Fast Fashion’s Dirty Secret

Author: Suhani Ramchandra, Graphics: Caroline Yee

The BRB Bottomline: In today’s media-driven world, fast fashion has embedded itself into our lifestyles. However, the environmental and ethical costs associated with it makes it difficult to justify this system.

Understanding the Fast Fashion Industry

The idea of fast fashion first emerged during the Industrial Revolution as new textile machines and factories spread throughout Great Britain and the United States. Inventions like the sewing machine reduced the time and costs associated with clothing production, increasing manufacturing. The introduction of ready-made garments eliminated the need for families to make their own clothing,  permitting lower and middle-class families through their consumption to influence the fashion industry, a realm formerly reserved for the wealthy elite.

In recent years, the rising popularity of fast fashion has been largely driven by the media. Individuals traditionally looked to portrayals of celebrities on television and in magazines for the latest fashion trends and began to copy their unique styles. However, the clothes worn by celebrities were often expensive and thus not easily accessible to the average consumer. As a result, consumers began purchasing cheaply produced clothing that mimicked the styles celebrities wore. The rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok has given influencers, as new-age celebrities, the ability to directly interact with their followers and sway their purchasing decisions. Furthermore, social media has led to the popularity of  “shopping hauls,” videos where influencers share their latest purchases. Usually, these purchases consist of large amounts of low-priced clothing — encouraging viewers to buy lots of cheap clothes as well. 

Followers often want to wear similar styles as influencers, and are therefore likely to purchase clothes that follow the trends they promote. Every time a new trend is set, companies are quick to design clothing with similar patterns, making for a total of 52 micro-seasons a year! Having this many microseasons creates a sense of urgency for customers to constantly purchase new styles to stay on top of trends. While this style of consumption has greatly benefited manufacturers and shoppers, there are also hidden environmental and ethical concerns.

From Runway to Landfill: The Environmental Implications

Fast fashion has many adverse effects on the environment, including the pollution of water, usage of toxic chemicals, and generation of excessive waste. Since clothes are rapidly produced to match demand for every micro-season, consumers tend to throw away their other, outdated clothes to keep up with trends. Every year, the industry consumes 79 trillion liters of water and contributes to 20% of industrial waste. This massive water usage is due to the fact that fabric production, especially ones made of cotton, requires large quantities of water. Additionally, fast fashion apparel is created inexpensively from low quality materials, making for short life-spans and thus resulting in a large amount of waste that is constantly replaced. Almost 92 million tons of garment waste are produced each year that eventually find their way to landfills, where it is incinerated — producing greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. Due to the nature of fast fashion apparel, it is often both cheaper and more time-efficient to buy new clothing than to have existing clothes repaired. Getting rid of clothing that doesn’t have a use anymore may not seem like a big issue, but it is important to understand how quickly a shirt here or a pair of pants there add up to enormous scales — in America, the average consumer delivers 81.5 pounds of clothing to the landfill.

Industrial waste is produced during the process of dyeing textiles, where chemicals, often harmful to humans, are released into the environment. One effect of this process is the formation of “superweeds,” which are resistant to regular pesticides. In order to combat superweeds, even more pesticides, which are harmful to both livestock and humans, need to be used. Another danger to the environment is caused by the widespread use of polyester, a material often used in the production of cheap clothing. Polyester sheds microfibers that add to the already increasing levels of plastic. These microfibers can easily enter our water systems and seriously threaten aquatic life.

Exploring the Ethics of Fast Fashion

Economic discrimination is an underlying factor that contributes to the sustained success of the fast fashion industry. Transnational corporations like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara locate their production facilities in emerging markets to lower supply costs. They focus on countries with high unemployment rates and lax labor laws, resulting in most of their production facilities being located in Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe. These locations allow for the exploitation of cheap labor, minimizing loss in the case of schedule delays. On average, garment workers work between 14 and 16 hours every day until 2 to 3 am, often not even receiving basic rights such as sick days or health insurance. 

