The short-lived benefits of fast fashion

The short-lived benefits of fast fashion

Photo Credits: JOELLE TAHTA / AGGIE

The ugliness of fast fashion is no secret, but where does that leave consumers?

Americans have a shopping problem, and it’s easy to see why consumerism has skyrocketed. Major retailers are now mass producing fashionable and trendy clothes so fast that consumers are overwhelmed with a plethora of options. But as many know, fast fashion comes with environmental and ethical costs that greatly outstrip the benefit of engaging in such a rampant consumer culture.

Sustainability has become a key talking point within the fashion industry in recent years and for good reason. The manufacturing process requires intense water consumption and uses various chemicals and hazardous materials, polluting rivers and other bodies of water. But what’s more astounding is what happens to the clothing once it’s been manufactured. “Each year over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide,” according to Greenpeace. Of the clothing produced, three-fourths will end up in the landfill or be incinerated and only a quarter will be recycled.

Albeit shocking, these figures are just a surface-level look into the complex web of consumption patterns and corporate behaviour. 

I was really excited to see H&M roll out its Garment Collecting Program and Conscious Collection, which promised to put sustainability at the forefront of its business model. I now had a place to send my jeans that were too torn for charity donations and could get a 15% coupon for my very eco-conscious actions — what I thought was a “win-win.” Ironically, however, such programs are likely counterproductive to the goal of sustainability. 

The 15% discount is a smart marketing trick that boosts consumerism and protects the company’s profit margins. I gave H&M old sweaters that I was bored of and jeans that had gone out of style only to use the 15% discount and come out of the store with new sweaters and jeans. Although H&M has made strides toward more sustainable practices and may genuinely aspire to be a part of the solution, they are still not the eco-conscious company they’ve marketed themselves to be.

Our consumer culture also plays a heavy hand in supporting the fast fashion industry. Demand for trendy yet cheap clothing allows for retailers like Zara and H&M to continue operating their business in such an environmentally unsustainable fashion. For many, however, fast fashion can be more important than a meaningless shopping spree — it allows people to get the clothing they need at an affordable price. 

Patagonia is one of the most sustainable and ethical clothing companies, but their prices, however reflective of the product’s quality, make their clothing unaffordable for many. 

The issue with fast fashion lies within the name itself — production is fast and longevity is short. These businesses are modeled to create clothing that is disposable, bringing consumers back to buy new clothes frequently. But it’s hard to know what the appropriate response to this problem is when prices are alluringly affordable, and there is lots of contradictory information on the scope of the problem and its solutions. 

A number of varying responses have manifested within the fashion industry itself. At last year’s G7 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron debuted his Fashion Pact, headed by Kering chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault, bringing together some of the biggest names in fashion to collaborate in making substantive, long-lasting change. Then, there was the instance of many brands at Paris Fashion Week directly incorporating themes of the environment and climate into their shows. 

While such initiatives are commendable, we also need to hold retailers and clothing companies accountable for destructive and problematic manufacturing and supply chain problems that make the industry so unsustainable. This isn’t just a problem for the fast fashion retailers that produce cheap, affordable clothing — luxury brands like Hermès and Dior have much work to do. The pervasiveness of sustainability issues in an industry as impactful as fashion is a clear sign that long lasting solutions are urgently needed. 

Written by: Simran Kalkat — skkalkat@ucdavis.edu

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