The fast fashion fallacy: Hidden costs of the clothing industry


As the sun sets behind the factory’s cracked windows, pungent scents of fabric dye and sweat trickle through the heavy air; the only scrap of light remaining in the room is from a singular source, the LED light of a rusty sewing machine. Crowded behind a small desk is a young laborer, no older than 15; the bulb on her machine illuminates the most valuable thing in the whole room, a flimsy garment.

A scenario like this may seem impossible to most people in the Western world, which highlights that fast fashion is a truly global phenomenon. Labor for clothing mostly comes from countries such as Bangladesh and China; in contrast, according to Forbes, the largest market is the United States, which accounts for over 40% of the purchases made from Shein, arguably the crown jewel of the modern-day fashion industry.

Consumers of fast fashion have perpetuated overconsumption, scarily low wages, hostile work environments and the mentality that clothing should be thrown out just because it’s out of fashion.

The clothing industry has continuously proven to be one of the biggest ethical dilemmas of the 21st century, which poses the question, to what extent is society willing to go for affordable prices? 

The Instability and Rise of Fast Fashion 

To understand why fast fashion has taken the industry by storm, one must understand the fashion cycle. Defined by five separate stages, the fashion cycle decides when trends rise and when they fall, starting with the introduction of new fads and ending with obsolescence, according to Masterclass.

Typically, clothing manufacturers release new collections two to three times per year, but brands that focus on the latest trends follow no such schedule, according to Investopedia. They simply observe consumer patterns to understand what sells and what doesn’t. 

The rise of fast fashion is aligned with the strategic new use of influencer marketing strategies; when a social media figure receives a brand deal from a fast-fashion company, they partner with the brand to promote products on their platforms, according to The Daily Utah Chronicle.

This method of marketing garners hundreds of thousands of views, inevitably resulting in an influx of traffic to websites; this is especially true if a company can provide said influencer with a discount code that’s so exceptional it practically screams “I’m too good to be true.”

Fast fashion companies are the main source of brand deals because they have the budget to pay for public endorsements; most of these retailers operate through an online-only forum in which clothing is available at the click of a button. Whereas many producers that value ethical methods don’t have the abilities and influence to utilize such marketing methods.

People are blinded when they see an alluring price tag; it’s too hard to take a step back and question why a shirt could possibly cost $3. The influence of social media has certainly accelerated this problem, when everyone who’s anyone is seemingly doing the same thing, making purchase after purchase, viewers are bound to do the same.

Clothing “hauls” gain at least a few hundred thousand views every time they are posted, emphasizing that people want to be told what’s in and what’s not. Young and fashion-savvy social media users look towards influencers, and influencers look towards whatever brand is willing to fund their next social media project. 

The Correlation Between Unethical Labor and Wearability

Fast fashion retailers can quickly stock new trends because their sole focus is providing consumers with products that have taken their Instagram feed by storm. Rather than tailoring their inventory to a specific audience, trend-focused sites quickly replicate popular items through the use of unethical labor practices, allowing them to sell their products at extremely low costs, ultimately persuading consumers to click the “check out” button without a second thought, according to Eco Watch

Overconsumption and poor labor practices are part of the same cyclical issue, the root of which is what happens in the sweatshops of many big-name retailers.

According to The Conversation, the infamous Dhaka factory collapse of 2013 has repeatedly been labeled the “worst-ever industrial accident” of the clothing industry, a tragic event in which over 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,600 others were injured. Perhaps the most alarming factor of this was that the collapse was a ticking time bomb that could have been prevented, had the factory owners valued the lives of their employees enough.

Regulations in countries that house clothing factories allow employers to overwork people to the extreme. The employer in the Dhaka factory had been informed that the building was undergoing maintenance issues yet still failed to identify this as an alarming enough reason to halt production, according to The Guardian. Time and time again this industry has proven that financial gain trumps basic human rights. 

Garments are hastily put together in a matter of minutes, which is responsible for the low wearability, according to The Pretty Planeteer. Although buying a couple of items from a store like Zara or H&M may seem to be a great deal, consumers are actually not getting the most value for their money, because of the very short-lived nature of microtrends and the poor quality of garments shoppers quickly get rid of their new garments, according to Ethical Consumer.

Features like free express shipping are offered after the shopper spends a significant amount of money. This is one of the other small things that is viewed as a mere convenience to the consumer but in reality is a contributor to the overconsumption of clothing, a driving force of the negative work environment that laborers experience. According to Sustain Your Style, they are forced to work from anywhere between 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week so that they can keep up with the demand of their employer. 

Is Fast Fashion Actually Affordable? 

When shopping on fast fashion websites, people typically buy clothes in large quantities because they believe that they’re getting an unparalleled deal, but in reality, the opposite is true. If a customer is purchasing a $20 shirt, the true cost for production is likely no more than a few dollars, according to Vogue. Furthermore, the workers that make these clothes won’t see more than a few cents. Consumers are deceiving themselves by shopping with fast fashion companies 

To enlighten customers about the high price of fast fashion, sustainable retailers have taken a new approach known as Cost Per Wear, which shows the true value of a garment, according to Clever Girl Finance. Comparing the polar ends of the fashion industry, a made-to-order clothing company like Mirror Palais actually offers more reasonable prices than a store like Zara.

For example, a shirt that’s valued at $80 from Mirror Palais is a better deal than a shirt from Zara that’s valued at $30; a  garment that an individual invests in will naturally get more wear, therefore lowering the total CPW, giving more value to the piece.

How Can Consumers Shop More Responsibly?

Although it may be tempting to snag up a cart full of clothes for what may be perceived as a fair price, it’s important to take into consideration that the amount of wear that each garment gets is a better indicator of value.

Even without fast fashion, shopaholics can still generate their dream wardrobe. Some simple steps include buying quality clothing to eliminate the need to constantly purchase new clothing, shopping from retailers whose products are ethically sourced, and buying or renting secondhand clothing. 

For consumers, it’s important to have a balance between affordability and quality, but the implications that come with fashion often end up getting overlooked in the process. However, it’s imperative that people take into consideration that shopping at certain retailers may not be as affordable as it seems, not only in cost but also ethically.


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