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Who Pays The Price of Cheap Clothing?
By Megan Anderson, Legends Report Writer
Fast fashion is at the very centre of consumerism in the UK and around the world. Trend cycles are becoming shorter and shorter - where trends used to come around every 30 years or so, they’re now recurring in more like ten years. This article will break down the issues of fast fashion and discuss the ways in which individuals can begin to change their habits.
How Has Fast Fashion Become So Popular?
Fast fashion is defined as “Clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often”. It’s popularity plays on the desire for consumers to constantly have the newest products and trends, no matter what the human expense may be. This has been hugely exacerbated by influencer culture, where “normal” people are idolised and consumers want to copy their style, perhaps to fit in or perhaps to feel like they have the same life. A lot of these trends will be adapted from high-fashion runways, with a price tag that most can’t afford.
This is where fast fashion brands come in - they fulfil the need for trends without the excessive price tag, which means that when the next trend comes along, consumers don’t feel out of pocket. It is worth pointing out here that avoiding any form of fast fashion is a privilege in itself - some families on the threshold will struggle without using them in some way, and charity shops can only provide so much. So whilst individuals shouldn’t be independently blamed, those who are buying excessively can make the conscious choice to change the habit and connect with their conscience more..
“As consumers we have so much power to change the world by being careful in what we buy”
― Emma Watson, actress and ethical fashion advocate
Social media is also very closely linked to this issue. Where trends used to take time to surface (ie. through seeing more people wear them in clubs or in newspapers), they can now reach their peak within a matter of hours with the help of social media. The latest styles are constantly at our fingertips, and social media content can sometimes be difficult to avoid.
Why Is Fast Fashion So Bad?
There are two main consequences of fast fashion - human and environmental.
Cheap clothes are not possible without one or more parts of the production process being exploited. All around the world, garment workers are paid next to nothing, often in poor working conditions with very long hours, in order to produce these trends quickly and efficiently. It would be easy here to put all the blame on developing countries that do not have appropriate working regulations in place for workers. However, this is happening right here in the UK, for one of the biggest online retailers, Boohoo Group. In a damning documentary produced by Dispatches for Channel 4, it was revealed that workers in their Leicester distribution centre are paid under half of the minimum wage. With it’s billionaire bosses set to receive £50 million in bonuses this year as a result of 41% profit increases in the year of the pandemic, there is simply no justification for staff to be on zero-hour contracts.
Perhaps these hideous breaches of workers rights are in order to stay competitive with overseas competitors. Chinese giant SHEIN, who release up to 500 new lines per day, have been facing more and more accusations of engaging with child labour, secretive production methods and poor pay in the last year. Whilst their help page simply advises that their clothes come from “five different factories”, there is no mention of varying labour laws in far-eastern countries and their implications. In Bangladesh, for example, an outdated workplace regulation allows children to start working from the age of 14, but due to poor enforcement it is likely much younger. Is it ethical for retailers such as SHEIN, worth $15 billion, to take advantage of these vague policies?
Despite the competitive nature of fast fashion, with basically all of these brands making the same product, there is no justification for the exploitation that comes about as a result. Governments and individuals are the first to criticise countries around the world for their malpractice, but it’s time to start looking on our doorsteps.
“Realise the political power of your money and spend it with the brands you know are treating their workers and the environment in the best possible way.”
― Lily Cole, model and entrepreneur
Fast fashion is the second largest contributor to world pollution, after only the oil industry. Polluted water is one of the main environmental impacts of fast fashion, where waste contaminated with substances such as lead and mercury are dumped into rivers, destroying wildlife and putting local communities, who rely on river water for bathing and drinking, in serious danger. Not only is the industry destroying water, but it is also using up a disproportionate amount of clean water. It is key in the dyeing and finishing of products, not to mention the incredible volumes required to grow cotton. In a world where 785 million people globally do not have reasonable access to clean water, this vast waste just cannot be justified.
The packaging and transportation that fast fashion retailers use is also often very hazardous to the environment. It’s impossible to order from Boohoo or SHEIN without being inundated with (often single-use) plastic bags that are difficult to recycle. So, with consumers purchasing new trends as often as weekly as a result of the consumer culture already discussed, you can imagine the impact this is making. What’s the use in boycotting plastic straws if we’re throwing away packaging every week?
“Fashion can be a universal player in protecting the planet.”
― Pharrell Williams, singer
There are, of course, a multitude of other environmental costs to consider. From the tiny microfibres produced by washing poorly made clothes that are released into clean water supplies, to the chemicals used to grow cotton killing animals and humans, the scope of issues is wide and severe.
What Can We Do To Help?
In the last year or so, I have been making a conscious effort to consume less fast fashion and make more sustainable and informed purchasing decisions. I realised that ultimately, I could not purchase from organisations with exploitative practices because of my conscience, especially when I actively take part in human rights protests and loudly criticise the UK Government for their ignorance to climate change. With that said, the true costs of the practice are not an easy fix. Ultimately, there needs to be a universal shift in consumerist culture, as well as legislation itself, which makes cheap products less desirable and the workers and environment less vulnerable. However, there are of course things that individuals can do in order to decrease the obscene profits these companies are generating. Who knows, perhaps one day they might not even have any customers.
Cleanse Your Social Media
If you aren’t following the most recent trends, you won’t be sucked into them. Recently I have unfollowed a lot of influencers and celebrities on platforms like Instagram in order to take away any desire I may have to copy their style. Even taking fast fashion out of it, following hundreds of accounts with edited content and the portrayal of a “perfect life” isn’t healthy, so my mental health has most definitely benefited too. It’s an easy way to take that required step back and see how little trends concern you when you aren’t constantly consuming them.
Charity Shop, Charity Shop, Charity Shop
Gone are the days where charity shops were seen as unclean and sad. The age of the charity shop is back, and with the recent lockdowns in the UK giving people a chance to clear out their wardrobes, they are full of amazing, affordable finds of much better quality than what you might be able to find online. Personally, I find it a much more satisfying shopping experience to find a bargain - last week I managed to find a Levi’s jacket for £12.00. Could Boohoo manage that?
It is so important to understand the consequences of fast fashion behaviours. You may find that once you have done some research of your own, you just don’t want to shop at particular brands any more. For me, it was Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes on Channel 4 which changed my whole outlook on the industry. Seeing real people, just trying to make an honest living, scared to speak to a broadcaster in fear of the consequences from their employer, told me all I needed to know about the going-ons within these organisations. The Legends Report are looking to host a watch party for this documentary - fill in the form below if you’d like to join.
It Starts With Us
This article has explored the ways in which fast fashion has grown, and the detrimental impacts it has on human life and the environment. Whilst it might seem ambitious to change the whole industry without some sort of change in regulation, this movement really does start with individuals. When we start spending less on fast fashion, and demand and profit decreases, the big players in international organisations will take notice.
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