The Dire Consequences of Fast Fashion: The Toll of Trend-Chasing

    • By,
      Sreshtha Majumdar – Academic Associate , Kautilya

Every morning, Sheila walks to the garment factory past the hungry male gazes to earn not even the bare minimum wage to sustain her family. Like her coworkers in the factory, she fears taking bathroom breaks, which might lead to a shortfall in production targets and hence less money in her pocket. Sheila’s husband died in the 2012 factory fire in Bangladesh, and she is a mother of two teenage daughters. After her 12-hour shift, she walks back home only to get ready for another job. She decks herself in rainbow-colored bangles, big jhumkas, and red-colored saree, preparing herself for a rough night ahead. This is a snippet of the life of garment factory workers, primarily catering to fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, Gap, Shien, and many more globally.

The fast fashion industry runs on a model of producing cheap and trendy clothing items and accessories at a breakneck speed to meet the latest fashion trends, thus prioritizing quantity over quality. It necessitates designing, manufacturing, and distributing fashion items at a swift pace, allowing retailers to bring new styles to the market very quickly. Gone are the days when new styles used to emerge in the market quarterly or a pair of jeans would last years; nowadays, it’s all about micro seasons and what is trending on our beloved social media platforms like Instagram. The humongous popularity of brands like Zara, H&M, and Shien is because they can give the taste of luxury fashion in exchange for peanuts as they produce low-cost replicas of luxury fashion brands. The brands are also responsible for changing the dynamic of the fashion industry, the traditional four seasons have become 52 micro seasons, and these brands are reported to roll out over 1000 styles weekly.

Our world is suffering from socio-economic and environmental imbalances, and the fashion industry is intensifying it. The fashion sector employs over 75 million people across the globe, but the majority of them are working in unethical conditions and are grossly underpaid. There are several reported incidents and testimonials which resonate with the facts that the working conditions of workers are deplorable, from not being allowed to take bathroom breaks to forcing the female workers to work in harsh conditions till the last stage of pregnancy to no maternity leaves to even getting harassed by the managers and technicians in the factory. These destitute working conditions are not the only reason that forces the underserved community into this vicious cycle, but also, below the minimum wage compensation pushes them further into the black hole of exploitation. For every t-shirt sold in Walmart from 9 euros, these workers receive 24 cents. Bangladesh is considered the world’s second-largest apparel exporter, yet a worker in the apparel manufacturing factory earns less than $100 per month, which is way below the minimum wage.

The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 is an instance of diabolical working conditions. This disaster took more than 1000 lives, and over 3000 people were severely injured. There were five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building, catering to the demand of several global brands, such as Benetton (Italy), Bonmarche (UK), Cato Fashions (USA), The Children’s Place (USA), El Corte Inglés (Spain), Joe Fresh (Loblaws, Canada), Kik (Germany), Mango (Spain), Matalan (UK), Primark (UK/Ireland) and Texman (Denmark). Before the collapse of the building, large cracks in the building were discovered and the shops and banks on the lower floor of the Plaza were evacuated immediately, but the factory workers were ordered to continue to work, which led to mass murder in the hands of the fast fashion industry. After such devastation, the question arises– is the cheap $4 satin dress in the Pantone color of the year worth the lives of many innocents? Or what changes have been brought to stop these disasters from happening again?

Sadly the demand for fast fashion items has increased exponentially yearly, expanding the market share globally to USD 261,104.36 million by 2028. The fast fashion industry has also tweaked consumption behavior into overconsumption by using the trifecta of on-trend styles, inexpensive, and creating the fear of scarcity by keeping a style or design only for 3-4 weeks rather than seasonally. Amancio Ortega Gaona, the founder of Zara and owner of Inditex, a multi-million dollar clothing company, in an interview with The New York Times, said, “With Zara, you know that if you don’t buy it right then and there, within 11 days the entire stock will change. You buy it now or never. And because the prices are so low, you buy it now.”

The fast fashion industry is also affecting the environment negatively– from contributing to eight percent of worldwide carbon emissions to consuming a colossal amount of water, polluting by dumping the leftover water from the dyeing process, to contributing around 100 million tonnes of waste into landfills.

The fast fashion industry is balanced on the malicious stick of exploiting women– on the one hand, trendy clothing items are manufactured by oppressing and overworking the workers in hazardous working conditions, especially women who are further regarded as commodities. On the other hand, fast fashion sustains on by sponging women’s insecurities and body image issues. This industry drives women into a loop of insecurities, compelling them to buy trendy clothing to fit into the narrative that society has established for them. Fast fashion encourages the idealization of unrealistic ideal body types, teaching young girls and women that they are inadequate unless they dress and act according to social expectations.

“Clothes could have more meaning and longevity if we think less about owning the lastest or cheapest thing and develop more of a relationship with the things we wear.” – Elizabeth L. Cline Overdressed.

Fast fashion presents complicated issues that require a diverse approach that involves policymakers, industry stakeholders, and consumers. By enlightening customers about the ethical and environmental ramifications of their fashion choices may inspire responsible decisions. The need for fast fashion may decrease by fostering a shift in consumer thinking that values durability and quality over trends that come and go. Governments can play a crucial role by encouraging and incentivizing brands to approach fashion ethically and sustainably. Therefore, consumer empowerment, industry change, and regulatory initiatives may pave a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.