Searching through the remnants of my closet as I begin my winter cleaning (I’d say fall cleaning, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that fall is a season that ever graces us here in Doha), I am plagued with questions of a shallow and forgetful mind. When did I buy this? Why did I buy this? Is this even mine? Legwarmers? What is this, a Jane Fonda workout tape? As I claw my way out of the avalanche of apparel, I hear the faintest ring of a notification from my phone, which is now drowning in a sea of denim. It’s a text from one of my gal pals. Three attachments, all images, all captioned “which one?”
There is no need for Sherlockian deduction. It is apparent that she is succumbing to the cult ritual observed by many who value style as if it were law– shopping. I can’t blame her. In the hypothetical support group of Shopaholics Anonymous in my mind, I would be the first to delay my confession for a measly 10 percent off. It seems that my poison has already been picked, and I am already on my way to the mall to get my latest fix. I get it in yellow, it is totally my color.
In a simpler time, I once believed that shopping was only reserved for the occasions deemed worthy of it. The way I saw it, luxury brands remained in their small, well-polished, gated community, a couple thousand dollar rent of a bubble. I seldom shopped for luxury brands and in the event that I did, I did so for a major event in my life. Luxury brands seemed to bring about the pinnacle of fashion, as their appeal became evident in their adherence to design, exclusivity, trendiness, and quality.
However, in the race for retail, fast fashion is now king. Why wouldn’t it be? Fast fashion production means that people can keep up with the trends set by designer brands twice as fast for half the price of high-fashion apparel. If I chose to shop more frequently than I usual did, I opted for fast fashion retailers. Fast fashion began to gain speed in the 1990s, when “new trends emerge at a faster rate and brand recognition becomes increasingly more important.”
According to the Financial Times Lexicon, fast fashion companies recreate or even replicate catwalk looks and trends through the use of “efficient” supply chains to release more collections than other retailers. Examples of leading fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, and Forever 21. Fast fashion items are usually released into stores quickly and sold even quicker.
“I think fast fashion is a good idea because people can now get to choose whether they want to pay for quality or for something resembling a high fashion brand item for cheaper,” said Noura Ibrahim, a communication senior at Northwestern University in Qatar. But one major problem with fast fashion, she added, is that everyone now dresses the same.
Previously, the fashion calendar included a “six-month gap between runway show and clothes hitting stores.” According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the fashion cycle consists of three key phases: “planning, design, and product development; sell-in; and production and delivery.” Brands such as Burberry and Tom Ford began experimenting with the “see now, buy now” strategy in 2016 as a response to the lack of instant gratification that came with the six-month gap. As reported by British Vogue, a handful of brands, including Tom Ford, eventually reversed course because “the store shipping schedule doesn’t align with the fashion show schedule.” However, this method proved to be feasible to fast fashion brands such as Zara and H&M due to their lower-quality garments in comparison to high fashion houses. Therefore, they were able to cater to the speed-driven demand of the common consumer. With the ever-changing nature of trends, fast fashion produces runway-inspired garments at a quick pace. It is all about speed.
At face value, fast fashion doesn’t seem to be doing much harm to anyone besides luxury brands. To some, there’s a certain socialistic appeal to the damage done, like a laugh in the face of haute couture. Everyone wants to look like Prada for nada. Like all things that seem too good to be true, fast fashion is, well, exactly that.
Fast fashion thrives on what is known as the quick response manufacturing method, which aims to optimize the manufacturing processes of the textile industry to cut down on lead time and therefore increase production. In normal people talk, this means that quick response manufacturing ensures that as soon as runway-inspired trends emerge, fast fashion clothing items are designed, manufactured, and distributed as fast as you can say “Balenciaga.” In this article from Fashionista.com, examples of high-end fashion and their respective fast fashion knockoffs display an uncanny resemblance between the products. But while fast fashion can be seen as a positive means of staying in style, the devil is in the stitching.
The quick response method means that fast fashion producers have to cut corners. Globalization meant that fast fashion retailers now outsource textile production to the developing world. An example of this increased dependency on production sourcing is the United States, which went from producing 95 percent of its clothes domestically in the 1960s to a mere three percent in the 2010s according to the Huffington Post. This is also due to the fact that there is a lack of skilled labor in the U.S., meaning that the textile industry relies on the talent of third world.
