By: Evelyn Amparo Edited by: Ashlyn Bi November 20, 2023
In a world where trends change as quickly as the seasons, the allure of fast fashion may be undeniable, but beneath the glitzy surface lies a hidden cost that threatens both our planet and our pockets. Brands like H&M, Shein, and Old Navy are naturally becoming household names, universally recognized as pillars of the fast fashion industry. Fast fashion describes low-priced yet stylish clothing that is quickly produced for retail stores to keep up with current trends in media. The industry for fast fashion is currently one of the most controversial industries in the world because of the carbon, economic, and moral footprints that the production of these “trendy” clothes creates. While there is a natural inclination for individuals to conform to social norms, it is crucial to assess how far society is willing to go to fit in.
Before understanding all of the detriments of fast fashion, why is fast fashion so popular in the first place? The most clear reason is the “bandwagon effect” of following trends, essentially meaning that because a large mass of people is flocking towards a certain item, it is human nature to follow the consensus opinion. During the summer of 2023, Y2K fashion began making a comeback, with low-rise jeans, lingerie tops, and mini skirts being the top trends of the season. Rather than going to thrift stores or sourcing the clothing sustainably, many young adults began ordering similarly styled pieces from online fast-fashion brands such as Shein and Cider. Affordability is a significant selling factor for the manufacturing of clothing. Traditionally, we associate the fashion industry with catering to the elite, and what was considered 'stylish' was once exclusive to the wealthy. A study conducted by Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon found that buying products triggers the pleasure center of the brain, revealing that buying into fast fashion is not only socially rewarding but is quite literally chemically rewarding. Around 73% of fast fashion consumers are aged between 18 and 24, and the age demographic is most susceptible to marketing tactics. Because fast fashion is often heavily marketed on social media, younger generations are more exposed to advertising, resulting in the rise of buying into fast fashion companies. Between the bandwagon effect of social desirability, the available access to these typically overpriced products, and the psychological reward system, it is clear why fast fashion has become so popular in recent years.
One of the many flaws of the fast fashion industry is its carbon footprint on the planet. Climate change is already a grand issue with no clear end, so further contributing to the crisis is blatantly irresponsible of humanity. Fast fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, from the production of textiles and clothing to mass manufacturing and shipping. In comparison, agricultural industries are responsible for 10% of emissions, and 13% belong to commercial and residential industries. Therefore, fast fashion production ranks relatively high among the factors contributing to it, with global emissions in the apparel industry projected to rise by 50% by 2030. Furthermore, of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. On the social media platform, Tiktok, it became a pseudo-trend to record “Shein hauls”, in which the creator of the video would show off and model an unnecessary amount of clothing that was merely ordered from the site because of the low costs. However, due to the unpredictable nature of how clothing looks online versus on an actual body, a majority of these clothes would go wasted and end up being donated to thrift stores, only to end up in landfills as fast fashion typically does not resell at a high rate. As landfill space is increasingly occupied, more waste is inevitable, leading to a subsequent rise in hazardous gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The benefits of the fast fashion industry cannot outweigh the economic losses that it causes. For one, the cost of producing millions of garments does not match the price. As previously explored, the affordability of fast fashion makes it so appealing. Thus, with low consumer prices, the production costs generate little profit overall. Between the cost of labor plus the cost of materials, a simple dress costs roughly $25 to produce, however, sites such as Shein or Temu would sell the garment between $5-$15. Because such little profit can be made, workers make lower wages, bordering on being an unlivable wage for some companies. The violation of labor rights frequently escapes detection through loopholes and the practice of outsourcing labor to multiple Asian nations where labor costs are considerably lower, making exploitation more prevalent. One of the largest controversies regarding labor exploitation in recent months has been an investigation of the online brand, Shein, which outsources its clothes from factories in China. An average factory worker will work around 18 hours a day for a base salary of 4,000 yuan, which converts to $556. Breaking this down further, that would mean in one day, a garment worker is only making $18; each piece of clothing that they produce only amounts to a few cents. It has also been alleged that if a certain quota is not met for the day by the worker, then wages can be withheld entirely, violating several human rights of getting paid for labor. In addition to the unsustainable business model, these garments often use lower-grade and less durable materials to maintain affordable consumer prices. This often leads to overproduction, overconsumption, and increased waste, creating a massive strain on economic resources. One of the issues with the economy regarding fast fashion is the unpredictability of the industry. This instability stems from the fact that the profit in the fast fashion industry relies entirely on consumers and their current demands. However, consumerist culture, combined with the high-speed nature of the internet, contributes to the nearly unpredictable nature of consumer desires. As musicians, athletes, movie stars, social media influencers, and royalty uphold these style standards, the constant pursuit of staying in line with ongoing trends leads to wasteful consumption of both time and resources essential for maintaining a stable economy.
While it is rewarding to follow trends in society, it is also important to remember that our actions have consequences. By buying into popular fast fashion brands like Shein, Cotton On, and Forever 21, people are ultimately ignoring the economic and environmental consequences of these companies. So, before buying into the next big social media trend, research the brands, support small businesses and thrift stores, and consider the long-term impacts of buying the piece of clothing.