Kathryn De Vries
May 17, 2020
When people hear the term ‘fast fashion’, the first thing that comes to mind is not labor exploitation or forced labor—but maybe these days it should be. Over the past decade, the fashion industry has gone through several significant changes with the way in which clothes are manufactured, shipped, sold and used due to the increasing popularity of fast fashion brands such as Forever 21 and H&M. Many of these brands have been well-known and loved for years, but only recently come under fire by the growing eco-friendly and sustainable fashion movement for the ethical and environmental concerns raised from the production of their products. Not only are these concerns problematic, first and foremost, for the employees of fast fashion brands involved with the actual production of this clothing, but it is also a reason of concern for consumers.
The term ‘fast fashion’ refers to “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” This sector of the fashion industry is directly related to the developing consumer-based culture of today’s society, as most fast fashion brands’ purpose is to meet the demands of quickly evolving trends. Social media has heavily influenced this rapid spread of the latest trends, as consumers are now able to observe and participate in fashion trends almost immediately via online shopping. And thanks to the numerous fast fashion brands worldwide, online shopping for clothes to meet the latest fashion trends has never been easier. As the pace that today’s trends continue to spread at increases, consumers are left feeling they must buy immediately, or be left out completely.
Speed seems to be the name of the game as this phenomenon around fast fashion represents the intersection between merchandising expertise and supply chain performance. The two must work together as fast as possible in order to enhance sales margins for these fast fashion companies. Fast fashion increases the number of collections per calendar year causing global supply chains to have more ramifications involved with their lead times and product quality assurance as well. This makes executing these programs at a high level of speed even more essential as these added complexities can slow down the production and sale of fast fashion brands’ product substantially. The heightened anxiety around speed is also emphasized through most fast fashion brands’ primary concern of selling clothes in line with the most recent trends as quickly as possible. The price for speed for these brands seems to be quite low as many have tried to combat these production complexities by utilizing geographically-disparate low-cost suppliers to keep the cost of goods low. The price the production workers of these fast fashion brands pay, however, is invaluable.
As fast fashion brands export their production overseas to maximize their bottom lines, they are simultaneously contributing to the inadequate protection of workers in the countries where their production warehouses live. Many of these countries do not have adequate labor laws and if they do, they are oftentimes not enforced. To make matters worse, the governments of a majority of these countries are corrupt, making it challenging to enforce any existing labor laws, thus adding to the cycle of labor exploitation. Numerous cases of children working in the warehouses of fast fashion brands with unsafe conditions and mandatory overtime have been reported and continue to be. One of the most notable instances of the unstable conditions of the fashion industry’s warehouses comes from Bangladesh when a building collapsed in May of 2013 killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring at least 2,000.
The combination of elements for disasters like this comes directly from the fast fashion industry’s constant demand for low-cost labor and high sales margins, paired with fast fashion brands’ insistence on exporting their production from poorer nations. Both these elements construct a system of willing complicity and corruption between fast fashion companies and the governments of these nations overseas. Although this notion is concerning enough, consumers are continuing to support these fast fashion companies and are contributing to the forced labor of workers in these nations.
Instead of strengthening corporate and government corruption, an alternative to buying from fast fashion brands is to buy from shops with ethically sourced goods. By turning to other retailers with these types of products, consumers can help send the message to fast fashion companies that they will not support them unless conditions for their laborers will get better. Doing so will also force fast fashion companies to restructure their production methods and be able to focus on ethical means of production instead. Ultimately, the simple choice of where to buy your clothes could mean the difference between life or death for a laborer in one of the nations affected by the impact of fast fashion. Take some time to think about where your money is going.
Kathryn De Vries (@kathryndevries) is an Advertising Creative junior focusing on a concentration in copywriting. Her passion for storytelling is evident amongst her various projects as a writer, editor, brand strategist and designer. When she’s not busy working, you can find her exploring her love for craft beer at any of the local breweries around the Lansing area.