Trendy pieces of fashion have become more accessible to today’s middle class than ever before. Fast fashion brands profit from exploiting labor and creating pieces with toxic chemicals. Clothing has become disposable and the effects of this mindset has been detrimental to the environment.
The term “fast fashion” originated around the 1800s, but the cycle of fashion did not advance until the Industrial Revolution when the making of clothes was in done in a bulk range of sizes rather than made to order. The businesses producing these garments had a team of workroom employees, however, parts of the production was also distributed to those who worked at home for very low wages. This would become the structure of present-day clothing manufacturing.
At the beginning of the 20th century, fabrication of fashion was still mainly in home or at small workshops. Although there was an increasing amount of clothing factories and various innovations being made, garments were still relatively being made at a smaller scale. As World War II took place, the standardization in the creation of clothing made people more accustomed to this concept. Then, around the 1960s, people began to gravitate towards trendy clothing that was cheaply made and fashion brands took advantage. As more and more people wanted this type of clothing, brands had to outsource their labor in order to keep the prices affordable. This meant the U.S. and Europe had to sent their work to be done in developing countries by people who were being paid extremely low wages. Around the 1980s, the fashion industry began to change drastically. Clothing became more of a disposable commodity and people’s spending habits increased. Due to the poor quality of the garments, if a piece were to be ripped or stained, it would most likely end up being thrown away. Whereas before, one would try to mend to damage or wash it to be worn again. But with a low price tag comes a low appreciation for the garment itself, so they might as well buy a new one to replace it.
Some of the first fast fashion brands that came into the Western industry were H&M and Zara. H&M was established in 1947, first opening as Hennes in Sweden, but then later became H&M as it expanded into London and the U.S. Another fast fashion corporation is Zara, which was established in Spain in 1974. Zara’s impact on the fast fashion industry excelled the rate of production at a dizzying rate. Noted by the New York Times, “It would only take 15 days for a garment to go from the designer’s brain to being sold on the rack”. The acceleration of the manufacturing process paralleled the amount of time the consumer would wear the product. The more cheap clothing one owns, the more expendable the clothes become, creating a catastrophic amount of clothing in landfills. Thus starting the vicious cycle of dispensable clothing.
Zara was the pioneer of the fast fashion model. Starting with the vertical integration of control with all of their production, design, and distribution all in house, it helped organize the costs and optimize the production. And of course, in order to adhere to the brisk motion of the empire they created, they outsourced their labor to developing countries to cut the costs. The exploitation of the workers ranges from child labor to forcing workers to use dangerous chemicals. Not only this, but the plastics and other chemicals put into these polyester fabrics shed when put into the wash and end up in our water cycle. To add to the pollution of water, the toxic chemicals and dyes used to treat clothing have been linked to miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer. The fashion industry contributes to 10% of the global carbon footprint, adding to the effects of climate change.
I first took interest in this topic when I was entering high school. I went to a suburban public school in Cleveland, Ohio and everyone was trying to fit in with what they were wearing. Much of what girls wore was from Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, and American Eagle; it was all homogenized. I had grown up on hand-me-downs and thrifted items because that was all we could afford. I would go to my friends’ houses and they would have obscene amounts of clothing, I could not believe it. Some pieces I had never even seen them wear. When I asked them why they had such a vast amount, they said, “Well some pieces I buy specifically for certain events and I don’t like to repeat my outfits. Plus, I shop for bargains.” I remember thinking how weird this mindset was, to only buy certain clothes for specific events. I had been taught growing up that I only needed the basics and then a few other pieces. However, this was common among friends of mine and among many people across the world. As I began to wonder more about what made these clothes so cheap and what made others more expensive, I read more and watched videos on the subject. Learning about this exploitative industry broke my heart. How could we as a culture prioritize our own superficial desires instead of one’s life?
To combat this damaging industry, I personally believe that we as consumers should support more sustainable fashion brands such as Patagonia, Reformation, Everlane, and many more. If buying from those brands is too expensive, then go thrift shopping and find pieces that have a story. I also think that we should stop thinking of our clothing as this disposable item, but instead work on revamping it or mending it. From a design perspective, I believe that filling the fashion industry with more sustainable brands is needed. There should not be a handful of brands responsible for representing and making ethical clothing. Well-made garments that are versatile and sustainable will shift the fashion industry.
For this project, I wanted to solve two problems in one and make an object that helped fix the fast fashion industry. In my final project, I collected plastic bags from all of my friends, people in classes, and neighbors. Throughout my research, I found many discrepancies within toxic textiles and wanted to attempt to create a more sustainable option. And so, I took the plastic bags that I collected and cut them into loops to hand crochet them into a textile that can be used for experiencing homelessness to use as a sleeping mat. Within this design, I also made it an option to transform into a poncho to protect those from the cold and weather.