Fast fashion is exactly that: fast. It’s a global whirlwind of lightning-fast production, lower-than-low pay, modern sweatshops and irresponsible consumption. The way the fashion industry currently operates is so ingrained into the modern financial and social system that for us who don’t remember a time when “make do and mend” was the government’s stance on clothing production, it seems like it’s always been this way.
When discussing fast fashion, we need to be super clear on what this term truly means, as the exact definition can be warped by brands and big businesses depending on what their goal is. Fast fashion is “a phenomenon in the fashion industry whereby production processes are expedited in order to get new trends to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible.”
It has resulted in 52 fashion cycles every year (there used to be a maximum of four), and a huge leap in the consumption of garments in the western world. It directly contributes to worldwide poverty and the creation of sweatshops, as well as environmental devastation and many other moral concerns, all to further speed up profits of international corporations.
Primarily peddled by brands that include Zara, H&M, Topshop, Forever 21 and Primark (this list could go on for pages and pages), it results in fashion that is quickly made at a cheap price, without any regard for its environmental or social impact. The turnover of this type of fashion is huge. As soon as you’ve bought an item, it’s out of fashion – or that’s what they want you to believe. The fast fashion system is designed to keep you always feeling like you’re one step behind the trend. Their aim is to keep you buying and buying and buying, constantly consuming their products to add even more profit into their piggy bank and to keep you oblivious to the realities.
Corporations – particularly Inditex, the owners of Zara, Pull&Bear, Bershka, Massimo Dutti and Oysho – are to blame for this process. Their focus on profits no matter what the cost has led us into a social, environmental and moral minefield. While we’re out buying a top that we don’t really like and will wear once before it gets tossed in a landfill, they’re paying their workers a fraction of minimum wage to work 16-hour days to make our clothes, and for millions of acres of land (and therefore animals) to be poisoned with pesticides to grow the raw materials for the fabrics.
Bosses like Amancio Ortega, the owner of Zara, make billions of dollars out of this system.
We have become increasingly separated from the people that make our clothes. There are around 40 million garment workers in the world today, 85% of which are women. Consistently exploited and forced into sweatshop conditions that violate both workers’ and human rights, they are given no voice and are forced into working in extremely dangerous conditions for much less than minimum wage.
Around 12.3 million people are forced into sweatshop labour for industries including fast fashion at any given time. In many countries that do not have the infrastructure and investment to create safe working environments and to enforce laws that guarantee workers’ safety, it is estimated that there are around 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 who are forced to work in sweatshops, most of whom are forced to work up to 16 hours a day. There are recent records of children as young as five working for up to 13 hours. Some workers are forced to work for 48 hours straight, with rest only allowed during the required sleep breaks. Sweatshop workers must spend the majority of their pay on food and to survive; they don’t make enough money to cover their basic human needs.
Vlogger Kristen Leo, who’s sustainability and ethical fashion videos are excellently informed and presented, made this video on Inditex’s system and the reality of fast fashion, titled “The Richest Criminal In The World”.
Companies such as Zara try to hide the investigations into their sweatshop practices in Brazil in 2011 – authorities rescued a team of workers from an unlicensed factory that were reported to be just 15 years old and working in dangerous conditions for between £95 and £176 a month – while their profits soared by a third. Of course they claim that the workers were “employed illegally by a subcontractor without Inditex’s knowledge”, but that only further highlights their lax approach to maintaining standards for their workers.
H&M had a similar scandal. In 2016, it was discovered that H&M factories in Myanmar was employing 14-year-old workers in their factories, again under dangerous conditions. These kinds of situation aren’t uncommon at all; the majority of fast fashion companies have at least one case of these issues arising.
Not even Beyoncé’s Ivy Park can avoid these scandals; the clothing range created in collaboration with Topshop was accused of creating the garments through sweatshop labour, paying their workers as little as £4.30 a day. Jakub Sobik, from the charity Anti-Slavery International, has said: “[Ivy Park] is a form of sweatshop slavery…companies like Topshop have a duty to find out if these things are happening, and it has long been shown that ethical inspections by these companies are failing. They should be replaced by independent inspections.” (Source: Trident Media)
This isn’t even taking into account disasters such as the tragic 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse – it killed at least 1138 garment workers and is the largest-ever loss of life in a manufacturing disaster – and the Tazreen fire of November 2012 which killed 112 people.
Topshop claims in their mission statement that they aim to “produce fashionable products in an ethical way”. While these companies claim to try and raise standards for both the impact that their production has on the environment and the payment and fair treatment of their workers, they have never truly been held accountable for their actions. Their discrepancies are always happily forgotten.
Groundbreaking documentaries such as “The True Cost” highlight how desperate the situation is. We are ruining both our social systems and our planet, while making the millionaires in their corporate offices even richer. This documentary explores the reality of this system and shows us exactly what the corporations don’t want us to see. Featuring interviews with the likes of Stella McCartney, Livia Firth and Vandana Shiva, this is a project that creates an eye-opening view on the truth behind our clothes.
Calling out these criminals is one of the best preliminary steps we can take into stopping this system from progressing. There is to be another way for clothes to be made. A fair, environmentally-friendly way that doesn’t damage lives and wreck social systems. A way that does not involve hideous overconsumption and obsession with the “new” that doesn’t relent no matter the cost. A way that will change the world.
Below are a few videos with more information on this topic: