Fast Fashion VS. Conscious Consumerism

Fast fashion has captivated consumers for over 20 years. The affordable on-trend pieces are produced in limited quantities creating a sense of urgency to purchase.

Eco-friendly watch groups and informed consumers continue to shed light on the fast fashion industry; an industry known for their pollution and waste and for a low control of their supply chain

As a result, many in the fast fashion industry are advertising new sustainability practices and green efforts. But is it true or simply greenwashing?

What is Fast Fashion and Why is it a Problem?

Merriam-Webster  states that the term “fast fashion” has been in existence since 1977, yet most sources credit the term to a New York Times article from the 1990s. As Spanish apparel retail Zara entered the US market, the New York Times coined the term to acknowledge how quickly the company designed, produced, and sold catwalk-inspired trendy clothing.

There are many signs to spot a fast fashion brand. If the clothing is quickly released after being seen on the catwalk or influencer, if clothing is produced within large factories in countries with poor work regulations (eg. Bangladesh and Vietnam), if customers are pressured to purchase clothing available for a limited time in limited quantities, and if inferior quality and high polluting materials are utilized, you are probably buying from a fast fashion brand.

Fast Fashion Environmental Impact

In a 2014 report by the World Bank, in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) & the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), it is stated that 20% of water pollution globally is caused by textile processing. The water may contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

Greenpeace launched its Detox campaign in 2011 challenging the fashion industry to reduce the discharge of hazardous chemicals to zero by 2020. As a result, the global community of ZDHC was formed to create a “roadmap to zero” and allow collaboration between global brands, chemical suppliers, and manufacturers.  ZDHC currently consists of over 150 contributors, including Adidas Group, C&A, Target, H&M, Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co., NIKE, Inc., and PUMA.

ZDHC released its first Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (ZDHC MRSL) in 2014.  The list is comprised of chemical substances that are banned in textile factories. A more comprehensive list, ZDHC MRSL 2.0, is currently being phased in. ZDHC Executive Director Frank Michel states “We haven’t yet accomplished everything we set out to achieve back in 2011, but we are going to continue with an increasing number of brands, a rapidly growing community, and a firm commitment to advance towards zero discharge.”

Fast Fashion Social Issues

Garment manufacturing in Bangladesh has increased over the past few years as prices increased in China, the largest textile producer and exporter with 37.6% market share.  MM Akash, a Professor of Economics of Dhaka University estimates that Bangladesh employees truly need at least 28,620 takas ($341) per month as a reasonable living wage. The actual minimum wages for entry-level jobs in the textile industry is 5 times less.

In addition to unrealistic wages, the fast fashion industry exploits child labor and forced labor in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam.

Nonprofit organization Remake is trying to shed light on the employees of the garment industry. The organization tells stories of young women between 18 and 24 years-old that make 80% of all apparel. “I work 12 hours a day. My entire life is the factory. I live in the dorms with three roommates, work all day only stopping to eat at the cafeteria.”

Retailers Response to Climate Change and Exploitation of Workers

In 2018, the UN convened stakeholders in the fashion industry to establish the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. to the charter include, among others, H&M, Target, and Inditex (parent company of Zara). The vision of the charter is to “achieve net-zero emissions by 2050”.

WRAP https://www.wrap.org.uk  (Waste and Resources Action Programme) supports the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP 2020 Commitment). SCAP partners are working to reduce carbon, water, and waste. Over 90 supporters, representing more than 48% of UK retail sales, have made the commitment. Analysis of the SCAP 2020 actions completed by the Ethical Consumer ascertains that the initiative falls short of meeting the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to control global heating as identified by the UN in 2018.

The exploitation of people making clothes for major global brands and retailers has led to the emergence of various supply chain initiatives, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). Research participants in a study conducted by the Non-Judicial Human Rights Redress Mechanisms Project confirmed that ETI addresses violations of rights better than industry-controlled initiatives. However, the study identified a significant accountability gap, specifically human rights violations, that the ETI is unable to rectify. ETI members felt that pursuing human rights grievances were deemed as “time-consuming” and “commonly resulted in “agreement to disagree”.

Read also: Fast Fashion Greenwashing

What Can Consumers Do?

Every consumer has a role to play in making a change in the fashion industry. As the customer, we must demand company accountability and full transparency. What is advertised must match what is behind the scenes.

Change can also occur by altering our shopping habits and mindset

  • Shop in thrift stores or charity shops. This could be a lot of fun!
  • Share and swap clothes with friends. Ethical Influencers hosted a clothing swap to celebrate Fashion Revolution Week.
  • Rent or Re-use clothes for special occasions. Sustainable Fashion was on the Red Carpet at the 2020 Academy Awards. Celebrities wore reclaimed fabric, vintage dresses, and some even wore their previous Oscar attire.
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Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Jon Kopaloff/WireImage courtesy of Insider.com

However, if you must purchase a new garment, shop sustainable clothing brands. Purchase higher quality pieces with longer life. Shop for sustainable fabrics with the least negative environmental impact such as recycled or organic material. When shopping for viscose fabrics, a wood-based fiber, look for those labeled as lyocell, Tencel or Monocel. Rayon and bamboo-derived viscose currently involve a high pollution manufacturing process.

Below is a shortlist of good, sustainable clothing companies. View more brands on EthicalConsumer and GoodOnYou.

Know The Origin

Launched in 2016 by Charlotte Instone, Know the Origin has avoided advertising spending and focused on organic growth. Products are hand manufactured to reduce carbon footprint. KTO uses only 100% Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) organic cotton.

MUD Jeans

PETA-approved 100% vegan products and  GOTS certified organic makes MUD Jeans  a stand-out eco-friendly company. MUD Jeans audits all parts of the supply chain to ensure fair labor.

GRAMMAR

GRAMMAR is a GOTS certified organic cotton manufacturer. The final stage of production takes place in the United States to reduce its carbon footprint and ensure labor rights. Living wages are provided across the entire supply chain.

Since the days of Adam and Eve, clothing has been deemed a necessity. That will never change. Consumers though have the power to drive the actions of fast fashion brands.

Demand environmentally and socially responsible behaviors. Request transparency in the entire supply chain. Make educated conscious purchases.

Photo Credits: Jose A. Bernat Bacete, Getty Images, Copyright:© 2014 Jose A. Bernat

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Author: elena grinta

I have been dealing with communication for 20 years, I have worked in marketing for large international and Italian companies and I know the mechanisms of advertising persuasion. I decided to invest my know-how and my skills to use the available resources of companies (budgets but also human capital) in positive transformation. Because to students from all over the world I teach at Purpose Brands in Catholic University I wish to give more and more examples of virtuous companies that have invested for the future, of everyone (and there are already many!). Because if we watch, without acting, without taking responsibility, we have no excuse.