The Fast Fashion Paradox
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
The Industrial Revolution took 19th century America by storm. Not only did Americans experience an abundance of new work opportunities, they simultaneously witnessed an exponential increase in the number of goods the United States produced annually. Among the various industries that experienced a rapid boom in production was textile manufacturing. Little did we know that over the course of the next century, a small increase in the production of textiles would pave the way and evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry, dependent on the labor of oppressed workers, and serving as the biggest pollutant of our oceans. Fast Fashion.
We live in a world of instant gratification. Need something but don’t have the time to go buy it in person? Not to fret, you can have it delivered overnight to your front door with the tap of a finger. Want to reconnect with an old friend, but you're not sure what their address or phone number is? No worries, you’re one social media search away from discovering their entire life story. Want to book a trip overseas? Learn to play the piano? Order lunch? Well... You get the point.
In today’s fast-paced society, we tend to put extra value on speed rather than sustainability, and quantity over quality. The consumerist belief that more things result in more happiness seems to be the motto of our civilization, translating into almost every modern industry, especially fashion.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, the fashion industry consisted of four annual seasons - spring, summer, fall, and winter. Over time fashion started to become more, and more accessible to the masses.
Designers across the globe began releasing new styles every week and declaring last week's acclaimed attire as things of the past without a second thought. Meanwhile, large retailers began taking the latest designs and using trend replication, and rapid production techniques in order to produce low-quality alternatives at a fraction of the original price. The process of trend replication and rapid production of clothing costing close to nothing is more commonly referred to as fast fashion.
Although high-end designers who produce new styles on a weekly basis promote clothing elitism, as well as consumerism, which has countless negative environmental, and societal impacts on its own, it’s nothing compared to the fast fashion industry.
The cycle of fast fashion begins when large retailers scout out the latest trends in the fashion world. This can range from looking at world-famous designer brands to smaller independent creators. They then take the designs and begin production, which usually takes place in developing countries.
Workers are often exposed to toxic chemicals, unsafe machines, and dangerous working conditions jeopardizing both their health and lives, all for an inadequate paycheck.
Once the garments are made, they are sold to consumers at a low price, allowing them to buy more clothes for seemingly less money. Some garments can contain dangerous amounts of lead, which are likely to increase the wearer’s risk of heart attacks, infertility, and cause other serious health risks. Not only are they potentially harmful, but, incredibly poor quality, - breaking down after only a couple wears.
The low quality of these garments results in them being thrown away after only a few uses. Harvard Business Review estimates that the United States disposes of over eleven million tons of clothing annually. Once thrown away, these clothes almost never break down and spend the rest of there existences releasing dangerous toxins into the air, creating an enormous carbon footprint. Not to mention, a significant amount of the chemicals and dyes used during production often end up seeping into the water supplies of the countries where they are produced, harming civilians.
All the aspects of fast fashion from trend replication and rapid production, to dangerous working circumstances, and disastrous environmental impacts make the industry inherently unethical and something our planet cannot sustain much longer. With all this in mind, we turn to an alternative option, sustainable fashion.
Sustainable fashion, or sometimes referred to as “slow fashion” is a movement focused on using natural materials, securing workers fair labor rights, taking a mindful approach to manufacturing and, in doing so, creating long-lasting pieces of clothing with minimal impact on the environment.
The only caveat with sustainable clothing is, due to its long-lasting quality, and sustainably sourced nature, it's often quite expensive, making sustainable fashion accessible only to those who can afford to spend one hundred dollars, or more on a sweater.
“Sustainable elitism” refers to when only the wealthy and privileged are able to shop sustainably, which cannot be true if we want to abolish fast fashion and ensure a safe future for our planet.
Next to sustainable fashion, there is another ecologically beneficial option: thrifting. Over the past few years, thrifting clothes has gained a surprising amount of popularity, especially with younger generations. Thrifting consists of going out to second-hand stores or thrift markets, and buying your clothes second hand. This is significantly more affordable when compared to buying sustainably made clothes and, in most cases even better for the environment. That being said, it can be very time consuming. Depending on your body shape, it may be hard to find clothes that fit. Not everyone simply has the time to go to several stores in search of a pair of jeans, only to find nothing fits.
In many ways, our current fashion industry is considerably similar to the restaurant and cooking industry. Fast fashion is the fast food of the fashion world; it’s cheap, quick but harmful to both us, and our environment. Sustainable fashion retailers are like Michelin Star restaurants; they're made from quality ingredients and often good for the environment, but, incredibly costly, making them inaccessible to most people. Thrifting is like a home cooked meal; it's fun and environmentally sustainable, but often times very time consuming.
In the end, we’re left with the agonizing reality of what’s good for our planet is only a legitimate option to the seldom few who can afford it, whether it be financially, or time-wise.
Our current fashion industry is leading us on a downward spiral towards irreversible damages to our planet, and everyone who lives on it. We have no choice but to find ways for sustainable brands to cut down their costs or have fast fashion brands reform to more eco-friendly practices. The future of our planet is riding on the fashion industry- what we do, or don’t do now will decide the future of human civilization.