Beyond the Price Tag: What Does Fast Fashion Truly Cost?

Beyond the price tag

Fash­ion has always had a rapid cycle of trend turnover. Look­ing across his­to­ry, there seems to be a per­pet­u­al­ly shrink­ing gap between the obso­le­tion and reemer­gence of what’s con­sid­ered ‘trendy.’ In the past decade, we have seen shoul­der pads awak­en from their post-80’s grave and watched women reclaim a new­ly lib­er­at­ed ver­sion of the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry corset top. Bor­row­ing and blend­ing styles is part of what makes the chaot­ic evo­lu­tion of cou­ture so excit­ing. Fash­ion is sup­posed to move fast.

But how fast is too fast?

“Fast fash­ion” has recent­ly tak­en on a whole new mean­ing, emerg­ing as a way for con­sumers to chase high-fash­ion trend evo­lu­tions at low, afford­able mar­ket prices. This phe­nom­e­non gave rise to the fast-fash­ion giants of today, includ­ing Zara, For­ev­er 21, SHEIN, Top­Shop and H&M, who have mas­tered the process of fil­ter­ing micro-trends through the mar­ket at low-cost, high-speed pro­duc­tion rates.

Much like the shelf-life of these micro-trends, fast fash­ion brands are not just fast, but light­ning speed, with design-to-store turn­arounds as short as just 15 days. This lev­el of effi­cien­cy allows the brands to eas­i­ly switch out their col­lec­tions and present con­sumers with a wide vari­ety of con­stant­ly up-to-date options.

While the con­cept sounds allur­ing, there is much more to this craze than what con­sumers see while stand­ing in the Zara check­out line. The lack of trans­paren­cy dis­played by these brands leaves con­sumers with a flur­ry of unan­swered ques­tions– How are these clothes man­u­fac­tured so quick­ly? How do these com­pa­nies prof­it off of such low mar­ket prices? Where do these clothes go once their aston­ish­ing­ly brief shelf-life expires? And most impor­tant­ly– who is get­ting the short end of the stick?

The truth is, behind the scenes of these inces­sant­ly rapid trends, there is an even more rapid pro­duc­tion process, which relies on the use of low-wage, off­shore labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ly pol­lut­ing process­es and mate­ri­als. These truths have been well hid­den, but their con­se­quences are tan­gi­ble; Fash­ion has become the sec­ond most pol­lut­ing indus­try world­wide, behind only the oil indus­try.

Fast fash­ion shop­pers can hard­ly be blamed, as these mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar cor­po­ra­tions have well suc­ceed­ed at keep­ing their con­sumers in the dark. Accord­ing to the non-prof­it group Fash­ion Rev­o­lu­tion, only about 0.8% of the world’s lead­ing brands are trans­par­ent about the wages their work­ers earn. As these retail giants con­tin­ue to expand, so does the urgency for con­sumer aware­ness.  

To cre­ate change we must first start with the truth:

Social Impacts

“Fast fash­ion is not free. Some­one, some­where is pay­ing the price.” – Lucy Siegle

The astound­ing vari­ety of options, speed of trend fil­ter­ing and cheap mar­ket prices which con­sumers enjoy from fast fash­ion brands comes at a cost. A study con­duct­ed by The Clean Clothes Cam­paign on a Zara hood­ie reveals just how much. The research found that just a lit­tle over 1% of the hoodie’s mar­ket price end­ed up back in the pocket’s of the tex­tile fac­to­ry work­ers over­seas. While Zara racked up a net worth of near­ly 13.5 bil­lion US dol­lars in 2021, the work­ers who made the actu­al clothes were not even earn­ing liv­ing wages.

This mind-bog­gling dis­par­i­ty is part of what keeps the wheels of fast fash­ion turn­ing. Over­seas labor is con­ve­nient for these com­pa­nies because it is often cheap, unreg­u­lat­ed, and unpro­tect­ed by union affil­i­a­tions, large­ly account­ing for why today’s giant brands are able to offer such low mar­ket prices while still rack­ing up mil­lions.