The fast fashion industry also relies on labor abuse of factory workers, who suffer from dangerous working conditions and incredibly low wages. According to Lucy Siegle, author of “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” garment workers are situated in some of the poorest regions in the world, such as Bangladesh, where they are seen “hunched over, stitching and embroidering the contents of the global wardrobe … in slums where a whole family can live in a single room.” According to the Global Garment Industry Factsheet from the Clean Clothes Campaign, the top three textile producing countries are China, Bangladesh and India. However, some fast fashion companies have moved towards being more sustainable, such as H&M and its global garment collection scheme, which allows customers to hand in unwanted clothes regardless of the brand and the condition. Alongside H&M, other companies, such as Zara, Gap, and C&A pulled out of the Dhaka Apparel Summit in response to the poor working conditions and labor abuses of Bangladesh’s factory workers.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh brought attention to the abuses by fast fashion retailers. On the morning of April 24, “deep cracks had appeared in the eight-story building” and that workers had begged not to be sent inside. The building eventually collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, many of whom were young women. The Rana Plaza tragedy pushed retailers sourcing from Bangladesh, such as Zara, H&M and Tesco, to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legal agreement aiming to end factory disasters in Bangladesh. According to Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, one of Bangladesh’s largest manufacturers, brands that source their production “pressure factory owners to invest in safety upgrades, but still relentlessly push for lower prices.” This means that while they still may push for better systems of safety, they still aim to decrease the overall cost of production. Because of this, fast fashion brands may pay less for outsourced products and not contribute to raising minimum wages, resulting in little being done in order to improve the working conditions of textile and factory workers.
Brands such as Mango and Urban Outfitters abstain from disclosing any information about their supply chain. Some brands may even resort to the utilization and exploitation of child labor in order to keep production costs low. The International Labor Organization estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labor, “with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.” Child workers are seen as easy to manage as they are obedient and are not backed up by the support of labor unions. The complexity of the supply chain means that employers can hire child labor without brands and consumers finding out, as brands struggle to manage all stages of production. As atrocious as this sounds, many defend child labor in the fast fashion industry as it is seen as a means to break the cycle of poverty and that by the exploitation paradox, eradication of outsourcing production and child labor would do more harm than good. The exploitation paradox means that by not taking unfair advantage of a person or community, we are introducing more issues to that person or community instead of helping them. This argument is flawed because it fails to account for the abuses of labor that factory workers suffer from, and while the creation of jobs through sourcing production to the developing world helps the economies of poverty ridden countries, it fails to incorporate regulation.
Fast fashion production also poses a high environmental cost. Polyester is one of the industry’s most popular fabrics. Essentially, polyester is a petroleum-based plastic that can shed microfibers that contribute to plastic waste levels in our oceans. Cotton also has an incredibly large water footprint, as it takes 2,700 liters of water to make only one shirt, which puts the developing communities surrounding textile production at risk of drought. Cotton also requires large amounts of toxic pesticides to sustain, and this is furthered investigated in the documentary “The True Cost,” which explored “the death of a US cotton farmer from a brain tumor, and serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmers’ children.” Colors, prints and fabric finishes add to the appeal of fast fashion garment, but many of these are done with the help of toxic chemicals, as textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. Textile dyeing contributes to 20% of the water pollution in rivers, streams, and lakes.
The fast fashion industry has also demonstrated consumer exploitation by displaying false information about products. In countries like the U.K, where fur farming is banned, much of the “faux fur” being exported to the U.K and used by retailers such as ASOS and House of Fraser is actually real animal fur, as real fur has become cheaper to buy and produce than faux fur. According to an article from the Independent, the majority of real, imported fur is cheaper to produce because of poor animal welfare standards that allow fur farmers and distributors to sell real fur at lower prices.
Fast fashion not only refers to the speed of production but also how quickly it comes in and out of your wardrobe. It promotes a “throw-away” culture that is meant to make consumers feel out-of-trend. Products become obsolete, leading to consumer dissatisfaction. Indeed, one ugly truth about fast fashion products is that they are designed to fall apart. The average American throws away 68 pounds of textiles a year. In 2014, 10.46 million tons of textile waste generated by the United States were sent to landfills. “In its worst form, [fast fashion] is a leading cause of global warming and it supports a thoughtless and unethical level of consumerism,” said Roa Daher, a sophomore majoring in environmental chemistry at the American University of Sharjah, as she explained why she has taken a stance against fast fashion after partaking in research on fashion sustainability as a part of her studies.
In a world where innovation in the fashion industry is spearheaded by luxury brands, the common consumer is left with a moral dilemma. Being well-dressed is viewed as a constitutional right to some, but there happen to be more ethical ways to do it. Quite simply, buying fewer clothes that are of good quality is a method of fighting fast fashion. Wearing what you already have and donating what you no longer use can help contribute to decreasing levels of textile waste. Consumer consciousness means that we can be aware of where our clothes are coming from, how are they are produced, and what they are produced with and look good while doing it.