In recent years, ‘fast fashion’—a term describing the production of a high volume of cheap, low-quality garments to constantly meet new trends—has satisfied the consumeristic appetite of western countries, at the expense of the environment and supply chain workers in the developing world.
Greenwashing campaigns are commonly used to answer consumers’ growing demand for sustainable products, however, GlobalData’s consumer sentiment survey found that the ‘easy & affordable’ mega-trend has remained a key purchasing influence throughout the years.
Despite this, we are progressively heading to a de-globalized textile industry, which will come at the expense of our planet and our health.
From the 1990s to 2022
Fast fashion is a recent phenomenon that started in the 1990s. In the context of post-cold war globalization, western companies carried out the massive outsourcing of labour and offshoring of garment factories into developing countries. This explains the rapid decrease in the number of workers employed in the US textile industry from 1990 to 2011 (The Atlantic, 2022).
The US fast fashion industry is a case in point. A study from Duke University (2013) showed that the US imports the highest number of garments and apparel from developing countries where the monthly minimum wages paid to garment workers fall among the lowest in the world. The list includes but is not limited to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia as the top producers of garments sold in the US.
Only recently, consumers began to take an interest in this theme and many documentaries came out. The 2015 documentary ‘The True Cost’ by Andrew Morgan is the best known of these. It tells the story of the tragic events of April 24, 2013, in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza, a garment factory that supplied many of the biggest global fashion brands, collapsed and killed more than a thousand people who were working there. ‘The True Cost’ highlights that the structure of fast fashion brands is unsustainable by definition: 52 collections a year, one per week instead of one per season, with clothes being designed to last a short time. Essentially, if you pay so little for a dress, it is because someone else is paying for it.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro founded the Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism movement, to raise awareness about the human rights abuses and environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry. Every year, to coincide with the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, Fashion Revolution week is celebrated. During this week, we remember the lives lost and demand that no one should die for fashion.
Greenwashing and fast fashion trends
With claims of “better” this or “greener” that, companies sell fake commitments. Consumers around the world see campaigns advertising new fabrics made with recycled plastic, organic cotton, responsibly sourced wool, and so on and so forth. And brands that partake in this greenwashing gain popularity by making trendy styles at affordable prices. With the recent higher interest of consumers in sustainability, these green initiatives have given companies a competitive edge and a better consumer perception compared to other fast fashion players. The problem is that that specific collection may be sustainable in itself, but it represents only a minimal part of the whole business.
Some very recent trends are contributing to keeping fast fashion popular. For example, live streaming is a growing shopping channel, as it allows for direct one-to-many interactions to help encourage sales. This concept is popular in China, where retailers live stream products with influencer hosts who help shoppers make purchasing decisions. An easy link to the website or checkout is provided onscreen so consumers can purchase items simultaneously, leading to impulsive shopping from the comfort of their homes. Along the same line, haul videos (influencers showing and describing products they have bought) are extremely popular as well.
The environmental and health backlash
The outcome of western fashion trends and the current organization of textile supply chains is tragic. To give some examples, the Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the biggest open landfills, while Ghana is suffering a huge environmental disaster for fast fashion leftovers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that about 84% of all clothes in the USA end up in either a landfill or an incinerator each year.
As well as environmental issues, there are also health issues. The National Center for Biotechnology Information published the article “Chemicals from textiles to skin: an in vitro permeation study of benzothiazole” entailing the potential health risks of chemicals in clothing. In addition, wastewaters when not correctly disposed of are toxic and contaminate the water table and soil and kill aquatic life. Furthermore, WaterWorld reports that more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres and harmful chemicals could be released into the water during each cycle of a washing machine.
The easy & affordable mega-trend and the resurgence in de-globalization
Sustainable clothes originate from a short supply chain, fair trade, and tailored production. Cooperation and transparency between all aspects of the value chain in the textile and garment industry are urgently needed.
However, the ‘easy & affordable’ mega-trend has remained a key purchasing influence throughout the years, says GlobalData in its ‘Consumer Survey Insights: Mega-Trend Tracking—Understanding Shifts in TrendSights Influence’ survey. The survey found that environmental and ethical concerns have not increased and that rising inflation, supply chain disruption, and the Ukraine conflict are fueling de-globalization—what was global is increasingly becoming local. Companies throughout Asia are exploring opportunities in the United States, México, and Central America. Why? Safety, or more appropriately, supply chain resilience. This might have a positive impact on the fast fashion industry in terms of regulation and workers’ rights.