What is the meaning of fast fashion and why is it a problem today? We discuss the social impacts of the fashion industry.
For years, I’ve been a victim who suffered from oniomania (a.k.a compulsive buying disorder) when it came to fashion. I’ve come across people, friends, and relatives who suffered from this syndrome too. For instance, I’d buy 10 different pairs of low priced jeans just for the sake of having more diversity in my wardrobe, even though I may only end up wearing two or three of them. When we’re in a mall, I find it hard to resist the temptation of buying clothes especially when there are multiple new released crop tops! To sum up, I’d end up unsuccessful in resisting the urge of purchasing them and I find myself falling into the same exact loophole of the fashion community.
However, when the truth of fast fashion unfolded, I immediately changed my outlook on fashion. Two years ago, I stumbled across a video on Youtube regarding fast fashion and the effects that it could bring to the world. Having the negative effects of fast fashion scarred my mind, I took an initiative to take action and be more cautious when purchasing clothes. So how did I convince myself to shift from a fast fashion mindset to dressing sustainably?
In this article, I’ll explain the meaning of fast fashion and its impact and how it differs from sustainable fashion. I’ll also be sharing some sustainable fashion brands in Malaysia for you to check out to adopt a more sustainable approach to fashion!
Fast fashion is a term which is used to describe clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to take advantage of trends.
Recently, this term has come to signify cheap, accessible, and on-trend clothes sourced through global production chains and sold through chains such as H&M, Zara, Forever 21, etc.
Fast fashion describes low-priced but stylish clothing that moves quickly from design to retail stores to meet trends, with new collections being introduced continuously.
So, how exactly is it affecting people?
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 260 million children were in employment, with 170 million engaged in child labour.
The United Nations states, child labour exploitation happens when the child working is too young, and is below the required minimum age, and when the working condition is detrimental in nature.
Child labour is one of the main social effects caused by fast fashion. The increasing demand of fast fashion has made it challenging for humanitarian organisations to make systemic changes to the industry to support human rights.
Hence it’s a major problem in the fashion industry because the voice of youths easily go unnoticed, which tends to lead them under the radar, acting as easy targets to be exploited by employers.
The lack of education for these children has led to a lack of other developmental skills to continue onto higher education. The lack of knowledge and skills to pursue other lines of work forces them to be contented with low paying jobs. Since much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour, these tasks are considered ‘better suited’ to children than adults. For instance, employers will hire children for their small fingers when picking cotton to not damage the crop. These children are subjected to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and are often paid below the minimum wage.
In Uzbekistan, children are subjected to long hours and exposed to pesticides whereas in Bangladesh, children work with dangerous chemicals and machines.
Hence, sustainable fashion is vital as it teaches consumers to practise turning to shops with ethically sourced goods. And recently, consumers are sending the message to fast fashion companies that they demand ethical sourcing and garment transparency.
Moving on, a concern for workers who suffer from poor working conditions and hazards comes from fast fashion. The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that globally, around 35% to 40% of workers are not paid the legal minimum. The lack of human rights in these factories and the exploitation of foreign workers is inherently racist, as a lot of fast fashion brands rely on the unfair treatment of workers from other countries in order for them to make a profit. Brands have created a production model which keeps garment workers poor and working in unsafe conditions in order to maximise their own profits.
In fast fashion, the Rana Plaza incident. It was early in the workday, the power to the building cut off, the cracks widened, and concrete fell onto workers sewing, buttoning, and fastening clothes. These disasters arise from poor labour conditions faced by workers in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh. Exposed every day to an unsafe work environment, high incidence of work-related accidents and deaths. The main reasons for the collapse of the Rana Plaza include occupational diseases and engineering and administrative failure.
Thirdly, fast fashion has also brought about gender, racial, and class inequalities. How did gender inequality derive from fast fashion? A common example would be that most brands find a way to capitalise the word ‘feminist’ without supporting the women who make their clothes. Furthermore, the Labour Behind the Label campaign informs us that approximately 80% of garment workers are women aged 18-35, and many of these workers are underpaid and overworked.
Gender inequalities can also be proven according to the International Ladies Garment Workers Unite Movement where most male managers prefer hiring women, believing that they are meek, and willing to work more hours despite having little pay.
So, how are racism and fast fashion intricately linked to each other? Evidence of racial inequality can be seen where millions of black and brown people who make our clothes in factories thousands of miles away bear the heaviest burden. In the UK, as much as 1,245,000 tons of clothing was purchased, equivalent to 38 pounds per individual. The problem lies when buyers aren’t aware of the unwitnessed and back-staged production of these clothes — lowly paid garment workers working overtime in unsafe, cramped, dirty, and poorly ventilated factories.
According to Garment Workers United, 85% of garment workers earn at a piece rate between 2 to 6 cents (approximately RM0.80 to RM2.00) per piece of clothing produced whereas most of them are paid 300 dollars (nearly RM1000) from working 60-70 hours a week. In the end, we don’t realise the devastating impacts which fall on black and brown bodies as we unconsciously overspend and then throw these clothes away as soon as we lose their attraction.
All in all, it’s evident that the ever-augmenting fast fashion industry gives rise to various social effects. Therefore, how can we develop a more sustainable approach in our daily choices when it comes to fashion?
The answer to this is to start dressing sustainably. Oftentimes, the face of sustainability is someone white. However, we shouldn’t forget that sustainability should be for people of all colours.
Sustainable fashion is the opposite of fast fashion, which can be defined as clothing that’s consciously designed, created, distributed, and utilised in a manner that’s environmentally friendly. It’s a movement and process to foster change in the fashion industry to instill greater ecological integrity and social justice.
The sustainable fashion industry is not just understanding fashion textiles or products but also how clothing is produced, who produces it, and how long the lifespan of a product is before it reaches the landfill. Slow fashion is also an alternative against fast fashion. Slow fashion considers the raw materials, the environment, human labour, etc that’s required in order to make clothes ethically. In a way, slow fashion is sustainable by not viewing products as disposable. Slow fashion helps to reduce air pollution, water pollution, and overall climate change which could potentially prevent millions of premature deaths over the next century. Fast fashion and sustainable fashion both project dissimilar views and impacts on our globe!
Here are some local brands which support sustainable fashion:
The brainchild of Biji-biji Initiative, it’s a social enterprise which was established in 2013 in Malaysia. Their signature products are bags and accessories upcycled from faulty seat belt webbings, deadstock vintage kimono, tarpaulin banners, and needle punch carpets recovered at their end-of-life stages. They ensure safe hygienic working environment, fair wage, and no forced or child labour in the making of their garments.
Founded by Deborah Henry in 2017, is a mission driven social enterprise created to champion for children and youth seeking refuge in Malaysia. As a women-led conscious jewelry brand aiming to educate, employ, and empower refugee children and youth, Fugeelah is devoted to quality, and dedicated to sustainable sourcing, fair wages, and give-back initiatives that make an impact.
Founded by Dianna in 2018, they take pride in being mindful of their production processes, working with underprivileged women to empower, ensure safe and fair working environments with flexible hours and fair wages. They’re known for their easy breezy, casual, and minimalistic linen wear dresses, blouses, and jumpsuits.
Now that you know of the social impacts of fast fashion, I hope this article will help you to be more mindful and conscious when you pick up your next outfit in the store! Stay tuned as we’ll be covering more impacts of fast fashion and how fashion can become sustainable!
Michelle Lee Shu Ling is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at Taylor’s University. She’s a Director of Taylor’s Model United Nations who enjoys writing from time to time!
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