Breaking Up With Fast Fashion

 by Dahlia Stebbins-Sharpless                                                       

Fashion is an important aspect of human identity, and clothes are one of the many ways to express individuality. Fashion trends can also be an identifier of significant periods of history, demonstrated by the bell bottom craze in the 1970s, poodle skirts associated strongly with the 1950s, and flapper dresses donned by many during the 1920 prohibition. Unfortunately, given the rise of the internet and the introduction of online shopping, consumers can now purchase clothing from companies around the world and shop as frequently as they’d like. Among various environmental consequences, this contributes heavily to carbon emissions. Fast fashion, or inexpensive clothing produced rapidly in response to the latest trends, contributes to 10% of global carbon emissions.[1] Fast fashion also has harsh social consequences. Defined by a rise in clothing production and the ability to sell these items inexpensively, fast fashion has been made a reality thanks to unethical labor practices. Fortunately, the passage of acts, such as the FABRIC act, which strive for stricter regulation of clothing production, may simultaneously target sweatshop-like working conditions and slow fast fashion’s environmental consequences.

Over the last 30 years, clothing production from popular brands like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 has spiked, corresponding with the emergence of fast fashion. The quantity of clothing produced per year on average has skyrocketed, with a 45% increase in global textile production from 1975 to 2018.[2] The lead time, or the time it takes for a product to go from design to ready for purchase, is also a good indicator of unprecedented mass production and purchase. In 2012, the lead time at Zara was 2 weeks, Forever 21 6 weeks, and H&M 8 weeks.[3] With increased production comes increased waste, and 85% of all textiles produced per year end up in the dump.[4] Furthermore, textiles thrown in the dump are the furthest thing from eco friendly. Almost 70% of all clothes are derived from a form of plastic, such as nylon, polyester, or acrylic, which take hundreds of years to biodegrade.[5] As a result, The fast fashion industry contributes greatly to pollution. A 2017 report done by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean originate from synthetic textiles.[6]

            The increase of mass clothing production over the last 30 years and the birth of fast fashion is not something that could develop ethically. Fast fashion brands are able to mass produce clothes on such a large scale quickly and cheaply by violating labor laws, like child labor exploitation and unlivable wages. In 2011, the contractor responsible for 90% of Zara’s Brazilian production was found guilty of employing people in sweatshop conditions. AHA, the aforementioned contractor, required employees to work 16 to 19 hour days, with one of the fourteen workers investigated being 14 years old. Most employees were Bolivian and Peruvian migrant workers, many in debt to their traffickers.[7] Zara is not alone, as other household names have been found responsible for unethical labor practices. Forever 21 has been found responsible for paying far below minimum wage. One worker, Pedro Montiel, is paid $4.50 an hour to apply labels to products. There is a common misconception that sweatshops are a problem unique only to developing countries with looser labor laws, and America is exempt from these practices. Contrarily, Montiel is not halfway around the world– he works in the basement of a building in downtown Los Angeles.[8]

Upon considering the dire environmental and social implications of fast fashion, federal regulation of textile production is necessary. One such example is the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, introduced to the Senate by Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) in 2022. This act, which aims to accelerate domestic apparel manufacturing and implement new workplace regulations, is still in discussion.[9] These two components of the FABRIC act, which target unethical labor practices, would also minimize the environmental consequences of fast fashion.

To begin with, the FABRIC Act aims to shift textile production to the United States, incentivizing brands to produce clothing domestically. This Act proposes a $40 million Domestic Garment Manufacturing Support Program, which would provide grants to domestic manufacturers for equipment costs and safety improvements. Additionally, The FABRIC act introduces a 30% reshoring tax credit to manufacturers who move manufacturing to the US.[10] An increase in domestic manufacturing would greatly diminish the emissions related to product shipments from offshore manufacturers to US stores, where the clothes would be sold. The FABRIC Act also aims to hold manufacturers exploiting legal loopholes accountable by setting an hourly pay rate in the garment industry and eliminating piece rate pay.[11] Currently, many manufacturers are able to pay workers far below a liveable salary by basing salary on how many garments are produced rather than establishing an hourly wage. In some cases workers are paid pennies for each garment produced. With the elimination of piece rate pay, workers would be paid a fair wage, consequentially raising the cost of production for manufacturers. As the cost of production increases, the price of products will also rise as manufacturers aim to make a profit. Because clothes produced by fast fashion brands are nonessential goods, it can be assumed that many consumers will opt to buy fewer items as the price of each item rises. Ultimately, the demand for clothing would fall and clothing production would follow suit. The FABRIC Act is not a final solution to the massive amount of emissions and waste produced by the fast fashion industry, and consumers can also make a difference by deciding to cut back on their individual spending habits. Nevertheless, implementation of policies that regulate clothing production, like the FABRIC Act, can slowly change the way we manufacture goods for the better while simultaneously addressing the environmental concerns of fast fashion 

[1] Maiti, R. (2024, March 4). Fast fashion: Its detrimental effect on the environment. Earth.Org.,of%2050%20billion%20plastic%20bottles

[2] Lindner, J. (2024, February 26). The most important fast fashion statistics [2024]. GITNUX.,tonnes%20a%20year%20by%202030  

[3] See note 1 above

[4] See note 1 above

[5] Plastic fashion pollution. Plastic Soup Foundation. (2023, June 29).

