When you’re on a budget, there’s nothing quite as alluring as those big, red letters outside everyone’s favorite store at the mall: H&M. The same is true for the fluorescent signage above Forever 21 and the familiar red box that tells you you’re at Uniqlo. These stores are part of what’s called the fast fashion industry, and for a generation raised by economic recession and thrown into mountains of college debt, scoring comfortable leggings and on-trend summer dresses for under $20 feels like the ultimate steal.
And it is. If you’ve ever looked at price tags in designer boutiques, you know that you can basically get the same thing for a quarter of the price elsewhere. Sure, you might have to buy two of those inexpensive sweaters in the time that it’d take you to wear out the more expensive one, but even then it would cost significantly less.
But here’s the thing. The real cost of participating in the fast fashion machine has nothing to do with your checking account. One of the most unethical industries in the world, fast fashion contributes to the abuse and oppression of marginalized people in the developing world and it is wreaking havoc on our planet.
5. The Business Model
When you start thinking about the fast fashion business model, any ethical version of it that you could possibly imagine makes no sense. Every year, wages fail to catch up with growing global inflation, college debt in the U.S. buries millions of young people each year, and yet businesses like Forever 21 and H&M — which carry goods that we want but do not need in excess — continue to grow.
It’s true that consumerism, particularly in the Instagram and YouTube influencer age, is running rampant. It’s also true that because of rampant consumerism, people young and old are living well above their means. This certainly factors into the industry’s success. The key to understanding why the fast fashion business is booming even when its consumer base is in financial hardship, however, is on the back end.
A common misconception about how these stores are able to sell clothing at rock-bottom prices is primarily because they’re using cheap materials. This is partially true. If you’ve ever owned a piece from the $15-and-under rack from Forever 21, you know that you’re not exactly getting high-quality clothing. This is one contributing factor to such low costs, but it does not pull nearly as much weight in the equation as many believe.
Consider one of Forever 21’s newer ventures: F21 Red. Home to a line of Forever 21 basics like camisoles, underwear, and sweats, this is where you can score basic pieces for less than the cost of a Starbucks latte. That said, there is no material cheap enough to give the garment workers making this clothing an ethical, livable wage. According to investment banker and restructuring advisor Allan Ellinger, it is impossible to create a sustainable business model selling such cheap products without participating in an abusive system.
4. The Human Cost
It’s important to understand that the existence of fast fashion is predicated on glaring human rights violations. According to filmmakers behind eye-opening documentary The True Cost, 97 percent of clothing people in the developed world purchase is made overseas in developing nations. Fast fashion retailers rely on the work of approximately 40 million garment workers worldwide who do not make livable wages and do not have workplace protections against salary decrease, harassment, and even physical harm.
Furthermore, 85 percent of those 40 million garment workers are women, making this a dire women’s rights issue. The vast majority of clothing imported to the U.S. comes from Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, India, and various Central American nations. Looking at workers’ wages gives harrowing insight into why we’re able to purchase such cheap clothing.
In China, which is the world’s largest exporter of garments, garment workers make 93 cents per hour, which is the national minimum wage. It’s 52 cents in Vietnam, 68 cents in India, and 50 cents in Mexico. Most horrifying of all is the minimum wage in Bangladesh, which is the third largest garment exporter to the United States. A Bangladeshi garment worker can expect to make 21 cents per hour. That’s $1.68 per eight-hour day. What’s more is that this is even after a nationwide increase in the minimum wage.
And somehow, all of this is completely legal. Retailers in the developed world are not breaking any laws in the nations from which they purchase their stock, since workers are making the legal minimum wages in their respective countries.
Furthermore, there’s little incentive for legislators in these countries to raise wages to a livable number because their economies are so reliant on garment exports. If they were to raise wages, they would lose their biggest clients in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom when they take their unethical business elsewhere.
3. The Breaking Point
The conversation about ethical fashion came to a head in 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,135 people.
This factory supplied clothing to retailers like JC Penney, Walmart, The Children’s Place, Primark, and Zara, among others. Conditions in the building were so atrocious that it eventually could no longer sustain its own weight, especially since the property it sat on was swampy and should have been deemed unfit for building. Over a thousand garment workers making just over a dollar per day were crushed beneath it.
Plaza owner Sohel Rana, along with 40 other defendants, faced charges ranging from murder to aiding and abetting a criminal (namely Rana himself when he tried to flee the scene). The people making the clothing we buy at fast fashion stores do not make enough money to feed themselves and their children. Many are homeless. Many of them die. This is the real price of what we’re purchasing.
2. The Environmental Cost
Fast fashion is also one of the world’s leading producers of waste. The True Cost documentarians note that people worldwide consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year, which is a 400 percent increase from what we consumed just two decades ago. The average American also produces 82 pounds of textile waste every single year, meaning that we’re discarding cheap, worn-out, off-trend pieces of clothing at an alarming rate.
Because much of what we purchase is of such low quality, it doesn’t last, and with new trends circulating season after season, what was cool one day is out of style the next. With YouTubers and Instagram models telling us to buy, buy, and buy some more, we’ve become accustomed to wearing pieces one or two times before ultimately tossing them. It’s a wasteful cycle that contributes to a global trash bubble that’s about to burst.
Garment production, particularly through the use of genetically modified cotton, also poses a huge environmental risk. Cotton cultivation is responsible for 18 percent of global pesticide use and a staggering 25 percent of insecticide use. These chemicals then make their way into water supplies near factories, which are most often located in low-income areas both domestically and abroad. The fast fashion industry poses an imminent threat to global sustainability.
1. How We Can Do Better
The good news is that it’s becoming easier and easier for us to become more ethical consumers. First, just don’t consume as much. Find timeless staple pieces that transition from season to season. Classic black cigarette pants and high-quality blouses never go out of style. Look for trends that you can see yourself loving even when they’re out of fashion on Instagram.
Second, become one with second-hand shopping. ThredUp, for example, is an online thrift store where you can find clothes from fast fashion retailers you love like Zara and Forever 21 that are gently used or even brand new. You save money and you can even sell gently used items you’re not wearing anymore directly to ThredUp so someone else can give them a home.
Luxury consignment is also available for people with more expensive taste through retailers like TheRealReal. These sites sell high-end designer pieces that are gently used, which saves you a ton of money and doesn’t contribute to wasteful practices.
Third, sell and donate. Have some pieces in your closet that are collecting dust? Sort them into donating and selling piles. Places like women’s shelters and charity stores are always looking for clothing donations. For like-new pieces, selling to consignment shops — both online and brick-and-mortar — is a great option that can actually make you a few bucks.
If all else fails, start doing some research on more ethical fashion brands. It’s true you may need to spend a bit more on clothing from stores like Reformation, Everlane, Able, and more – but certain retailers are betting against fast fashion, and you can consider it an investment in the future – both for yourself (these pieces should last longer than your F21 buys), and for the future of the world.
Of all the issues facing humanity and our world, this is one that we can rectify. The clothing we buy should never, ever come at the cost of another person’s basic human rights, and we have the power to change this deadly system.