Sustainability - the Fast Fashion Problem

Caitlin O'Rouke, Marketing, University of the West of Scotland

The fast fashion industry has seen an explosion of high street retailers and online brands creating and promoting ‘sustainable’ ranges over the past several years. Is this shift an attempt to try and make changes towards creating a more sustainable fashion culture? Or is it simply another trend to try and curry favour with consumers and stakeholders?

Sustainability is a concerning issue for UK consumers, with 84% of people surveyed stating that being environmentally conscious is important to them, yet 68% cannot name a single environmentally friendly fashion brand. Is this due to lack of sustainable fashion brands? Or is there an overall lack of awareness and access to more sustainable fashion?

Currently the fast fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to corporate environmental pollution. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 26 billion pounds of textiles end up in landfills each year. Additionally, the industry is responsible for 8% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – which is more than the aviation industry and shipping industry combined. Fast fashion retailers offering sustainable collections, such as Zara and H&M produce masses amounts of garments annually, with Zara producing 24 collections per year and H&M producing between 12 and 16 collections, respectively. With these current practices, the fast fashion business model can be considered anything but sustainable.

It is not only the environmental impacts which encompass the sustainability problem. Reports of human rights violations are rife within fast fashion garment factories, which outsource cheap labour from overseas factories in countries such as Pakistan and India. This is standard practice across the fast fashion industry to keep costs low. However, these practices often come at an added human cost.

Working conditions in overseas factories are often hazardous and dangerous, with a report by the International Labour Rights Forum finding that over 1,800 garment factory workers have been killed at work since 2005 in Bangladesh alone. Garment factory workers are often forced to work 60 to 140 hours per week with little to no breaks for a meagre wage. BIPOC* are most at risk of exploitation in the fast fashion industry as they make up most the labour workforce. Of this, women are the most at risk, with reports finding that 14% of female garment workers in Bangalore have been sexually harassed or raped. Additionally, a report by the International Labour Organisation found that factory workers are often subjected to physical and sexual violence as well as being subjected to insults and humiliation.

The facts which exist about the fast fashion industry are staggering and shocking. Despite the environmental and human rights consequences, it cannot and should not be ignored that fast fashion is essential for many. Accessible, cheap clothing is often a lifeline for individuals and families on low incomes. No one in such circumstances should be blamed for consuming a product to serve not only their survival, but to fulfil a basic materialistic want. As consumers, we are conditioned to consume materialistic goods which is fuelled by a culture of overconsumption and capitalism. However, the blame for these issues cannot be pinned on individual consumption habits.

The responsibility for change lies with the fast fashion brands within this growing multi-million-pound industry. The industry as a whole must make moves to create real effective change through their practices, for the sake of our planet and the humans who inhabit it. Fast fashion has created a successful business model and toxic culture from wear-it-once throwaway fashion. It has created a vicious cycle which seems impossible to break.
With that said, a movement towards more ‘slow’ fashion and less of an over consumption culture starts with change from the inside. Make truly sustainable clothing accessible and affordable for all. As it stands, the fast fashion industry must make major changes – even consider a total overhaul of the fast-fashion model, to make a real difference.

Marketing Week
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Labour Rights
Considerate Consumer
16 Days Campaign
International Labour Organisation

Pic: Euro News