As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion - the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara - is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. (Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, and yes, high fashion brands are NOT immune to practices that stand to violate basic human rights tenets. However, the frequency with which such violations are associated with fast fashion is simply incomparable to the work of true luxury brands).
Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor.
And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That's not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide leg pants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself.
I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-run factories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be well dressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don't want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don't want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before - and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one.
There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion -- and they are not weird or ugly or any less "fashiony" than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Zady, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing.
Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles - and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can't buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin.
[Also, major revisions in terms of retailers' and suppliers' Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
* This article was initially published in August 2015.