Fast Fashion Nation

It’s responsible for millions of tonnes of non-degradable landfill per year, countless acts of plagiarism, and numerous breaches of human rights.

I’m talking about the growing problem that is “fast fashion”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to such powerhouse, affordable brands as Topshop, H&M and Zara, all of which have hit our shores in the past four years. The truth is, much like fast food, fast fashion comes at a cost. Like hidden trans fats and surprise sugar, the “secret recipe” of industry habits that produce fast fashion has vast ramifications. In 2004, Morgan Spurlock showed why we shouldn’t want to Super Size ourselves to make the most of a good deal, so why are we trying to super size our wardrobes? Is it because we just don’t see the devastating effects as plain before us as a number on a scale? The reality is, it’s time to start caring about your clothes. Beyond superficial aesthetics, and the rush of new, next, now items for less, less, less, there are real world consequences. The economic, environmental, and ethical repercussions eclipse the great deal you got on that two-for-one, slouch fit tee at H&M.

Definitions of fast fashion vary but the most accurate comes from the Collins Dictionary, dubbing it as “the fast production of cheaper versions of clothes produced by fashion houses…mainly for sale at low cost in wealthier Western nations.”

Within the traditional process of fashion production, a time line of around six months would be the norm for a commercial brand to design a product, make the pattern, send the fabric to be cut. Then begins the process of manufacturing, quality checks, and distribution to stores. These days, however, the entire process can be completed in under three weeks.

This means that commercial fast fashion brands are taking traditionally produced, popular designs from larger fashion houses — who retail their products at a much higher price point — and smaller independant brands, who rely on consumers paying a premium to account for rare traits like local design and production, and ripping them off.

In Australia, even with the international invasions of the fast fashion big guns, Australian fast fashion companies still hold a significant market share. Cotton on Pty Ltd, owners of Cotton on, Cotton on Body, Cotton on Kids, Rubi Shoes, Factorie, T-Bar, Typo and Supre, unsurprisingly hold the largest share due to their many brands. However, the international brands are gaining ground and are expected to grow in the years to come.

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While ethically sourced and produced fashion has definitely seen a rise, not only in Australia but internationally, fast fashion giants are still dominating the industry, particularly in Australia, where most small local businesses are struggling. Unfortunately, even when the “little guy” gets a win, these watchful giants take notice, quickly producing similar garments for a fraction of the price, at a lesser quality. Australian online swimwear brand Triangl has experienced immense success over the past year or so with celebrity customers all over the world showing off their purchases via social media. Now, strikingly similar styles are seen in multiple mass market leading stores, the most recent being Victoria’s Secret. Unsurprisingly, the brand has been receiving backlash from social media about the obvious “inspiration” behind their new line.

This is also seen on an international scale with designs from large fashion houses being ripped off, a phenomenon with too many examples to choose from. Fast fashion has also upped the amount of shows or ‘seasons’ per year. Typically, back in the good old days, designers would only put on two shows per year: spring/summer and fall/winter. These days fashion houses big and small face increasing demand to deliver to the fast fashion schedule, now showing pre-fall collections, resort, couture, ready to wear and many others. Essentially, they have to start designing one show before the other has even finished. This has also caused buyers who attend said shows to demand the brands deliver garments to their stores on the shortest turnaround possible. However, brands such as these are unable to keep up with the fast fashion production schedule, needing at least six weeks to produce clothing to the quality standard they require. An eternity in the current state of affairs.

Fast fashion brands are also guilty of promoting a “newer is better” philosophy, with new stock every two weeks coming dangerously close to a disposal fashion mindset. This sees us throwing away substantial amounts of clothing per year when they inevitably start coming apart or to make way for cheap, newer, more than seasonal replacements. In Britain, the average person throws away around thirty kilograms of clothing every year. That’s 1.2 million tonnes of wasted fabric sitting in landfill, many of which are synthetic, and will take up to 200 years to degrade.

This issue of systematic consumption and wastage has, however, been highlighted and a new crop of socially, and environmentally conscious, brands are trying to combat the issue.

At the forefront of eco-friendly fashion is US based brand Reformation. They claim to use vintage or reclaimed fabrics bound for landfill for almost a third of their garments and aim to increase that number. The rest of their clothing is made from eco-friendly fabrics which they develop in partnership with fabric mills. They’ve also started an initiative which allows people to send unwanted clothes to the factory when their newly purchased clothes are delivered to them. Their informative and transparent website is a welcome change from that of large commercial brands, complete with the design of their headquarters including factory and a whole page dedicated to the environmental impact of fashion in general. Among the copious amounts of information is a claim that using a man made fibre such a Tencel has a significantly less environmental impact than organic cotton. A claim which is overwhelmingly correct as the production of Tencel requires a mere fraction of water and land usage than cotton.

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Another eco-friendly and sustainable brand closer to home is Gorman. Under the sustainability page on their website they outline all of their sustainable practices, including environmentally conscious fabric choices, longevity of their clothing and also an ethical standards policy. Yet another example that with a little effort, a brand can in fact be environmentally friendly and ethical.

Plagiarism, however, is the least of the industries production issues. With an intense demand for the shortest turnaround possible, quality is sacrificed, and the safety of workers is neglected to drive the production cost per item down even further. This system of maximum profit for minimum cost, is at the detriment of individuals, communities, and their local, and global, environments.

One of the worst offenders for poor working conditions is Swedish fast fashion giant H&M. Predominantly based in Cambodia, their factories have some of the worst reputations in the business, facing multiple allegations of paying under the liveable wage, malnutrition and over working their employees. In 2013 their factories saw high instances of workers suffering heat exhaustion and not much has changed in the past two years. Current reports continue to highlight inhumane treatment, with workers getting paid a mere 50 cents (USD) per hour, and when they protested for a liveable wage local authorities shot at least four dead and injured more than 30. H&M did nothing to intervene. They’re also guilty of employing children as young as 12. Making use of the lax child labour laws in third world countries, to achieve desirable design features such as beading and sequinning. Age is irrelevant when you possess the desirable trait of easy handling of delicate embellishments.

It’s impossible to think that H&M can’t pay a proper wage to its workers (they were only asking for $160 per month — a measly $1,920 per annum), when in their first seven months in Melbourne they made more than $65 million in sales. This questionable practice of allowing the worker to suffer in order to line the pockets of CEOs and the like is further highlighted by that use of big name supermodels Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima and Doutzen Kroes in numerous campaigns throughout the last several years. Bundchen’s contract alone, although no specific figure has been released, it is reported to have been between US$3 to $5 million for her appearance in the H&M 2013/14 autumn/winter promotional imagery.

With the multitude of sins reported about H&M and its inhumane practices, it’s almost staggering to think it is not common knowledge among the public. Furthermore, it begs the question: When it comes to your wardrobe, is a great price really worth it, if someone else is paying for it?

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