Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Zara, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Romwe, Fashion Nova, Shein—today, these are some of the biggest names in fast fashion, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “clothing produced rapidly… in response to the latest trends.” But how did these companies get to the top?
Fast fashion originated in the mid-twentieth century as teenagers and young adults grew the desire to express themselves through clothing. Soon, the market for cheap, trendy clothes expanded and as competition increased, companies looked for ways to lower production costs. Thus the industry as we know it today was born, where sweatshops are standard and outsourcing (the business practice of obtaining service from a foreign source, typically to cut costs) is expected.
Garment production is one of the biggest manufacturing industries, employing 25-50 million people and making billions in profit annually. Yet despite brand owners consistently topping “rich lists” every year, many workers often do not make minimum wage, and even when they do, their pay is a fraction of the living wage.
Brands often look to low-and-middle income countries which either do not have or do not enforce labor regulations. This means that the employees producing neon green biker shorts and polyester bodycon dresses often work 14-16 hour days, 7 days a week, in factories where unpaid overtime is normal and people are replaceable enough to abuse. Unionization and demanding overtime pay often results in termination, and employees have reported being belittled, physically abused, and called derogatory insults by their bosses.
It’s no coincidence that 90% of clothing is manufactured in these countries with such lax labor laws. This approach to outsourcing essentially ensures that employees work in harsh conditions that often produce respiratory issues from poor ventilation and musculoskeletal hazards from repetitive tasks. Such health problems often result in lung cancer and disease, endocrine disorders, and adverse reproductive outcomes. It is not that fast fashion brands are profitable and they exploit their workers; rather, they are profitable because they exploit their workers.
China, India, and Bangladesh—three of the countries most well-known for garment manufacturing—are notorious for allowing such work environments to thrive. However, despite mass labor reform following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the United States still houses garment factories where employees have little to no rights. An investigation into various Los Angeles factories by the U.S. Department of Labor found that these workers, often undocumented immigrants who could not speak up for fear of deportation, were paid as little as $2.77 per hour. Many of these factories produced clothing for Fashion Nova, a company which makes millions in revenue every year.
While only a select group of the working class feels the social impact of fast fashion, everyone bears the weight of its environmental impact, albeit some more than others. Fast fashion is one of the worst pollutant industries in the world, following only the oil industry. It is responsible for 8-10% of global CO2 emissions and 35% of oceanic primary microplastic pollution. The top fibers used in textile production are synthetic, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are all essentially different types of plastic. As a whole, the industry depletes immense quantities of non-renewable resources and consumes trillions of liters of water, producing 92 million tons of waste yearly.
The average consumer of these clothes, however, does not experience these effects directly. In fact, it is those very same underpaid laborers that suffer not only dangerous working conditions but dangerous living conditions as well. Textile dyeing is the second largest water polluter globally, with wastewater typically containing toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, and arsenic. In the countries in which these factories are built—the countries with some of the worst environmental policies in the world—90% of this wastewater is simply released into local rivers, polluting the water supply and the area surrounding it.
Fast fashion creates major socioeconomic, ethical, and environmental issues, but it also reflects the larger societal problem at hand: overconsumption. The industry has a market—especially in the U.S., which is the largest textile consumer in the world—because consumers want to keep up with trends, which by definition, are short-lived. As a result, brands do not have the time to conduct wash tests and wear trials—which determine the longevity of a particular garment in the long run—so clothes are often low-quality. Both this, and the nature of fast fashion, mean that these clothes often end up in landfills or incinerators after being worn once or twice. Most are not donated, and because so many are made from synthetic material, even fewer can be recycled.
This is not to say that fast fashion is without its benefits. It democratized fashion, making it more accessible to impoverished people and extending it to a wider audience. However, the manner it went about doing so fostered environments in which what is essentially slave labor is rampant. The industry is the desire to consume and maintain a specific image manifested into a physical entity. Its sheer existence demonstrates this.
Through Teen Lenses: What do you think is the most significant impact of fast fashion and why?
“I think that the mentality of the every day [sic] consumer has changed. This mentality encourages people to buy more of a cheaper priced, worse quality item compared to fewer of a more expensive better quality item. Certain brands became aware of this and have started marketing clothes based on things that are trending. These trends come and go…[causing] whole wardrobes to be wasted. The most significant impact of the fast fashion industry to me is the mentality that encourages consumers to buy from brands that are not promoting ethical and environmentally friendly business practices.” Anisha Kundu, 17, Rising Senior at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Sudbury, Massachusetts
“One of the most significant impacts of fast fashion socially has been its divisiveness. During globalization many corporations…began outsourcing their labor to Asian and African communities. The subsequent loss of employment among Americans incited (often racially-motivated) anger towards these underage and underpaid workers rather than the companies responsible. Although this attitude has receded, it still appears among calls for Latin American immigrants to “stop stealing” their jobs… Many sustainable brands are expensive… Working class people can’t afford the money to invest in their products nor the time to visit second hand stores. When people resort to fast fashion, there shouldn’t be a stigma over it.” Vasilisa Berezhnaya, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland
“In my opinion, the most significant impact of fast fashion is definitely down to it’s [sic] production process. Not only is this process harmful to the environment as toxic chemicals from textile dyes cause pollution, it is also extremely unethical as many factories exploit underaged workers in Asian countries to work overtime with…low wages and poor working conditions. All of these permanent damages are caused just for some temporary fashion to be displayed at the showcase windows that we walk by at the mall.” Avana Wang, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland