STORY BY MADISON GALLEGOS
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY AMANDA DEL CID
Forever 21. H&M. ZARA. One, if not all, of these stores is probably one of your favorites to shop at. They’ve got cute, trendy clothes that fit your student budget. Seems ideal, right? But like a siren, they are just as destructive as they are captivating. The undisclosed reality is that these stores are devastating to the fashion industry, and have irreparable ripple effects on the environment and society.
It’s the plague of “fast fashion,” a blanket term for retailers who sell low-quality products at low prices while receiving new inventory about every two weeks. Yeah, that’s right, I said low quality. You didn’t think retailers would just cut you a break and sell you great clothes for $12.99, did you? You may have noticed that the clothes you buy from here will begin to deteriorate after a few months. They may lose their vibrancy, stretch out, and even start to unravel or tear.
While this is partly due to ignoring care instructions (please read the care instructions, they’re right next to the size information) the main culprits are low-quality fabrics, poor craftsmanship, and lack of regulations. All three factors are rooted in the greed of the large corporations that own these stores. All they care about is turning a profit and these elements are the most discreet way to cut costs. Prices that low generate massive demand, causing them to replace inventory at an absurd rate. Not only are they racing to restock existing merchandise, they are constantly replacing inventory with whatever new trend emerged that week. The amount of merchandise they are investing in and the prices they are selling them for simply do not add up. So how are they able to produce such an enormous profit?
Let’s start with low-quality fabrics. If a sweater is selling for less than $20, it’s obviously not wool or cashmere. The majority of the clothes you buy from these stores is made of cotton, polyester or a blend. That’s if what is printed on the label is actually true—they lie about fiber content more often than you think. These aren’t bad fabrics, per se, they just won’t withstand the test of time. Cotton is a weak fiber, easily damaged, stretched out or shrunk. Polyester is subject to pilling (those annoying fuzz balls) and retains stains. No matter how well they’re sewn together, mediocre fabrics won’t produce superior clothing. Combined with fleeting trends, these pieces don’t have a very long hanger life. Unless you’re a frequent GoodWill donor or you have a younger sibling, these clothes will soon end up in the trash.
Forever 21 made $4 billion in revenue last year according to Forbes; that’s a lot of trash that ends up in our landfills. The EPA’s latest report shows that in the U.S. alone, over 23 million tons of solid waste were disposed from textiles alone in 2014. As fast fashion retailers grow rapidly each year, so does the amount of textile waste. Much like other wastes, clothing burned in landfills releases greenhouse methane gases into the air. Clothing is rife with dyes and chemicals that when burned, seep into the groundwater as well. This amount of pollution is detrimental to the environment and amplifies global climate change.
The more disposable clothes you purchase, the longer this cycle perpetuates. Even if you don’t throw away all your clothes, you’re still contributing to environmental damage. Cotton is the most used fiber in fast fashion due to its cost efficiency and versatility. While these are considerable traits, it is also the least sustainable fiber there is. It requires a ton of pesticides for maintenance, from fighting insects to increasing growth to meet demand. Aside from air pollution, pesticides contribute to soil erosion and often contaminate nearby plants and animals from water runoff. Cotton is a water-intensive plant, meaning it requires at least 20 inches of rain per year. With a majority of the U.S. suffering from a lack of rainfall, farmers turn to irrigation which depletes our rivers, lakes, and canals. Synthetic materials were created to reduce the use of cotton, but they are too expensive to be made in such a high yield that fast fashion retailers don’t give them a second glance.
Poor craftsmanship and lack of regulations go hand in hand, forming the other half of the corruption and carelessness of fast fashion retailers. Bad handiwork is not the fault of employees, but rather the upper management. It’s not that they aren’t skilled, they just have no time to actually put those skills to use. Jobs are rushed to meet the demand of inventory turnover. Fresh merchandise is deposited about every two weeks in these stores to comply with the high rate of sales and fleeting trends. In contrast, the standard fashion cycle coordinates with the seasons, reordering new merchandise every three months. There is simply no time for attention to detail or even to make sure the hem is straight. Clothes are produced so rapidly that management has no set standards for how the end result should look. This is also why what you read on the label isn’t always true. Just like food, most clothing has to pass a series of regulations before it can be sold to the masses to protect consumers from unknown chemicals or materials that may harm them. Without standards, there is no way of knowing what you’re really buying.
