Fast fashion: the biggest black mark in the clothing industry

Price tags don’t lie. Fast fashion is cheap. According to New York Magazine, H & M’s average product costs $ 18. That final price includes the cost of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, operating costs, and labor, all topped off with a corporate markup.

With only $ 18 to work with, how do companies stretch the budget? Who pays for the overflow?

The answer is both humanitarian and environmental. According to experts and activists, fast fashion runs away from two involuntary benefactors: underpaid workers and the environment.

Defined as affordable mass-produced clothing to meet the cycle of regenerative trends, fast fashion has become a major player in the modern shopping experience. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average consumer will wear a garment seven times throughout their life.

After the seventh wear, the garment will join the 21 billion tons of fabrics that end up in landfills every year, according to Vogue. As the turnover of trends continues to accelerate, experts predict that this number will only increase.

Sara Kunkel, junior in apparel merchandising and editor-in-chief of SWATCH, believes that technology plays an important role in reducing the durability of modern trends.

“We have been given the tools, through technology, to consume excessively,” Kunkel said.

Now, in the depths of the digital age, services like overnight shipping have conditioned society to expect instant gratification. To keep up, online retailers like Fashion Nova release up to 900 new styles every week, according to CEO Richard Saghian.

While consumers can quickly view, save and click “add to cart” from the comfort of their home, the physical implications of their purchases are felt thousands of miles away.

The apparel industry is known for bad working practices, particularly with regards to the use of child labor. According to UNICEF, some 170 million children are employed in conditions that violate child labor laws. Many of these children work in the clothing industry, providing fast fashion retailers with new styles to feed a worldwide audience.

Experts believe that the same technology that normalized excessive consumption will be the savior of society.

Dr Young-A-Lee, professor and graduate program officer in the Department of Consumer and Design Sciences at Auburn University, is one of those experts.

Lee realized his passion for sustainability in the apparel industry during the 1990s, spending time in South Korea and surrounding nations.

“Living in the United States, we don’t really see the factory, how it works and the impact it is having on the environment. It took me to see the dark side of the apparel manufacturing industry, “she said.

Since then, Lee has devoted his life’s work to reshaping the apparel industry.

In 2017, Lee and his team challenged the way the company views textiles by creating a fermented green tea-based leather substitute. The product offers an insight into a possible solution for the reduction of natural resources.

“It is repurposing the existing byproduct to create a new material,” Lee said.

In the short term, Lee said the future of sustainability lies in integrating technology into the buying process.

This movement is already underway, with many brands using virtual try-on options and creating modularly designed clothing, otherwise known as garments, that can be taken apart for multiple purposes. Lee believes that personalizing garments will encourage consumers to forgo short-lived trends in favor of personal style.

“As consumers, we hold the power. Until we realize that fast fashion isn’t disappearing, ”Kunkel said.

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