Making clothes is labour-intensive, and labour costs account for the largest portion of costs in the entire garment production process. This means the price of an actual person measuring, cutting, sewing and packing a garment is key in the overall production costs (and ultimately, profits). With garment manufacturing jobs in western countries declining steadily over the last 50 years, fashion brands first started scouting for cheaper labour in the 50’s. This has resulted in an exponential growth of garment factories in countries such as China, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, Bangladesh and India.
For us consumers though, this has meant that while prices of everything else continue to rise, clothes are cheaper than ever before! Good, right? Hmm…let’s think again about the real cost of fast fashion.
A brief history of buying clothes
Shopping for clothes used to be an occasional event—marking a special occasion, rite of passage or change of season. They were well looked after, mended, cherished and worn for many many years, then passed down. But around 20 years ago, something changed. Clothes became increasingly cheaper, trends seemed to come and go faster than ever, and shopping became a hobby. Today, it’s the norm to purchase an item (and this is made so much easier and more efficient with one-click online purchases), wear it a few times (or even at all!) and then discard it!
In 1900, 15% of a US household's income was spent on clothing. In 1950, it was 12%. But by 2004, the total amount spent by households on clothes had dropped to a tiny 4%! By 2010, it was 2.8%. In 1997, the average woman in the UK bought 19 items of clothing a year; in 2007, this increased to 34!
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is basically cheap, on-trend, (low-quality and made using synthetic fibres) clothing inspired by the catwalk or the latest celebrity fad. In lightning speed, the latest fashion appears in all the ‘popular’ stores soon after a fashion trend has gone viral (thanks to a celeb or social media star).
The fast fashion movement first came about because major western brands, (which dominate fashion sales), wanted to find new ways to create further demand in an already saturated fashion market. It was pioneered by Inditex, the Spanish company that owns Zara, and quickly adopted by retailers across the world.
The idea is to get the latest styles on the market as fast as possible, so consumers ‘snap them up while they’re hot’, and sadly, discard them after one or two wears. Subsequently, (and purposefully), it has created the culture that outfit repeating is a fashion no-no and to stay relevant, one must buy into the latest fashion trend.
This toxic culture of overconsumption forms a key part of the shocking system of overproduction that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.
Fast fashion environmental impacts
The preposterous pressure to reduce costs and speed up production times mean that environmental considerations are seldom prioritised.
Image: mountains of discarded textile offcuts in a garment factory
- Water pollution caused by cheap chemical textile dyes and pesticides.
- Water wastage which can result in drought risks and stress on water resources in communities. The fabrication of fibres such as conventional cotton can utilise enormous amounts of water in the production process.
- Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. Fast fashion is generally made using cheap fabrics such as polyester. These synthetic fibres are derived from fossil fuels which release planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollutants that increase the risk of respiratory illness and other diseases.
- Land clearing, impacted biodiversity, and reduced soil quality. With the non-stop pace of manufacturing and continuous consumer demand, this means pressure on finite natural resources and the need to constantly grow supply capabilities to meet demand.
- Enormous amounts of landfill. Our culture of ‘buy, wear once and discard’ has sadly contributed to Australians being the second highest consumers of textiles per person in the world (second only to the USA). Each Aussie consumes an average of 27kg of new clothing per year, and 23kg of this ends up in landfill each year!
So why is fast fashion so bad?
Fast fashion not only has dire environmental consequences as listed above, but the fast fashion movement breeds a toxic culture of overconsumption and a whole generation of self-conscious young people who believe that being accepted into society means having the latest fashion items. It also fuels the thousands of garment factories (some, illegal) where unethical practices run rampant. This can include humanitarian issues such as forced labour, child labour, unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, and below standard pay (to name a few of the issues). One such example of the dangers of fast fashion is the Rana Plaza tragedy, which I'll explain in more detail in a future post.
Fast fashion brands in Australia
According to the website IBISWorld, these are the largest fast fashion brands in Australia:
- Cotton On Clothing
- Zara Australia
- Uniqlo Australia
- Fast Future Brands (Valleygirl/Temt/Mirrou)
- Top Shop/Top Man (Australia)
How can we avoid fast fashion?
- Have an appreciation that your clothes aren’t ‘made’ by machines. Yes, there’s cutting and sewing and printing machines that help workers get the job done, but clothes are still sewn by PEOPLE.
- Invest in quality. It can be tricky to know whether a garment is “good quality” but the first giveaway sign is if you’re paying $10 for a product, it’s probably produced in a fast-fashion sweatshop where workers may be mistreated, underpaid, made to work against their will, or in unacceptable conditions. Did you know it’s not uncommon for people to be CHAINED to their work stations in some sweatshops?
- Demand your brands prove they only use ethical factories. Ask them for a list of their manufacturers and independent certification of ethical practices (such as our ethical kids manufacturing facility’s certificate here). At León & Bird, any of our manufacturing partners MUST have an independent ethical certification. This means they’re independently audited for fair remuneration, good working conditions, and fair policies to name a few.
- Look for sustainable and ethical labels, logos and information (try browsing their website for a sustainability statement) from the brands you shop from.
- Babies and kids grow so quickly, so once they’ve outgrown a garment - kindly pass it on! We want to avoid the sheer volume of clothing in the world (that ultimately ends up in landfill). So whether you pass it onto a sibling or friend - it’s great to keep them going. I like to bag up clothing by size and pass on.
- Mend your clothing.
- Shop at secondhand/thrift/vintage stores.
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