These working conditions negatively impact countries whose economies rely on the clothing sector. For example, the ready-made garment industry is crucial to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 84% of the country’s total exports and employing more than 4 million people. As these workers are largely unskilled, they are easily replaceable if any accident occurs. Corporations are thus not incentivized to maintain healthy working conditions and, to little surprise, put little effort into doing so. In 2013, the clothing manufacturing industry experienced its worst accident when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing at least 1,000 people and leaving more than 2,500 injured in Bangladesh. After this event, companies faced pressure from social rights and environmental advocates to improve their methods, but not many laws or regulations have been created to address the issue of poor working conditions. Instead, independent groups have taken action on their own to drive reform. The Ethical Trading Initiative, an example of one such group, is a coalition of companies, trade unions, and nonprofits that set standards for working conditions within their own organizations.

How Fast Fashion Creates a Negative Externality

A negative externality occurs when an agent’s actions directly create a negative impact on another agent not involved in the market. The reason that fast fashion is affordable is because the hidden costs associated with it are not accounted for in the final prices customers pay. The effect of this hidden cost creates a negative externality, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1
The figure above illustrates a negative producer externality regarding steel production.

In the case of fast fashion, there is a negative producer externality similar to that depicted in the figure. Workers employed in sweatshops face the consequences of unethical producer behavior, as does the environment, directly affecting the people who live in the area. Since producers don’t account for these hidden costs, they tend to overproduce the good to the extent where the social cost is greater than the private costs of the producer. This misalignment of interests results in a deadweight loss. In order to maximize social welfare, firms should reduce production and raise the cost of the goods they sell by using fewer environmental resources and paying workers well. Doing so would shift the supply curve to the left, back to a socially optimal equilibrium. 

Figure 2 below shows the monthly wages for garment workers in different countries in 2017. The wage disparity between developing and developed economies like Bangladesh and the United States further indicates how inequality has formed within the fashion industry and its effects on workers in developing countries. With lower wages, people in these countries are relegated to a lower standard of living.

Figure 2
There is a large wage gap that exists between developed and developing countries for garment workers that contributes to a negative externality in these locations.

Building a Sustainable Future

In order to reach the marginal social cost, there are a few measures individuals can take. Recycling and donating used clothing to local shops or personal contacts reduces waste by increasing the lifespan of garments. Consumers can choose to purchase their clothing from brands with strict environmental regulations or by looking for garments made of organic and natural fibers. On a national level, the government can set a cap on the emissions corporations produce. In 2020, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement came into action, which incorporated laws that protect workers rights in various industries, including fashion. For example, it set rules about commonly used materials, like fibers and fabrics. One of these rules stated that these materials must be produced in one of the three countries in order to be used, preventing the exploitation of cheap labor from other countries. 

In addition, the proposed U.S. FABRIC act aims to improve working conditions and salaries for American employers in the industry. The act proposes three main provisions. The first would create a national registry to hold companies and individuals accountable for misconduct with their actions. The second sets corporations accountable for workplace mismanagement. The third provision sets reasonable wages for workers. If the U.S. is able to successfully implement this act in the garment industry, it could inspire other countries that are heavily impacted to take a call to action. 

Fast fashion is a complex industry with many moving parts that need to be considered to determine its ethical and environmental legitimacy. One of its benefits is that it serves as an avenue for lower-income individuals to participate in fashion trends at an affordable price. These individuals are often unable to invest in better-quality or sustainable clothing that tend to be more expensive. Fast fashion adds a level of inclusion in the industry because it allows for consumers to dress similarly to the people they look up to on social media. It also pushes more creativity within the industry to produce new designs quickly to sell. However, the environmental and ethical costs underscore the significance of the long-term consequences of fast fashion. 

Regardless of the benefits and drawbacks of fast fashion, it is important that we start living sustainably and use the right ingredients to make our clothing. The path we are on now will have long-term negative effects on the earth’s resources, resulting in waste in underdeveloped areas of the world, as well as other profound negative consequences.

Take-Home Points

  • Fast fashion is a practice when corporations mass-produce clothing, which leads to over-consumerism.
  • Environmental impacts of fast fashion include excessive water usage, global warming, and agricultural waste. 
  • The use of cheap labor by transnational corporations is a major ethical issue in the fast fashion industry. 
  • Practicing fast fashion creates a negative externality caused by the overconsumption of clothing and the hidden costs of production. 
  • Consumers, companies, and the government have a joint responsibility to return back to the marginal social cost level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *