The Hidden Cost of Fast Fashion

H&M Montreal

While the world’s eager eyes are incessantly tuned to every twist and turn of the tech realm, one industry has stealthily and swiftly taken a giant position amongst consumers, shaping their choices before consumers are fully aware of the advancing phenomenon. The transition of a large portion of the fashion industry to mass production and rapid circulation, a process commonly termed as “McDonaldization,” has solidified the presence of fast fashion. This new trend within the fashion industry focuses solely on the expedited manufacturing of clothes. Fast fashion promotes unsustainable production and exploitation of cheap labor across global scales of society.  The industry claims that drive for change rests on the shoulders of consumers and their responsibilities of “conscious consumerism.” Yet the economic gains from fast fashion, and the fashion industry’s overall relative disassociation with the idea of sustainability, create an undeniably difficult environment for the consumer to be cognizant of the negative ramifications of purchases. Instead, it is the designers and the fashion corporations on the supply side of the industry that should be pioneering the deceleration of this culture.

According to a report from retail leasing company JLL Shanghai, fast fashion brands have already expanded by the hundreds across China. H&M currently has approximately 250 stores in China and is looking to install 80 more this year. Fellow fast fashion brand Zara plans on 60 new stores, and Uniqlo 100, in addition to the 100 already opened last year. This rapid growth is still far from dwindling elsewhere, such as the United States, where these brands have already established an extensive hold. This September, Dublin-based fast fashion brand Primark opened its first U.S. store, a massive 77,000 square feet presence that is a harbinger of many more to come.

The seemingly endless popularity surrounding fast fashion is derived from the undeniable direct economic benefits for both the suppliers and consumers.  Although the retail prices of these products are far lower than those of their counterparts of higher quality, the high elasticity of demand lead to larger purchases in clothing quantity and generate higher profit margins. In this year’s August earnings report, the retailer Gap Inc. recorded a drop in company-wide quarterly sales by two percent, yet its low-priced fast fashion unit Old Navy recorded a 3.3 percent year-over-year growth.  According to market intelligence firm Euromonitor International, U.S. in-store fast fashion sales increased by eight percent over the past seven years.  Consumers, likewise, benefit both economically and culturally. Fast fashion brands make available to the public fresh, stylish items every week in tune with the latest trends at affordable prices. In a field already heavily dominated by concepts of being “in-style” and “out of style,” the availability of “cheap chic,” inexpensive fashion, is widely welcomed by consumers.

This culture of “cheap chic,” however, simultaneously endorses a more detrimental aspect – a culture of disposability.  Both consumers and fast fashion companies gain from each other through fast cycles of production. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the average American will buy 70 garments this year. With new, cheap, trends churned out every week, the industry triggers a fast-response system that encourages quick purchasing, and thus quick disposability.

This disposability, however, is inflicting extremely detrimental effects on the environment behind its gilded glamour.  According to the Council for Textile Recycling (CTR), only 15 percent of Americans’ used clothes are recycled each year, leaving 21billion pounds of textiles to flood landfills. This amount of post-consumer waste has only been escalating over recent years, and CTR projects its growth to continue to a staggering 35.4 billion pounds by the year 2019.

Fast fashion emits waste not only in physical form, but also in substantial contributions to atmospheric pollution. Cotton is one of the most toxic crops in the world in terms of production. As reported by the Organic Consumers Association, producing cotton employs twenty five percent of all the insecticides in the world and 12 percent of all pesticides, although it is grown on only three percent of the world’s farmland. Admittedly, Textile Exchange, the non-profit, reported in 2013 that Swedish fast fashion giant H&M is the highest user of organic cotton, yet the company’s 2014 sustainability report shows that only a mere 13.7 percent of its entire cotton usage is organic. Organic cotton is grown using techniques and materials that have a very low impact on the environment. Considering that H&M also stated in a press release that it manufactures approximately 600 million articles of clothing annually, H&M’s 13.7 percent use of organic cotton is a more troubling statistic than congratulatory.  It also signifies that the remaining hordes of fast fashion houses employ even less – indicating colossal ongoing environmental damages.

Unfortunately, the commonly suggested solution to this problem is to belittle the public into being “conscious consumers”. Sustainability, however, is not a concept readily associated with fashion. A Sanford Bernstein analysis shows that Primark prices its merchandise twenty percent below Forever21, thirty percent below Old Navy, and forty percent below H&M. The main targets of fast fashion, young consumers, are avid followers of this industry because of the quick gratifications involved through discounted pricing.

Within the fashion industry, sustainability does not easily come to the forefront of consumer’s minds. Therefore, it is less tactical to expect the consumers to take the active initiative, when research has just begun to highlight the economic and environmental consequences of fast fashion. To expect change, intervention must focus on the corporations currently reaping the prime benefits of the “fast fashion” industry.