Part 1: The plights of fast fashion

Fashion has come a long way since its elitist beginnings as a creative form of expression. With fast fashion bringing the trendy and exclusive down to a level of socio-economic sameness, it’s difficult to discern the downside of such a revolutionary idea. Unique, chic and affordable clothing for all.

However, be wary. That top may be cute, but after a few runs through the wash or a night out of questionable decisions, you’ll understand the costs of such low-cost clothing.

A fast fashion retailer advertising large quantities of synthetic fibered clothing at bargain prices. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A fast fashion retailer advertising large quantities of synthetic fibered clothing at bargain prices. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What is fast fashion, and how can I tell the difference between fast and slow fashion?

Fast fashion is sampled clothing from high fashion or celebrity culture, made from cheaply sourced material to accommodate large demands of the latest trends. A fast fashion retailer usually manufactures clothing offshore, where production costs are low.

Fast fashion suppliers are known for marketing large quantities of cheaply made, low-cost clothing, which lure consumers into buying then and there when, in truth, new stock arrives two or three times a week. Examples of fast fashion retailers include Zara, Forever 21 and H&M.

Slow fashion retailers are the opposite of fast fashion retailers, usually small businesses or boutiques selling more expensive but quality-ensured clothes. Slow fashion suppliers are known for using ethical production methods and environmentally conscious, locally sourced material. Click here for some low-cost, slow fashion suppliers.

How did fast fashion begin, and why am I just finding out about it?

Hundreds swarm around the rubble of Rana Plaza after the collapse of the textile manufacturing plant in Bangladesh.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds swarm around the rubble of Rana Plaza after the collapse of the textile manufacturing plant in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The industrial revolution sped up textile manufacturing with inventions like the sewing machine, which made clothing production less cost-effective and labor intensive but produced at higher speeds. This new era in the clothing industry gave birth to the sweating system, a process mediated by the “sweater” or a middleman who directs quality control of product on the floor. Meanwhile, a certain number of workers (depending on how many can fit in a manufacturing plant) are employed under low wages, zero benefits, long hours and poor working conditions. This arrangement, created by the fashion industry, is more commonly known as a sweatshop.

Public awareness of sweatshops grew after the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waistcoat Factory fire in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 garments workers. Since sweatshops usually attract the impoverished of growing cities, many of the workers were young immigrant women.

Consumers were faced with similar guilt in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing plant in Bangladesh, killing over 1,127 workers.

What is fast fashion clothing made from? What are its impacts?

Behind agriculture, the fashion industry is the second largest cause of clean water pollution. And with fast fashion’s use of cheap, toxic dyes, discarded textiles are a serious threat to environmental and ecological order.

Thrift stores have grown popular in the mainstream and usually have ties to local businesses and charitable causes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thrift stores have grown popular in the mainstream and usually have ties to local businesses and charitable causes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The most common textile materials used in fast fashion production are petroleum-based, synthetic fibers such as acrylic, rayon, nylon and polyester. Due to the growing demand of the textile market and the lack of expansion in cotton and other natural fibers, 76 percent of all fibers produced globally in 2015 were man-made.

Water is also an important resource for textile manufacturing. For instance, polyester has one of the largest greywater footprints in the industry. But results show, with better methods in handling, treatment and disposal at the exploration and industrial level, polyester’s total water footprint could be significantly reduced.

Due to the acceptance of throwaway culture and overconsumption, the quality of a good bargain is rarely considered. As the unreliability of our wardrobe increases, the average lifespan of our low-cost clothing, which is around seven wears, decreases.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 overview of materials, waste and recycling, there were over 16 billion tons of municipal solids (clothing, textile material, footwear, towels) wasted that year. Of this municipal generation, 66 percent was landfilled, making up 7.6 percent of the overall landfilled waste in 2015.

But as landfills grow, so has the collective awareness of consumers, sparking causes like Detox the Catwalk campaign and the marketing of ethically sourced, high-quality clothing. However, not everyone can afford unique and ethically produced forms of clothing. So how does one in good conscience find good clothes?

Don’t fret. Another alternative for low-cost, high-quality clothing is thrift stores. Thrift stores have grown popular in the mainstream and usually have ties to local businesses and charitable causes. Look out for part two of “To thrift or to Fast” to learn about the benefits of thrift shopping by becoming more mindful of your threads, adjusting clothing to your body type and expressing your style through a unique and ethically chic wardrobe.

 

Enjoyed To thrift or to fast? There is no question?

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