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  • Kristen Balisi

The Truth Behind Fast Fashion and Worker Exploitation

Zara. Forever 21. H&M. Fashion Nova.

Sound familiar? In addition to countless other brands, these companies are famous for mass-producing low-cost, poor-quality, and disposable clothing. Welcome to fast fashion: The true monster hiding in our closets.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is a unique business model that utilizes inexpensive materials and labour to produce new clothing collections at breakneck speed. At its most basic, it uses trend imitation, rapid production, and low-quality materials to bring low-priced styles to the public. By imitating ideas found from fashion shows, social media, and celebrity culture, new garments are made available in stores and online virtually overnight. This enables companies to keep pace with the ever-evolving taste of shoppers and provide them with constant access to a cycle of trend-led clothing all year round.

Credit: Getty Images

To sum up, the fast fashion cycle is fuelled because:

  • Clothes are becoming cheaper.

  • As their prices lower, so does their quality.

  • While prices decrease, the number of fashion trends increase.

  • To maintain pace with the latest trends, more people are incentivized to buy new clothing.

To put this issue into proportion, fast fashion brands release one new “collection” every week on average, amounting to a staggering 80 billion garments a year. Compared to 20 years ago, that is a 400% increase in the quantity manufactured. Although fast fashion has altered the way we purchase and wear clothes, at what human cost?

How does fast fashion impact the workers involved in its production?

“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying,” said Livia Firth, advocate for sustainable fashion. The low price points of fast fashion brands depend on even lower manufacturing costs. In search of inexpensive labour costs, production is generally outsourced to various companies worldwide. 97% of fast fashion is produced overseas in developing countries with inadequate labour laws and human rights protections. This has resulted in inhumane working conditions across the globe:

  • Low wages: Often, workers earn below the minimum legal salary. In most manufacturing countries (China, Bangladesh, India, etc.) the minimum wage makes up one fifth to half of the minimum amount of money an average family requires to fulfill its basic needs. This isn’t only an international issue. In a recent New York Times investigation, workers found producing Fashion Nova clothing in Los Angeles were being provided as little as $2.77 per hour. Sadly, such workers are typically discouraged from demanding higher wages due to the risk of losing their jobs or the threat of physical abuse from bosses.

Credit: The True Cost Movie
  • Extreme working hours: The US Department of Labor discovered evidence of forced labour and child labour employed by the fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam. For 7 days a week, these garment workers are forced to work 16-17 hours a day. This adds up to more than an astonishing 110 hours per week. During the peak season, employees may be pushed to work until 2 or 3 am to ensure that the fashion brand’s deadlines are met. Most silently accept overtime work because typical wages are incredibly low. In worse cases, workers are not compensated for their overtime work at all.

  • Hazardous working conditions: Countless employees work with no access to ventilation, leading to the inhalation of toxic substances and abrasive material. Moreover, production sites are frequently subject to accidents, fires injuries, and disease. In 2013, for instance, the collapse of the Rana Plaza killed 1134 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, revealing the appalling conditions numerous people work in daily. When companies are asked to take responsibility, they usually feign ignorance, blaming the third party companies they hired to create their products instead.

What can we do to stop fast fashion?

Voting with your dollars is one of the most powerful things you can do to combat fast fashion because where you spend and invest your money sends an impactful message. If many of us shift our spending to more sustainable brands such as Patagonia or Reformation, it can compel large companies like Zara and H&M to reconsider their actions. Therefore, it is encouraged to work towards buying clothing that you need instead of want, acquiring second-hand clothing, shopping sustainable, and donating clothes. Purchasing a garment from a responsible brand guarantees that you are receiving a quality product and protecting those who need it most. Also, you can contribute by bringing awareness to the importance of mindful manufacturing, fair labour rights, and sustainability in your home, school, and community.

Let’s start demanding quality not just in the products we buy, but in the lives of the people who make them. That is because, as consumers, we have the potential to change the world by simply being mindful of what we purchase.


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