Sustainable fashion series: when did fashion become so fast?

Originally published in The Student newspaper. 

Fast fashion seems like a self-explanatory term: low-cost clothes that follow all the trends – and won’t last, typically, for longer than a year or two. It’s associated with the view that clothes are made to throw away – made for a season, and not for life. 

This combination of cheap and disposable clothes leads to ethically dubious practices, and dangerous environmental ones. These practices are often maintained by cheap, high-street clothing. Expensive, designer labels are often thought of as well-made – and thus don’t come with the same unethical associations. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Burberry recently came under as their desire to not sell discounted clothes in order to maintain brand image lead them to burn thousands of excess stock. Designers out-source cheap labour to developing countries as much as high-street ones do. It seems that almost no-one is safe from the effects of fast fashion – no matter how much you pay. 

It wasn’t always like this. Fashion, believe it or not, didn’t use to be fast. In the 19th century, people spent 15 per cent of their income on clothes. Now, the average person in Britain spends 6.7 per cent of their income on clothing – less than half of what we spent only a few hundred years ago. But the modern-day Brit has far more clothes than ever before – buying, on average, a jaw-dropping 60 new items of clothing per year in 2015. This highlights a monumental shift from spending more and buying less, to spending a fraction of the price and gaining an unprecedented amount of clothes in return.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, clothing became mass-produced in factories. In the 1960s, clothing became a commodity and not a necessity: meaning that trends came and went as quickly as the clothes did. With this increase in consumer need, brands began out-sourcing their production to developing countries, who could get clothes made cheaper, faster, and more effectively than ever before. 

It’s just basic capitalism. It is cheaper and more cost-effective to make things that are disposable, instead of making things that last. We are made, as consumers, to want. If you buy this you’ll be better, stronger, happier. We see it with everything: new phones needlessly upgraded every year to up consumer sales; kitchen products that will make your food taste better, make you healthier, remove all of that needless fat; new toys, churned out every month that promise to make your kid happier, more intelligent, popular.

The same patterns that we see with technology and food products have been magnified ten times over in the clothing industry. With high-street shops now able to translate fashion-week trends into affordable pieces within a matter of weeks, fashions are as fleeting as the pay-checks required to keep up with them. Social media influencers have a role, too – convincing you that buying into a new trend will make you happier, cooler, better – making their glamorous lives seem attainable through buying power alone. 

Add these factors together, and you get fast fashion. A dizzyingly toxic cocktail of new trends every week, influencers selling happiness to loyal followers, clothes that fall apart within weeks – and an industry, all-too-happy to keep up, through unethical labour, environmentally dubious practices, and a large carbon footprint to boot.  

The solution of how we stop this cycle is as nebulous as the issues that led to it. If everyone is doing it, no one is transparent about where their clothes are from, and you can’t afford more expensive, ethical clothes, what do you do? What do you do if you love fashion – but don’t want to harm others, and the planet? 

This article marks the beginning of The Student’s series on fast fashion, covering the issues surrounding it, who the biggest culprits are, and how to avoid buying into this consumerist cycle. But, for now, I will leave you with some advice: think twice before you buy those culottes you so desperately need. Think about how long the clothing would take to make: if you’re buying it for less than what it would cost to make at a decent, minimum wage – think again. 

Image Credits: Celia Michon via Unsplash.com

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