Fast Fashion: Quantity vs. Quality?
Taking news headlines by storm, fast fashion has never been more relevant than it is today. In its essence, fast fashion is a phenomenon created to bring trendy and stylish clothing to the public at affordable prices. This is good, right? No, it’s not. Oftentimes, big brands like H&M and Zara take advantage of poor workers working in developing countries and make use of cheap and unsustainably farmed fabric to reach these astonishing prices. Yes, these brands produce clothing that’s available to most, but the only way the system profits is through encouraging customers to overconsume.
Infamous for altering the face of consumer culture, fast fashion has a notorious reputation for playing dirty.
The Radical Shift in Consumer Culture
Ever since its conception, fashion belonged to the hands of artisans. Skilled artists worked for hours to create beautiful, unique, and good quality articles of clothing, justifying the price placed on it. Consumers would cherish this piece of clothing, repairing it when needed, and hold on to it for years at a time. This fair system of fashion, however, ended with the gradual origin of fast fashion.
The entire system of fast fashion relies on the simple philosophy of “quantity over quality”. The enormous budget allocated to marketing makes sure that this idea is ingrained in the minds of the public by creating an artificial need. By creating smaller, more frequent shopping seasons called “micro-seasons” and knocking off designs, companies can add new clothes to their collection at unprecedented rates. Fast fashion company ASOS can add up to 4,000 new pieces to their site every week due to their low manufacturing time. Instead of replenishing their stock, they replace the items with those that sell out with new styles, making our old clothes outdated even if it’s only been a week. Overwhelmed by constantly changing trends, consumers tend to overconsume trying to keep up with the fashion trends, hence the name ‘fast fashion’.
Customers are now able to buy multiple low quality ‘basic’ items with the money it would take to buy one unique, good quality product. According to a report by McKinsey, the world now consumes more than 100 billion pieces of clothing a year. What’s even more concerning is that on average, a piece of clothing will only be worn seven times before getting tossed, according to a 2015 survey by the British charity Barnardo's. This is unsustainable and is to be blamed for gradually ruining the fashion industry.
The End of Fashion?
What was once a well-respected industry that thrived on originality, creativity and durability, is now being polluted with the contrasting claims of fast fashion. So much so, that the true essence of its art is being lost in this materialistic world. Big brands are taking advantage of the outdated copyright laws in the US and knocking off pieces from individual creators to sell at half the price. The entire business model of fast fashion companies revolves around copying trends and styles and bringing them into the market as quickly as they can. There have been thousands of cases of fast fashion companies ripping off small designers, and this is completely legal in the US. Unlike other fields, fashion is not protected under the American Copyright Law, which is why this keeps happening.
Regardless of the reason, this “copy and paste” mentality brings value out of clothing. It shows us that clothes are easily replaceable, which decreases the credibility of designers and ruins the idea of art. Why would consumers buy products from branded and luxurious designers if a similar version is available for just half the price?
By continuing this toxic system, we are at risk of losing the art of the fashion industry to the hands of capitalism.
Unsustainability and “Greenwashing”
The answer to how fast fashion companies get their prices so low lies in the production of the clothing itself. We’ve established that these brands bring nothing new to the table when it comes to design, but when it comes to unsustainability, their actions speak for themselves. Big names like Zara and H&M are notorious for sourcing their workers from ‘sweatshops’ which are factories where workers have to work for long hours, and receive way below the minimum wage. In Bangladesh, sweatshop workers only earn about $33 a month, which is way below the minimum wage of $60. The sweatshop environment itself is extremely harmful leading to an unsafe atmosphere for women, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and overall unhealthy working conditions for workers, prompting many to question the business model of fast fashion companies.
The production of these cheap garments isn’t the only thing harming the environment, but the way they are consumed is too. Because of the consumer culture and throwing away clothes, 5% of all landfill space belongs to the textile industry alone. Brands like Urban Outfitters also choose to incinerate their old stock instead of donating or selling it because they think it “ruins their image”. According to a report by UNCTAD, the textile industry emits more greenhouse gas emissions than international shipping and aviation combined, and some UN reports even claim that it's the second dirtiest industry in the world. Even though some companies are trying to incorporate sustainability into their brand due to the backlash, they spend more time advertising sustainability than actually trying to implement it. This ‘greenwashing’ of products has led to even more people buying their clothes, despite them giving people a vague definition of what sustainability means to them.
Why do we keep consuming?
The billion-dollar question for this heinous business model is who’s to blame? Is it us, the consumers who encourage them to keep going? Is it the companies that manufacture the products? Or is it the consumer culture itself? What once started as a mission to bring affordable clothing to all has now morphed into an unsustainable system that profits from playing dirty. The truth is, that it’s getting harder and harder to shop sustainably, as fast fashion prices are the only affordable ones in the market. Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the non-profit conscious consumer movement “Remake,” says, “Let's not put the working classes who are buying fast fashion against the garment worker’s plight. Why don’t we talk about the billionaire owners instead?”. As Barenblat mentioned, in today’s day and age, a large portion of the population simply cannot afford to shop sustainably, and they are not the ones to blame, but encouraging people to shop at fast fashion brands isn’t the answer either.
In a situation like this, social media can either be our friend or our foe. With the rise in social media culture, people are being pressured more and more to buy new clothes in fear of “outfit repeating”, and fast fashion companies are the only ones who feed to their obsession. The media is a big player in normalizing and glorifying the “quantity over quality” mentality, but it can also be used to spread awareness. Awareness about companies ripping off hard-working individual designers. Awareness about the millions of sweatshop workers suffering during the pandemic. Awareness about sustainability and ethical consumerism.
Fast fashion is just the start, if we don’t alter our consumption rates, who knows what’s next.