Over the past two decades, retailers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo have established themselves as major retailer players for their alluringly low price tags and stylish looks.
Yet beneath the surface of cool cheap clothes is a dark underbelly of production that is increasingly difficult to ignore. Between wide scale pollution, corruption, human rights abuses and weak attempts at sustainability, it’s become hard to justify the prominence of these brands in the industry.
These challenges are at least in part causing a decline in the once booming market: Forever 21’s shipping firm EZ Worldwide Express dropped the brand in June, citing decreasing sales that no longer made working with the retailer profitable. Likewise, Uniqlo, which has more than 1,700 stores in 17 countries, has quietly closed five stores in major shopping malls since January, a sign of dipping sales.
Here’s the case against fast fashion, explained.
What’s the problem?
The fast fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world after big oil. It’s a huge resource suck, from procurement of cheap textiles to the exorbitant amount of energy and water used to produce and ship the garments. These items are also quickly discarded because they are cheaply made and cheaply bought: An estimated 14 million tons of clothing is disposed in the U.S. each year. Many of these items have been proven to use contaminated cotton or toxic dyes, which has grave consequences for consumers.
What about the workers making these clothes?
Cheap goods often come as the result of cheap labor. As the demand for fast fashion grew, so did the manpower needed to make the clothing, translating to long hours of unpaid overtime and poor conditions at factories overseas. A vast majority of garment production — 97 percent of it — takes place outside of the U.S. in countries without stringent labor policies, making it easy for Americans to turn a blind eye to issues. Occasionally this has resulted in tragedy on a massive scale: In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 employees who manufactured apparel for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, the Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Primark and Walmart, among others.
Aren’t companies being more transparent?
Yes and no. Retailers like Gap recently announced it will start releasing its list of global factories to demonstrate a commitment to improving factory conditions. It also decreased its total number of facilities from 1,255 to 892. Other brands have implemented similar policies following the Rana Plaza factory collapse, including UK-based Marks and Spencers and Belgium-based C&A.
However, protocol within these factories remains obscured and unaudited. A recent expose uncovered rampant workers rights violations at an Asos warehouse in South Yorkshire, England. The investigation revealed workers were discouraged from taking breaks and fired for using sick time.
What about sustainable fashion collections?
H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012, and Zara released its first sustainable line in September, both efforts to integrate environmentally friendly materials into their supply chains. However, it’s difficult to incorporate true sustainability into the fast fashion model and still make a profit, according to Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co.
“Wouldn’t it be a dream if [fast fashion retailers] stood up and said, ‘We are going to do one less delivery this year, we’re putting too many clothes out there, and we’re going to take a profit cut?’,” Wright said on the Glossy Podcast. “The race to the bottom in my opinion is very real.”
Are luxury brands contributing to these challenges?
While luxury brands produce smaller inventories of products using higher quality materials, the fashion calendar on which they operate isn’t particularly conducive to sustainable behavior. As brands increasingly push toward ‘see-now-buy-now’ fashion, making runway looks immediately available after runway shows, it perpetuates a culture of rapid consumption and disposal.
“The very nature of fashion’s raison d’être — new styles, looks and lines every season — is diametrically opposed to sustainability,” Max Lenderman, CEO of School, told Glossy in June. “The industry is based on discarding the old (which could only be six months old) and enticing people to buy the new.”
Do consumers even care about sustainable fashion?
Yes, particularly if they’re millennials. There’s even research to prove it. A 2015 Nielsen report found that 75 percent of individuals aged 18-34 would be willing to pay extra for environmentally friendly offerings.
Is there a case for fast fashion?
Sure, if a consumer is looking for something on the cheap without pausing to think about why it’s so cheap.