The past thirty years have seen a rise in “fast fashion” – a system of mass production that “refers to cheap, trendy, and popular clothing chains which rapidly change their inventory and styles.” This system is what allows us to walk into Forever 21 or H&M and purchase a whole outfit for less than $50. But you do get what you pay for – these clothing articles often have loose seams are made with cheap fabrics. As many customers of these stores can attest, laundry day becomes a chore thanks to excess shrinkage, unraveling, and rapid degradation of the quality of the sweater, shirt, or dress. However, many consumers are undisturbed by this disposable clothing trend because in the fashion world, trends are ever-changing and often fleeting. It doesn’t matter that the trendy sweater you bought two weeks ago is becoming a tad threadbare, because it’s already out of style. These clothes are now so cheap that upon the emergence of a new trend, it is affordable to go out and newly stock your closet.
An indisputable attribute to this industry is that money and status are no longer barriers. A new video by AJ+ explains we are only spending about 3% of our income on clothing, explaining that in a time of vast socioeconomic inequality, almost everyone is able to participate in the “fashion for all” culture. But what is the real cost?
According to the aforementioned AJ+ video “Why H&M Costs More Than You Think” referenced by The Huffington Post, 85% of the used clothes that we throw away goes into landfills, while only around 15% is recycled or reused. “Textile dyes make up 1/5th of industrial water pollution, and it’s estimated that the apparel industry makes up 10% of the global carbon footprint.” If this doesn’t persuade you, the cheap textiles we buy are full of contaminants such as lead and carcinogens. Teenage girls are most often the group targeted by these clothing chains and are thus exposed to these contaminants whilst still in developing stages.
The consequences don’t end there – the practice of mass production perpetuates the exploitation of cheap labor. As most of you probably know, many workers, who are often children, in countries such as China and Bangladesh are working from dawn to dusk in dangerous conditions for less than a dollar. How have we been justifying the fashion industry’s malpractices for so long?
There are some social benefits to buying into the disposable clothing culture. Rates of clothing donation to organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army has drastically increased. Many millennials who are laden with debt and struggling to enter the workforce are able to inexpensively stock their wardrobe with clothes that make them look presentable. However, is fast fashion justifiable when posited next to the dangerous working conditions and minuscule wages that make this practice possible? What about costs to the environment and the burden it places on future generations? It’s time we start asking what the real cost is of purchasing our wardrobes from these chains and questioning the implications of our whimsical consumerism and disposal tendencies.