It may not matter to you what your clothes are made of, but do you care where they come from? Lack of regulations extends far beyond labeling or quality control. Most, if not all, fast fashion clothing is produced in sweatshops. The documentary “True Cost” exposed the morbidity of sweatshops in Bangladesh a few years ago, revealing H&M as one of their clients. The backlash was significant, but not enough to eradicate the problem. When one sweat shop shuts down, another fills its shoes. There is simply no other way for these retailers to produce as many clothes at that rate and generate as much profit. Workers are paid cents per hour, with shifts of 12 hours or more. They work so tirelessly that they leave with blistered hands and lasting injuries caused from slouching over a machine all day. The amount of machines in one building releases an immense amount of toxins in the air, causing lung problems that can lead to disease or even death.
Children are often employed at these sweatshops. Their pay is even less, if there is any, and the physical toll is insurmountable and can lead to permanent damage. Like the building of the pyramids, workers are enslaved and abused if the job is done wrong. Our ethics have advanced so much over centuries, but when money is involved humanity seems to take a backseat. Although a large portion of that is done overseas, outside the scope of U.S. control, many sweatshops are present right in our backyard. Sweatshops exist all across America. That alone proves that we are not the best country in the world. We treat our workers just the same as developing nations despite the fact that we have enough money generated to feed an entire third-world country.
Don’t feel bad, they use to be some of my favorite stores, too. Every now and again I’ll walk past one and still feel tempted to buy something, but we must resist. You have to think of the bigger picture. You have to be better than the money hungry CEOs, constantly examining their bank accounts instead of the effects their actions have on the world around them. Yes, fashion is a way of life, but you shouldn’t sacrifice the lives of others to have it. If fast fashion continues to proliferate at the current rate, so will sweatshops, so will child labor. Our water resources will continue to disappear, as will our ozone layer. We’ll have to dedicate an entire country to landfills. That $20 dress will last you a few months, but these effects are permanent. It’s just not worth it. Luckily, there are alternatives.
The first alternative is to simply buy from better stores: higher brand retailers, boutiques, pop up shops, and local designers. Fast fashion retailers attract so many customers that higher quality markets are being put out of business and it makes it almost impossible for new designers to emerge. Their prices are so low that it skews our idea of how much clothing is actually worth. There’s a huge difference between low prices and affordable prices; clothing can be affordable without sacrificing the important factors that go into the production. We have to consider quality, wages, and sustainability. They are usually a bit pricier, but you can always trim the amount of clothing you buy and focus on staple pieces like jeans, blazers, and tees that can be coordinated with any outfit. If you’re completely unwilling to pay more money, then the answer is thrift or vintage shopping. Most of my clothes are from vintage shopping and they are my favorite pieces. Clothing is affordable, better quality (if they’ve lasted this long, they’re doing something right), and you get to contribute to the recycling process. Even if you’re not buying from these second hand stores, you should definitely be donating to them. There is no reason to dispose of your clothes when they can find another home. You can also recycle your clothes by repurposing them. Even if you can’t sew, old clothing can always be turned into household rags, cleaning clothes, or simply cut up into other things. I’ve made headwraps, scarves, and chokers out of old clothing, it’s quick, easy and cost effective. The most important alternative is to simply research a company before you patronize them. Make sure they are using ethical business methods and remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
It is our responsibility to end fast fashion. With no demand, they cannot continue. Just reducing the amount of demand can cause retailers to rethink their business strategies, which may remedy the issues. But we can’t rely on that. If fast fashion continues to expand at the current rate, the fate of the environment and humanity is in jeopardy. It’s up to you.