[6] Primary microplastics in the oceans. Primary microplastics in the oceans | IUCN Library System. (1970, January 1).

[7] “slave-like” Conditions at zara supplier. Clean Clothes Campaign. (2013, December 18).

[8] Kitroeff, A. (n.d.). Factories that made clothes for forever 21, Ross paid workers $4 an hour, Labor Department says. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

[9] The fabric act. The FABRIC Act. (n.d.).

[10] Ibid.

[11] See note 9 above

4 thoughts on “  Breaking Up With Fast Fashion

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post and how you connected environmental issues to social issues. Fast fashion is a problem that environmentalists have begun to talk about more and more as the quality of clothes decreases and more are ending up in the landfill. I really appreciate that you discussed that many of the clothes made today are derived from plastic which is something that I did not know until recently and something that many people do not realize. There are large concerns about plastic from plastic straws to microplastics so understanding that fabrics such as polyester and acrylic are actually made from plastic is one way to draw attention to this issue. The fabric act seems like a really great policy to tackle many of the social issues around fast fashion and inhumane working environments. However, I agree with your statement that it inevitably comes down to the consumer to purchase less and make conscious decisions around the clothes they are buying and what they are made of to reduce environmental impacts. While recycled materials is a possible solution for the fashion industry to reduce environmental impacts, there are quality concerns and health impacts that need to be addressed before moving forward with mass production of recycled materials. Lastly, I appreciated how you emphasized that sweatshop conditions are not a distant problem, that this practice is happening in the United States and is much more common than we think.

  2. I recently bought two shirts from Urban Outfitters for a total of $8 so I know that they must be producing their clothes for practically nothing for them to be able to profit with those prices. I often feel bad about how many of my clothes go to waste because they fall apart or no longer fit or are no longer “trendy,” but I had no idea that the amount of waste from textiles was that immense. I worry that low-income individuals will not have as many options to shop for clothes if fast fashion brands disappear, but it might mean that everyone’s clothes are higher quality and so last much longer, making shopping for clothes unnecessary. I wonder if the recent thrifting trend has helped with clothing waste significantly, because I do think there has been a popular movement to alter and re-style used clothing. I always see videos on Tiktok titled “come thrift with me!” Perhaps other sustainable practices and individual-level environmental protection efforts can be encouraged through social media. I feel like the fashion industry often escapes being labeled as environmentally harmful and am glad you decided to write about it! Well done!

  3. I really enjoyed this blog post. I remember learning about fast fashion after watching the True Cost in high school and I was shocked about how detrimental the industry is on both human and environmental health. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment about the urgency for fast fashion companies to address their accountability. I would argue big corporations guilt consumers and place blame on consumer actions while, partially true, corporations have the power to make the right choices that are ethically and environmentally sound but choose to prioritize profit and economic gain. In order fast fashion companies to genuinely address their accountability. Ultimately, the transformation of the fast fashion sector necessitates a collective commitment to change. I think we must hold big brands and ourselves accountable. The transformation of the fast fashion sector requires more than just surface-level changes; it demands a fundamental shift in values and priorities. By prioritizing transparency, upholding labor rights, adopting sustainable practices, and fostering collaboration, fast fashion companies can begin to address their accountability and create a more ethical and sustainable future for fashion

  4. I completely agree that fast fashion is an important environmental issue to be addressed. When discussing fast fashion, I think it is critical to have conversations about equity. In my view, customers who shop at fast fashion brands like Shein or H&M due to a limited budget are not the problem. Instead, influencers and partners of these brands who purchase and show off enormous hauls of clothing from these brands, despite having the money to shop more sustainably, should be held partially responsible. Of course, the main cause of environmental damage from fast fashion is capitalism, which encourages unsustainable and unethical business practices in pursuit of profit. I have been considering my own consumption habits recently, as I do enjoy the occasional shopping spree. I don’t typically have much luck thrifting in person, and I’m very picky, which can make shopping secondhand more difficult. One solution I have found is shopping second-hand online, which often offers more trendy options than in-person thrift stores. My favorite site currently is ThredUp, as I have been able to purchase secondhand clothes from my favorite brands, often still with tags on. The discounts make it an affordable and more sustainable alternative to buying brand-new clothes from fast fashion brands. I would be interested to see how much of an impact ThredUp has on customers’ carbon footprint compared to traditional online retailers.

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