In the last 20 years technology has advanced at an astronomical rate. With a few clicks of our keyboards, we can have products and packages arriving at our door the next day, feeding into our consumerist mindset; breeding a culture of want and desire, as opposed to what was formerly necessity.
Arguably as a direct result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Fashion retailers are being forced to bring out multiple products a week, simply to stay current and ‘on-trend’. Nowadays it is common for companies such as H&M and boohoo to get daily shipments of new styles, meanwhile Topshop introduces 400 styles a week onto its website. Collectively, large franchises like these produce around 52 ‘micro-seasons’ a year.
Cue fast fashion culture: inexpensive clothing, produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Much like the chicken and the egg debate, many people argue which came first: the desire for fresh looks at an alarming rate, or the industry’s top players convincing us that we are behind the trends before the models finished walking down the runway.
So where did this fad first appear? And how, in such a short space of time, has it spun so out of control?
The industrial revolution saw the advancements of textile technologies, like the sewing machine, allowing for a quicker and cheaper production of clothes. Dress making shops emerged, catering for the wealthy middle class, with teams of workers behind the scenes working maximum hours for minimum pay. Sweatshops were born.
The first major garment factory disaster was in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory. When fire broke out, in 1911, it tragically claimed the lives of 146 workers, many of whom were young, female immigrants.
Fast forward to post WWII, clothing in general was more expensive. According to the Times, the average household spent nearly 17% of their income on clothing, valuing quality over quantity and practicality over style. Today we spend less than 3% but typically have more garments than we have time or occasion to wear.
As technology progressed, and the economy once again improved, our creativity, dexterity, patience, and desire for individuality was swallowed by the most catastrophic pandemic of our time: laziness (a statement not used lightly in 2021). High fashion and street fashion quickly became synonymous with each other. It was no longer an elitist game. In turn, we not only became a generation of consumerist bigots, but we once again failed to recognise the value of all human beings; abandoning the lessons learned through our troubled history and reverting back to our exploitative ways.
April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza tragedy killed over 1100 garment workers in Bangladesh and wounded over 2200 more. The incident evoked questions all over the world about the ethics and morals behind huge global franchises, that had customers eating out of the palms of their hands for affordable goods.
Scandals were popping up in the press and outrage spread like wildfire. It became apparent, globally, that garment worker’s health was constantly being jeopardised through their long hours, lack of resources, exposure to harmful chemicals, and often physical abuse.
Author and journalist, Lucy Siegle summarised it perfectly in the documentary ‘The True Cost’, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying”.
With such urgency from the brand to get clothing to their crowd of customers, the manufacturing process leaves a lot to be desired and each piece of clothing is often thrown away after no more than a few wears. Each year, over 300,000 tonnes of clothing waste hits UK landfills. Yet so many of us continue to fuel this negative society.
There are other costs to the planet too: full of lead, pesticides and other countless chemicals, these garments almost never break down, releasing toxic chemicals in the air and adding irreversibly to the global carbon and water footprint.
So, what is the alternative? Is there any hope for restoring our planet?
As a fashion lover myself and having spent the last year in the fashion capital: Paris, I have spent time researching alternative solutions to our fast fashion crisis. Vivienne Westwood beautifully restores hope to women and men alike with her infamous statement, “buy less, choose well, make it last.”
This ultimately translates to slow, sustainable and ethical fashion – an old trend regaining momentum in the fashion industry these past few years. Shop less, love the clothes you own, opt for second hand instead of new, buy from small independent designers and support companies that are committed to sustainable practises.
Most importantly, slow fashion is about re-evaluating our own relationship with fashion, by appreciating the clothes we already own, taking care of them, and finding new ways to wear them. Only buy new clothes when we need them, opting for better quality fabrics, and trying our best to source them responsibly.
Slowing down when it comes to fast fashion is a lifelong process. You don’t need to go on a wild purge of all the fast fashion in your wardrobe – that in itself isn’t sustainable. From now on simply be mindful of the purchases you make. This will take time and you will undoubtedly learn more as you go.
It is said that the younger millennials, along with generation z, the drivers of the future economy, may not be catching the fast fashion bug. Some have argued that this generation has “grown too clever for mindless consumerism, forcing producers to become more ethical, more inclusive, and more liberal”.
I am calling everyone, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, to participate in the fashion revolution and declare by our actions as well as our words that we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy the planet. With the climate clock ticking, and human lives in our hands, we will actively reject fast fashion and seek to promote sustainable and ethical fashion. To shop like our grandparents did in the past; now that’s the future!
By Isabelle Lepine