maybe the most visible issue within the US) is that of textile waste. About 3.8 billion pounds of American clothing purchased each year is dumped into landfills. This comes out to be about 80 pounds of clothing per person per year. This waste takes up five percent of our nation’s landfills and can pollute rivers, greenways and parks. 

Corporate sustainability is the key to reducing the environmental impact that occurs during production. This is when corporations take on the responsibility of reducing their impact instead of putting the burden on consumers. This can be done through sustainable fiber: fabrics that “reduce environmental pollution and minimize the exploitation of people or natural resources.”  Businesses can also be branded as “fair trade” by adhering to production standards laid out by organizations such as Fair Trade America and the National Council of Textiles Organization. Having products labeled as “fair trade” and “eco friendly” can be appealing to consumers as the media pushes us to make ethical purchases and many people want to be perceived as eco-conscious. However, there are many clothing companies that claim they are “sustainable” and still have many shady business practices. H&M released a sustainable basics clothing line that incorporates recycled clothing but continues to exploit its factory employees by paying them below the poverty line.

Brands that are recognized as “fair trade” and “eco-friendly” are usually far more expensive than their fast fashion counterparts because they pay their workers a proper living wage and source their materials and distribution factors through sustainable methods. Last year, after watching several documentaries and researching the environmental tragedy caused by the garment industry, I realized almost all my clothing was considered fast fashion. I immediately felt horrible and decided I needed to completely revamp my wardrobe with fully sustainable options. I of course was tricked by America’s consumer culture and the marketing ploys of sustainable brands. I did not need new clothes. By donating my old clothes and purchasing new, albeit sustainable, clothing I was adding to the clothing waste epidemic plaguing or country. I invested in clothing pieces that are humane and environmentally friendly and will last for years, but it nearly drove me flat broke to buy them.

Thrift shopping can be a good alternative for fast fashion. (Becca McHaffie on Unsplash)

Looking back, I see now that I made a mistake. But it got me thinking: was what I did really that bad? I donated my old clothing to thrift stores to give it a second life and showed my support for sustainable brands, allowing them to continue on their journey of destroying fast fashion. But the world of donating and shopping at thrift stores is not as glorious as it has been made to seem. Only one-fifth of clothing donated to charities is used or sold in stores. Some organizations go on to give unused clothing to a recycler like the Trans-America Trading Company which processes about 16.8 million pounds of clothing annually. Thrift shopping has seen a boom in popularity due to its marketing in the media, but also greater access to new technology. Social media platforms allow used items to be bought and sold easier than ever. There is a huge increase in sales predicted across the entire secondhand market from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion in 2023. High demand and the flooding of charity stores, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, are causing thrift prices to rise. Unfortunately, prices at big box stores and fast fashion retailers are often lower than those at thrift stores. People who cannot afford higher-end products are again turning to fast fashion for their clothing. Although thrift stores are not considered taboo now, they’ve become a sort of playground for the wealthy. Thrifting comes less out of necessity than it does entertainment and prestige. Thrifted clothing is currently trendy and I’m sure we’ve all heard people around the halls of Boulder High bragging about their recent finds.

With the high prices of sustainable brands and the environmental and privilege-based concerns that come with thrift shops, is it even possible for the average person to shop ethically? I’m not sure it is. But our problem as Americans isn’t that we can’t find a way to shop ethically, it’s that we shop too much.  American families spend $1700 on clothing per year and just ten countries (China, US, India, Japan, Germany, UK, Russia, France, Italy and Brazil) account for three-fourths of total global clothing consumption. Even though we spend so much money on new clothing every year, American women consider 21 percent of their wardrobe to be unwearable. This goes to show how much money and resources we are wasting on an industry that is irreversibly damaging ecosystems and the people that live there. 

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the ability to persuade corporations to take sustainable measures and reform their overseas labor systems. By choosing to save our money to purchase from sustainable brands, shopping at consignment stores and keeping our clothing items as long as possible, we can help break the wheel of fast fashion. And most importantly, we should focus less on purchasing clothing, sustainable or not, and more on purchasing less.