Fast Fashion: An opportunity for social justice

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With the holiday season around the corner, students may be looking forward to receiving on-trend clothes or gift cards for popular clothing stores as presents this year. However, the term “fast fashion” has been grabbing the attention of many consumers in recent years, resulting in heightened awareness and concern for where clothes come from and where they end up.

Fast fashion is a term used to describe retailers that churn out new styles very frequently to capture the ever-changing trends of the fashion industry.

“In the last couple decades, companies created this new way of fashion where instead of having two to four seasons a year, you have fifty to a hundred micro-seasons,” English teacher Ms. Amanda Case said.

Retailers such as Forever 21 and H&M have become wildly popular among today’s teens for their frequent additions of new styles and their almost impossibly low prices. A basic T-shirt at H&M can be priced as low as $5.

“A lot of us will buy things when they’re in style and then stop using them when they’re out of style which causes an excessive amount of clothes we don’t really use,” senior member of Green Team Neha Iyer said.

While the prices initially seem like a great deal, they come with implications.

“Fast fashion is made poorly on purpose so you keep buying new items,” senior Marianna Rojas said. “It’s a thing that fashion retailers have admitted. You’re only supposed to get about 10-12 wears in a typical item from Forever 21 or H&M so you go back and buy another cheap item.”

Rojas wrote her junior English research paper on fast fashion and has gained extensive knowledge about the consequences, especially the environmental implications.

“Fast fashion is the second worldwide producer to pollution, second only to big oil,” Rojas said. “The reason fast fashion is so cheap is because the industry uses unsustainable, cheap materials that are produced using fossil fuels.”

Unsustainable production of clothes leads to the waste of other resources as well.

“One cotton T-shirt that is manufactured unsustainably takes 700 gallons of water [to produce],” Ms. Case said.

In the United States, 13 trillion tons of clothes flood landfills, as only 10% of all donated clothes are resold (Forbes). Despite claims that clothes are often decomposable, that is not always the case.

“Cotton, linen, silk and wool…will take decades to break down,” Ms. Case said. “Synthetic fibers like polyester or other plastic fabrics take over 200 years in a landfill to break down.”

Yet another consequence of fast fashion–and one that seems to be the most controversial–is the use of child labor and mistreatment of workers in factories overseas by American fashion retailers, who turn to these unethical factories to make clothes for much cheaper and within a tighter time frame. Consumers may not be aware that by supporting fast fashion retailers they are also supporting the oppression of human beings, especially women.

“Oftentimes, factories are poorly ventilated or they don’t have running water,” Ms. Case said. “80% of the workforce for the garment industry is women, [who are often] raped, sexually harassed or physically abused. [They are often] hiding pregnancy because they don’t want to be fired from their job.”

Child labor and below-living wages are also rampant in many factories, many of them located in Asia (The Guardian).

“Kids who are poor are basically forced to work in factories to provide for their families,” Rojas said. “Instead of going to school, they’re in a factory working for 15-plus hours a day. Without an education, they can’t escape poverty.”

Even though these companies may be in violation of both human rights and preventative legislature, the ramifications they may face are generally scant.

“All of these fast fashion companies are violating basic human rights constantly and with impunity,” Ms. Case said. “The punishments don’t outweigh the perks of treating people poorly or violating their rights, because they’re making so much money that the slight fine that they’re getting for not having a factory up to par is not worth fixing.”

While fast fashion may initially seem like an overwhelmingly multifaceted problem to solve, there are multiple ways students can get involved.

“I host clothing swaps for the women faculty at Jesuit two or three times a year, where people will go and take clothes home from other women who donate clothes, and then you rewear [them],” Ms. Case said. The clothes we don’t take home, we donate to Rose Haven Women’s Shelter or Dress for Success.”

Ethical fashion may seem difficult for some students to support because it is significantly more expensive, but there are opportunities to purchase clothes that do not have the consequences that fast fashion does.

“Go thrift shopping,” Rojas said. “Many thrifted items are higher quality than newer items, because they were produced during a time where fast fashion wasn’t really a thing, so they were made with quality in mind over quantity.”