With these con­sid­er­a­tions in mind, the con­cept of “low-cost fash­ion” doesn’t actu­al­ly exist. There is always a cost. And if the con­sumer isn’t shoul­der­ing it, it is more than like­ly that some­one else is.

Environmental Impacts

“When you buy into fast fash­ion, no mat­ter how many times you wash your clothes they will nev­er be tru­ly clean.” — Lau­ra François

It is not just cheap labor that makes these low mar­ket prices pos­si­ble, but also cheap, low-qual­i­ty mate­ri­als. Many fast-fash­ion brands uti­lize poly­ester, acrylic and nylon in exces­sive quan­ti­ties, which all con­tain non-biodegrad­able microplas­tics that release sig­nif­i­cant amounts of car­bon emis­sions into the envi­ron­ment. In fact, accord­ing to the UN Envi­ron­ment Pro­gram, the fash­ion indus­try accounts for near­ly 10% of glob­al car­bon emis­sions, more than ship­ping and avi­a­tion com­bined. These mate­ri­als can take up to hun­dreds of years to degrade and can be extreme­ly harm­ful to ani­mal and marine life. Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN), about 35% of all microplas­tics in the ocean come from syn­thet­ic tex­tile mate­ri­als like these.

Anoth­er harm­ful, low-qual­i­ty mate­r­i­al com­mon­ly uti­lized by fast fash­ion brands is a cheap alter­na­tive to cot­ton called vis­cose. Although vis­cose is made from wood pulp, its pro­duc­tion process is far from nat­ur­al, uti­liz­ing high con­cen­tra­tions of tox­ic chem­i­cals and waste­water, as well as con­tribut­ing to defor­esta­tion. How­ev­er, even the brands who opt for real cot­ton over vis­cose are not nec­es­sar­i­ly doing bet­ter, as high lev­els of harm­ful pes­ti­cides are used in cotton’s growth process.

Even fur­ther than the actu­al mate­ri­als used by fast fash­ion brands is the vast quan­ti­ty of water that is wast­ed through their pro­duc­tion process­es. Accord­ing the the UN Envi­ron­ment Impact, the fash­ion indus­try accounts for about 20% of glob­al waste­water. This waste occurs through­out mul­ti­ple stages of cloth­ing pro­duc­tion, from the overuse of water in the pro­duc­tion cot­ton (the aver­age cot­ton T‑shirt uses about 700 gal­lons), to the runoff of dyes and chem­i­cals which con­t­a­m­i­nate large quan­ti­ties of fresh­wa­ter.

The Era of Overconsumption

“What if we start­ed by slow­ing down and not con­sum­ing so much stuff, just because it’s there and cheap and avail­able.” ‑Andrew Mor­gan

Fash­ion con­sumers today are far from min­i­mal­is­tic. The quick pace of trend evo­lu­tion encour­ages fash­ion lovers to con­stant­ly update their wardrobes. Switch­ing out old pieces for new, and com­pil­ing clos­ets so large they could like­ly account for the size of their great grand­par­ents and grand­par­ents’ clos­ets com­bined. In this era of con­sump­tion, it seems too much is nev­er enough; and there are facts to prove it. The aver­age con­sumer today pur­chas­es 60% more cloth­ing items than they did fif­teen years ago, and on top of this, each item is only kept for half as long.

Fast fash­ion fuels this fever of over­con­sump­tion per­fect­ly; and some may even argue it is what cre­at­ed it. The com­bi­na­tion of their too-good-to-be-true mar­ket prices and low-qual­i­ty, short-shelf-life prod­ucts cre­ates a tox­ic cycle that spins on and on. Shop­pers pur­chase their cloth­ing in astound­ing­ly large quan­ti­ties, cloth­ing which they wear and enjoy for only brief peri­ods of time, until either the clothes’ low-qual­i­ty pro­duc­tion begins to give way, or their momen­tary trendi­ness is deemed obso­lete. What hap­pens next?

