Fast Fashion and the True Cost of Cheap Clothing

Fast Fashion clothing

Society’s current view of fashion is often referred to as “fast fashion.” This describes both the design and manufacturing side of things as well as the consumer attitude toward it. But it hasn’t always been this way. So what does this mean for us and the world around us?

Often, we view societal norms as THE way things are done, forgetting that the normal of the past looked entirely different. We can tend to overlook any other way of doing things as even an option when it doesn’t fit into the current standard. Let’s look at how society’s view of fashion has evolved.

Fast Fashion – How did we get here?

I first came across the term “fast fashion” in a magazine interview with the director of The True Cost. It’s a term that effectively describes today’s fashion mindset.  As consumers, we are constantly buying new clothes as cheaply as we can. According to one study, women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe as they did in 1980.

I began to realize how the demand for clothing has changed dramatically in the past number of years. Many decades ago, people would save up for a piece of clothing that they expected to last them a long time. Clothing was high quality, and they would plan to pass it on to their children. Buying new clothing was seen as extravagant. Also, if clothing ripped or had holes it was mended. If it was outgrown, it would be tailored to fit another family member. If it was too worn out, it was repurposed into rags or quilts for the home. Waste was avoided at all costs.

As Elizabeth Cline puts it, “building a wardrobe over time, saving up and investing in well-made pieces, obsessing over the perfect hem, luxuriating in fabrics, and patching up and altering our clothes are old-fashioned habits.”

Fast Fashion – The New Normal

Fast forward to now, where buying new clothing on a regular basis is the norm. In The True Cost, a documentary on the clothing industry, one designer pointed out that instead of two seasons a year, we now have basically 52 seasons a year. The appetite for clothing is insatiable. New trends, new designs, new pieces are constantly arriving. And the marketing that bombards us everywhere we look, tells us that we NEED said new item of clothing if we want to be happy/sexy/successful. Of course when you can get a top for $10, who cares if you only wear it once? We feel justified since we can get it so inexpensively. In fact, the cheaper it is, the better. (I know I love a good bargain!) But like fast food, fast fashion is not good for us. As textile consultant Kate Fletcher points out, “Fast isn’t free – someone somewhere is paying.”

Cheap Clothing – Who’s paying the cost?

The disposable nature of “fast fashion” is taking an enormous toll on both people and the environment. In the rush to manufacture clothing faster and cheaper, the industry is exploiting workers, and poisoning the environment. The True Cost really showed how interconnected it all is: consumers in North America, fashion designers in Europe, farmers in India, Monsanto (don’t get me started!), garment workers in Bangladesh, and cotton farmers in Texas.

As fashion brands vie to produce clothing as cheaply as possible, it’s the factory workers that feel the squeeze. Just last year it was reported that the garment industry was using Syrian refugee child labour in factories in Turkey. And in The True Cost documentary, we see how garment workers are treated in factories in India. Though they are not always forced to work, conditions are deplorable and they are beaten for trying to form a union and require basic safe working areas.

Rana plaza
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building is, to date, the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry worldwide.

Unfortunately, fashion labels are often not held responsible, and here’s why. According to Michael Hobbes, a human rights consultant, “In the fast-fashion era, Western brands can’t afford the luxury of working with the same suppliers and ensuring that they meet the company’s standards. And so, rather than manage a giant, respirating network of factories themselves, most of them have outsourced this coordination to megasuppliers: huge conglomerates that can take a design sketch, split the production between thousands of factories, box up the goods and ship them to stores in less time than they’ll stay in style.”

Those middlemen suppliers choose what factories to use. And those factories are quite adept at appearing to pass audits. In some cases, after a factory disaster, we find out that the clothing companies either didn’t know their clothes were being produced there or had explicitly banned the factory as a supplier. When manufacturing of clothing is spread out between factories in countries with poor labour laws and little to no enforcement of such laws, it’s easy for companies to pass the blame.

Fashion Reset

So what can we do? Fast fashion is not sustainable for people or the planet. I know I don’t want to be part of the problem that oppresses people anywhere in the world or poisons their land and water causing diseases that could’ve been avoided.

Groups like Fashion Revolution and Made in Free World give consumers the opportunity to start holding brands accountable. By asking “Who made my clothes?” and sending letters to the companies we buy from, we tell them that as consumers we are not ok with slavery in our clothes. Industries are driven by consumer demand.

A Cambridge University study concluded that “any change that will result in environmental and social benefits in the textile industry will be driven by consumers. How would an ‘ideal’ consumer act? They would buy fewer, longer-lasting garments, choosing those with the least ‘carbon footprint’ made by workers in reasonable working conditions; buy more second-hand clothing; wash clothes less often at a lower temperature using eco-detergents; and recycle those clothes that had reached the end of their lives.”

The future of fashion?

The next step for me is adjusting my mindset about clothing and creating a new normal. For a long time, price has been the main factor in my decision to purchase an item. I’ve always valued being thrifty and most of my clothing purchases maxed at $20 per item. According to Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed, I’m not alone. “American’s spend more money on eating out in restaurants every year than they do on clothes. It’s not that we can’t pay more money for fashion; we just don’t see any reason to.” But just as we know that cheap food is not good for us and that nutritious food, although more costly, is ultimately worth it for our health, so paying more for ethically-made clothing is worth it in so many ways.

As we start to move from a fast fashion perspective to a more sustainable view, we will put more thought into our clothing choices. We will be willing to spend more per item, knowing that we are funding freedom rather than exploitation. Perhaps a minimal wardrobe of carefully chosen, ethically-made, quality pieces made to last will become the new normal. For me, just knowing that I’m part of a solution to move toward a fair economy is worth more than I can say.

Next, we’ll look at some ethical fashion brands.


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One Reply to “Fast Fashion and the True Cost of Cheap Clothing”

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