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Published on: 12th July 2020
13th July 2020
Fast fashion is no new phenomenon; it has, in fact, been in existence for decades. Yet, since the early 2000s, fast fashion has come to dominate global economies as its popularity continues to spiral, with sustainable, high-quality clothing swept aside in favour of trendy, lower quality pieces which come at an equally low price point.
With the ability to invest in long-lasting, quality items of clothing often being restricted to those with the means and privilege to splurge, the growth of fast fashion seemed inevitable as it offered on-trend pieces to those with a lower budget, making once unattainable catwalk collections suddenly accessible to those with less disposable income.
Often replicating catwalk trends as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible, the success of fast fashion largely depends upon incessant consumer demand - and this cycle is one that is accelerating at an ever-increasing rate. In 2019, a House of Commons report revealed that the UK population buys more clothes per person than any other country in Europe - a reflection of the fast fashion industry’s dominance across the nation.
However, the ongoing success of fast fashion comes at the expense of both the environment and human wellbeing. The devastating impact of fast fashion on the planet has become widely known in recent years, with everything from production to packaging culminating in an overwhelming contribution to global heating. Something as seemingly minor as the branded printed tape attached to the packaging, for example, can hinder the process of recycling while releasing toxins into the atmosphere through adhesive manufacturing.
Overall, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the globe’s carbon emissions while also standing as the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. What’s more, perhaps the most critical aspect of fast fashion and its tendency to consist of low-quality material is its disposability and spurring of throw-away culture; Clothes Aid predicts that the level of waste per year accumulated as a result of fast fashion is enough to fill 459 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The industry’s perpetuation of human exploitation has also faced scathing criticism, with textile workers in global supply chains often working for less than minimum wage within precarious - sometimes life-threatening - environments. Yet, despite these well-known repercussions, fast fashion continues to thrive, with global apparel consumption predicted to rise by 63% by 2030.
That was, until the Coronavirus pandemic began to wreak havoc across the globe. With the arrival of Covid-19 has come unprecedented challenges, and the fast-fashion industry certainly has not been immune to this. With leading global supply chains in China and Bangladesh being forced to close and reduced demand for clothing as a consequence of economies coming to a resounding halt, the industry has been served a striking blow.
Regrettably, those bearing the brunt of this are not the corporations themselves but the overworked, low-paid, garment workers in low- to middle-income countries. Fast fashion’s reliance on cheap manufacturing has been cast under an unforgiving spotlight throughout the course of Covid-19, reinforcing the need for stricter regulations and a permanent shift in the operations of the industry. This must include prioritising the wellbeing, financial security and safety of such workers as Covid-19 has consolidated fast fashion’s reliance on their labour.
There is an urgent need for fast fashion retailers to become transparent about their supply chains. Throughout the current crisis, some of the globe’s leading fast fashion retailers have placed garment workers in jeopardy, increasing their risk of falling into destitution and further exploitation. Big brands such as Zara and Primark were recently found to have cancelled orders with their supply chains in light of the reduced demand and subsequently withheld payment for clothing that had already been made. This has provoked further criticism of the mechanisms of the industry, with many sustainable fashion advocates demanding that corporations treat garment workers with humanity and dignity.
One key proposal often presented as a way in which the industry could change direction is the move to a slow fashion model. In the wake of Covid-19, this seems both the most appropriate and pertinent time for this transition to be made. At present, the industry survives on a consumption model which functions in a similar manner to single-use plastic - clothing items from the likes of fast fashion eCommerce retailer Boohoo are, on average, reported to be discarded after just five weeks.
This endless cycle of excessive overconsumption must end in order to preserve both the planet and to reduce the pressure piled upon those who are drastically overworked as a result of such demand.
Now is the time for sustainable fashion to take the lead, paving the way for the future of the industry. Clothing ought to be designed and produced in a way that prioritises the ability to reuse and resell; throughout the manufacturing process, there must be a dedicated reduction in the use of water and fossil fuels; retailers must move to promote the concept of long-lasting, quality clothing without unnecessarily hiking costs.
But perhaps most importantly, fashion retailers must end the reliance on cheap manufacturing and must promote occupational safety and environmental health across their supply chains.
Covid-19 has been a tragic eyeopener for all, yet we can take some good from this crisis. Industries such as fast fashion can restructure and rebuild for a more sustainable future which prioritises both human and environmental wellbeing.
Article contributed by Holly Barrow, Content Writer & Political Correspondent
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