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For those who follow clothing trends, wearing the latest styles can be of the utmost importance. As a result, “fast fashion” companies have gained massive consumer bases. Such corporations aim to provide customers with trendy articles of clothing as quickly and cheaply as possible. Although having inexpensive, stylish products available for purchase is great for the one wearing them, our obsession with trend-following may be making us turn a blind eye to its negative consequences.
Some fast fashion brands are probably already in your closet: Forever 21, H&M, Zara, etc… Virtually all these entities follow the same business model: determine what designers have deemed “in vogue,” then churn out a discounted copycat version for consumers.
Our current views on the value of material goods are drastically different from those of a century ago. Before and during the Great Depression, most Americans had adopted a waste-not-want-not mentality, especially when it came to clothes.
Circa World War II, industrialization boomed as war mobilization efforts increased. Clothing production increased by 10 to 15 percent. Since this era the manufacturing industry has experienced immense success.
Today, in contrast to our Depression-era forebears, we are confronted with an endless supply of clothing. Consequently, the value we affix to our garments has decreased considerably. When an article of clothing is no longer in style, it is often thrown away or pushed to the back of one’s closet.
Fast fashion clothes are not made to last. Just as trends put forth by design experts fade quickly, so too does the color of a $10 sweater. Also, because customer demands are so capricious, fast fashion is quick to change.
Fast fashion has become a mega-industry. In order to keep up with consumer demands and provide new products as often as twice per week, companies must rely on efficient, inexpensive labor. This requires using low-cost manufacturers and outsourcing labor to foreign countries. Learning this may evoke memories of Nike’s Sweatshop Scandals of years past.
Forever 21 is one of many fast-fashion companies that does not make its own clothes. Rather, it uses in-house designers to make fashion blueprints, then relies on manufacturers to carry out the clothing creation.
Interestingly, on Forever 21’s “Social Responsibility” Page, there is no information on specific vendors with whom the chain does business with. The company does assert that they ensure their hundreds of suppliers follow local business practices (not necessarily American ones). They also claim vendors give employees fair wages and refuse to use child labor.
However, I’m still skeptical of F21’s claims. If the company does business with hundreds of different factories, I don’t see how it’s possible to ensure they are all using ethical labor practices.
The ambiguity of F21’s involvement with manufacturers makes me fearful of a second Rana Plaza disaster. In 2013, a Bangladeshi commercial tower called Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over 1100 workers, making it the worst industrial accident in history. The owner of the building—which contained five garment factories affiliated with companies including J.C. Penny and Walmart—was aware of its structural shortcomings prior to its collapse. Yet employees were still required to work. Accusations followed that worker safety had been denied in favor of meeting production deadlines for the fashion industry. If companies are not keeping tabs on work conditions of their vendors, another horrific accident like this could occur.
Human rights aside, it is equally important to address the environmentally destructive impact of fast fashion.
Synthetic materials require large amounts of nonrenewable energy to make, are not biodegradable, and their production results in emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
Reliance upon synthetic treatments is already impacting certain regions. Uzbekistan has one of the largest cotton markets in the world. The country’s Aral Sea used to be filled to the brim, but after some of its freshwater tributaries were diverted to cotton cultivation in the 1950s, water levels decreased dramatically. The Aral Sea now contains over 90 percent less water than it did prior to diversion. Furthermore, the chemicals used in cotton production often contaminate water and surrounding fields. This causes such severe health problems for workers that it takes 350,000 lives annually.
In developing countries with large garment industries, there are generally few regulations on waste disposal. This can be seen in the horrific pollution of Indonesia’s Citarum River, where pollutants from dye have endangered both aquatic species and surrounding human populations. Greenpeace described the river as “highly caustic” and capable of “[burning] human skin.” One type of run-off chemical, nonylphenol ethoxylate, was found to be so harmful to aquatic species’ hormonal development that the EU banned its use.
On the topic of environmental impact, we cannot forget fast fashion’s contribution to landfill waste. Although some companies like H&M have created programs to recycle unwanted clothing, and many consumers choose to donate old garments, the U.S. still throws out 12.8 million tons of textiles every year.
I recognize it may be infeasible shop elsewhere due to out-of-range prices. However, if you do have the funds to purchase ethically made clothes, please do so. These higher quality garments have more honorable origins and are also longer lasting.
I won’t ask you to stop supporting affordable clothing brands. Instead, I ask you to begin thinking more about where your clothes come from and whom/what they impact. Those who wish to make a change can stop buying clothes so frequently and appreciate more the value of material goods.
While keeping up with trends is tempting, it’s much better to sacrifice a new outfit for the sake of protecting the well-being of our planet and those who call it home.
Lauren Willson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and online at @LaurenKealani.