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The Fight Against Fast Fashion



The fast fashion industry, characterized by the fast-paced, low-cost mass production of trendy garments, is an alluring practice to producers and consumers alike. Companies like AliExpress, Shein, Temu, and Wish have grown famous over the past decade, with some becoming common household names. However, despite its appeal and popularity, the fast fashion industry is fraught with ethical, environmental, and health negligences that are detrimental to our planet and society. From exploitative labor practices and unsustainable resource consumption to the staggering amount of waste it generates, the consequences of fast fashion are far-reaching.


As the industry grows with little sign of slowing down, it’s important we educate ourselves on the impact of our supply chain choices and make mindful decisions to the best of our ability. 


A brief history

The term “fast fashion” was first used in 1989 by the New York Times to describe Zara’s production idea of having garments made and on the sales floor within 15 days of design. Despite being a 30-year-old term, the 1830s are often marked as the starting point in fast fashion history, as technological advancement pushed the world into a new era for production. Technologies such as telegraphs, the power loom, and steam-powered trains cut communication, production, and shipping times exponentially.


At this time, patterned fabrics were costly, leaving most people with few style options. Thanks to new developments in garment-making equipment, businesses were able to create imitations of expensive, intricate garments at a more affordable price. These cheap, chic clothes quickly grew popular amongst the lower classes. Demand kept growing, so companies began experimenting and adopting new practices to streamline production.


Labor laws in this era were essentially non-existent, allowing companies to cut costs at the expense of their workers. People worked 14-16 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, with few to no breaks, often in cramped, unregulated buildings. Dangerous machinery, unclean workspaces, and poor training put laborers at high risk of injury and death. Around the turn of the century, 35,000 men, women, and children in the U.S. alone were reported to have lost their lives annually in workplace accidents. 


Labor unions fought for decades to attain workers’ rights, and still fight to this day. Although multiple countries have adopted laws and regulations to combat poor labor practices, fast fashion practices continue to cause damage.


Environmental impact

As fashion changes and new products hit the market, people are hungry to participate in the latest trends. Modern fast fashion has made this easy, providing cheap, typically disposable products that are not meant to outlive their relevancy.


The fast fashion takeover has created a dangerous mindset: a “disposable” culture. Influencers posting haul videos with closets of new clothing prompt large-volume sales for disposable wardrobes, and many trend-followers buy clothes from the industry in bulk, taking advantage of the cost. A substantial amount of people throw away these products after just a few uses; an astonishing 92 million tons of clothing ends up in landfills each year.


These products are massively overproduced and generate an outstanding amount of waste. Of the total fibers used in fast fashion production, 87% are thrown away or incinerated.


The supply chain of this massive industry creates an astounding amount of pollutants. According to research from the United Nations Environment Programme, the fast fashion industry is accountable for about:


  • 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions

  • 20% of global water waste (from fabric dyeing and treatment alone)

  • 35% of all microplastics


Hazardous materials such as chemicals and plastic fibers are used throughout the industry, leaving behind microplastics and pollutants that are harmful to people, animals, and the environment. These toxic products may cause damage to your health over time.


Ethical and social issues

Despite reform in some areas, many companies continue to practice the worst of fast fashion, whether or not it’s legal. To save on labor, these companies often source work in developing countries with lax labor laws, taking advantage of unlivable minimum wage requirements. The fast fashion industry employs over 75 million people globally, however, only 2% of these workers make a living wage. 


In 2022, The U.S. Department of Labor investigated several Californian companies and discovered that 80% of the companies studied actively violated minimum wage and overtime laws. Some of these businesses were running sweatshops in-country, paying workers as little as $1.58 an hour in California, where the minimum wage is $15. 


Numerous brands, most of which you’ve likely heard of, have been called out for poor labor practices. Conditions are often extreme; reports cite faults such as poor building and machinery maintenance, the use of hazardous materials, and child labor. Tragedies like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse are avoidable, but improper regulation and the continued support of fast fashion only serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and push the fight for fair labor behind.


Poor labor practices aren’t the only aspect of the industry harming workers; modern fast fashion brands make cheap replicas of other styles, often copying from high-end brands or indie artists and designers. Their art is replicated and sold at a lesser cost, decreasing the value of the original work. This is design theft; no compensation is given to the original designer. Online artists work to protect their art with strategies like watermarking, cropping, and even copywriting. Even so, design thieves use technological advancements in AI and graphic design to remove protective editorial, making it difficult to keep designs safe.


Taking responsibility

As we’re all consumers, there are many steps we can take to combat the effects of the industry. Recycling, thrifting, and research can go a long way towards preventing fast fashion purchases. It may not seem like most people have much power here, but the average American consumer throws away around 81.5 pounds of textiles yearly.


Of course, the brunt of the responsibility for making progress in the fight for better business practices lies in the hands of businesses and lawmakers. By choosing their manufacturers, suppliers, and personal practices carefully, companies can responsibly, sustainably, and ethically operate.


If you have the power of choice, use it. The impact of these decisions could change the world!


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