The Moral Price of Low Prices
By Helen Sweeney '19
October 2018 Issue
What are the words that come to your mind when you hear the phrase “fast fashion?” Perhaps “low prices” or “chain stores.” Maybe you have never heard the ever-so-important term before. Fast fashion refers to cheap clothing that mirrors high fashion brands. Some well-known examples are Forever 21 or H&M. You may have noticed that their stock is regularly cycled through and comes in large, inexpensive quantities. Why is the term “fast fashion” important for us to know as informed citizens? Because there is a flawed system behind all the wigged mannequins, sequins, and dyed faux fur that, by simply buying an outfit for school or for a concert, we are either unknowingly or knowingly supporting.
One of the major problems with “fast fashion” stores such as Zara and H&M is that they, in their nature, support disposability, threatening our already endangered world. As explained in an essay published in the academic journal Fashion Theory entitled “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands,” these stores have to “source new trends in the field, and purchase on a weekly basis to introduce new items and replenish stock” to maintain customer satisfaction. This often results in an excess of product. According to Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, only 20% of the excess clothing is reused or recycled; the rest is either taken to landfills or incinerated.
In addition to environmental concerns with the fast fashion industry, there are humanitarian concerns as well. The exploitation of workers in the fashion industry reached the global platform in 2013 when a garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,135 and injuring around 2500 people. When this catastrophe hit the news cycle, it was found out that the average monthly income is $68 for a garment worker, according to The Borgen Project, a nonprofit determined to end poverty.
The increasing pressure to produce clothing in bulk had caused many companies to find the cheapest sources of labor. According to UNICEF, this often is child labor in countries overseas, particularly in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and China. Child labor is particularly prevalent in the fashion industry for several reasons. Much of the manufacturing of clothes requires low-skilled labor. In addition, some parts of the industry, like cotton picking, are made more efficient with small fingers. Unfortunately, much of child labor slips through the cracks as it is difficult for large manufacturing companies to control each stage of production. Fast fashion particularly takes advantage of unethical forms of labor as it forces the manufacturing of new products in bulk every few weeks.
It is easy to point out flaws in these systems, but the most important thing is that we act. So what can we do, as American teenagers with little money of our own (especially when we go off to college!)? Here are some tips to help fight against the invasion of fast fashion and promote sustainability in the fashion industry!
Go to thrift stores or other second-hand clothing stores! There are some great ones in Old Town that even have dresses for dances (I got my homecoming dress at a thrift store in Old Town!). If you strike out at the traditional thrift stores nearby, keep an eye out for church thrift stores. They are generally even cheaper than other thrift stores and have some unique items (I got a Tommy Hilfiger shirt there for $2).
Buy some clothes off of your friends (and sell some of your unwanted clothes too!). Some of my favorite items of clothing I have gotten this way. You might have seen some of your classmates’ Instagram accounts dedicated to selling their clothes, so look into those!
DIY clothing you already own! Buy some needle and thread and embroider flowers on jeans or take some scissors to make an old t-shirt a concert-ready crop top! (Catherine Owens ‘19 does this with almost all her clothing so if you have any questions about embroidery or DIY reach out to her!)
Download the app “Good On You” (or another app about ethical fashion that you find)! This is one of the many apps that will rate brands for you based on their impact on people, animals, and the environment. It will also help you discover new, more ethical brands if you are interested! The app also provides articles written about different brands delving into the effects of manufacturing.
Helen conducted an email interview with Joanna McCartney, founder and designer of Pyne and Smith Clothier! To see this interview, click here.