The items are dis­card­ed and anoth­er mas­sive shop­ping haul is under­tak­en– the cycle is reignit­ed again. But where do the clothes go once they’re dis­card­ed?

With the under­stand­ing of how detri­men­tal cheap­ly pro­duced cloth­ing is to the earth, it is no won­der that pur­chas­ing and dis­card­ing these items in such high vol­umes is only expe­dit­ing the envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences. On top of this, high­er con­sump­tion lev­els pro­duce high­er demand, a bur­den which seeps from the top down, all the way to the fac­to­ry work­ers over­seas, who are being per­pet­u­al­ly over­worked and under­paid, with no respite in sight.

These social and envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences are thus not only on the con­science of these giant brands, but also their con­sumers, whose proven over­con­sump­tion is the fuel that keeps fast fash­ion run­ning.

Join the Movement

“As con­sumers we have so much pow­er to change the world by just being care­ful in what we buy” ‑Emma Wat­son

Con­sumers are not pow­er­less. Far from it. In fact, con­sumers hold all the pow­er in their hands. With­out them, fast fash­ion brands are noth­ing. If it is the demand and over­con­sump­tion of the con­sumer that keep fast fash­ion fast, it could also be the aware­ness and con­scious­ness of the con­sumer that slows the dam­age of fast fash­ion for good.

The truth may be the first step, but with the truth comes respon­si­bil­i­ty. It falls on informed fash­ion con­sumers to break this cycle, and to inform oth­ers so they can do the same. At Par­a­digme Mode, we are pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing change, but we also under­stand that being a con­scious shop­per isn’t always easy. To help, we assem­bled a few sim­ple tips to guide through your next shop­ping ven­ture and onward. Let this be your first step into a new fash­ion com­mu­ni­ty. A com­mu­ni­ty of uni­ty, change and hope. Join the move­ment with us:

Tips for the conscious shopper

  1. Check the price tag. Con­sid­er– does it add up? Once you fac­tor in all of the dif­fer­ent peo­ple and process­es that go into mak­ing a sin­gu­lar t‑shirt, could it real­ly be pos­si­ble for it to sell for just 5 USD? If an item’s price seems too good to be true, it’s prob­a­bly because it is.
  2. Check the mate­r­i­al. What is it made of? Is it bio-degrad­able or organ­ic? Is it of high qual­i­ty or does it seem long-last­ing? Stay away from: poly­ester, nylon, acrylic, vis­cose, non-organ­ic cot­ton. Opt for: Organ­ic or recy­cled cot­ton, linen, hemp, recy­cled poly­ester.
  3. Invest in longer-last­ing pieces. When shop­ping con­sid­er what pieces will actu­al­ly endure in your clos­et. This does­n’t just mean seek­ing out high­er qual­i­ty cloth­ing, but also aban­don­ing the flashi­ness of come-and-go trends and pur­chas­ing pieces that will stand the test of time. If you can’t see your­self wear­ing it five years from now, is it real­ly a neces­si­ty?
  4. Thrift! If you are locat­ed in the Paris area, check out our favorite vin­tage and thrift shops here. Thrift­ing is one of the few ways to shop while leav­ing absolute­ly o envi­ron­men­tal foot­print, not to men­tion it is a great way to build a unique, one-of-a-kind wardrobe.
  5. Clos­et Clean! Some­times a dive into the depths of your clos­et works just as well as a shop­ping haul. Trends move so fast that it is like­ly some old­er pieces you shelved away can expe­ri­ence a sec­ond-life.
  6. Check a brand’s trans­paren­cy rat­ing on the 2022 Fash­ion Trans­paren­cy IndexGreen­wash­ing is unfor­tu­nate­ly very com­mon in the fash­ion world today, so doing some pri­or research can be vital to make sure you are not being fooled by a brand.

Written by Emma Enebak
November 8, 2022

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