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Fast Fashion, Labor, and Sustainability: A Covert Crisis



Fast fashion has skyrocketed in popularity in recent history, completely transforming and redefining the labor industry. The business model yields large profit margins achieved through cheap labor, compromised quality of materials, robust advertising, and cost-effective manufacturing techniques. The industry shifts the focus of purchasing clothes from a seasonal affair to a hobby as consumers try to keep up with the constant supply of current trends. Fast fashion became popular in the early 2000s, influenced greatly by celebrity catwalk looks worn by icons such as Paris Hilton and Ashley Tisdale.


Common brands now include Zara, H&M, and SHEIN. The business model affected the labor industry as demands shifted from high quality, average volumes of clothing to colossal quantities of quality-compromised garments. Unfortunately, fast fashion is notorious for utilizing illegal child labor to cost-effectively outsource the production of clothes. Although the industry creates many jobs they are often severely underpaid and mistreated, as seen in the case of Rana Plaza, a building that collapsed in 2013, killing 1132 employees. Fast fashion is also renowned for being a terrible influence on climate change. The labor required to maintain the fast fashion industry includes children and adults employed by a business, influencers, and models promoting the product and those involved in manufacturing and online business affiliates.


Science supports that the increased demand for the labor industry negatively impacts climate change. The 2010s mark a significant benchmark for climate change awareness as social and traditional media increased reports on the climate crisis. As a result, many businesses began to make climate conservation a priority in their mission statements and corporate social responsibility outlines. Unfortunately, this progressed into many companies making false or exaggerated claims to appear more conscious of the climate, a term coined "greenwashing" by Jay Westerveld in 1986. Climate change notably impacts the labor industry as those involved witness an increased ethical pressure to minimize harm to the environment.


This proves to be a difficult balance, especially in the circumstance of fast fashion. The increase in production demands leads to more resources depleted from the natural environment, and the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes around 2,700 liters of water to make one shirt, equivalent to a person’s water consumption for 2.5 years. Another rampant concern is the amount of waste created by the industry. Consumer behavior towards clothes has shifted tremendously over the last two decades. Americans have doubled their clothing waste from 7 million to 14 million tons. According to the New York Times, over 60% of fibers are synthetic deriving from fossil fuels, with 85% of textile waste ending up in landfills or incineration factories. Synthetic fibers cannot decay for up to 200 years.


Furthermore, the ethics of outsourcing in the labor industry occupy a secretive "grey area." Sadly, ethical concerns are often neglected, with children or otherwise compromised employees from lower socio-economic countries hired as a means to increase profit margins. In 2018, the US Department of Labor came out with a report that revealed evidence of forced and child labor in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, among others in the fashion industry. Outsourcing occurs both within the business's country of origin and internationally, with the latter being responsible for increasing a company’s carbon footprint. This practice makes it difficult for consumers to track the company's supply chain to determine where their products are sourced and if the business engages in ethical practices. Those employed are often subject to criminally low wages and adverse working conditions. The business may benefit greatly from outsourcing, although the well-being of employees is often neglected in the fast fashion industry. Methods of outsourcing to achieve cheap labor include both physical and intellectual services, meaning anyone from customer service representatives to manufacturing plants. The most environmentally friendly and ethically conscious method of outsourcing is onshore, meaning in the same country as (and often nearby) the business. Lower transportation costs and shorter distances minimize the need for expenditure of fuel.


Overall, fast fashion emerges as a labor-intensive industry in which many businesses rely on outsourcing products to meet the high demand of clothing businesses while maintaining a decent profit. Furthermore, the business model raises ethical concerns regarding fair wages and work conditions. The constant, cheap manufacturing of clothes coupled with wasteful consumer culture leads to worsening environmental outcomes with estimates revealing that increases in worldwide GDP will cause an increase in clothing demands. Thus, I urge us to critically reflect on how we contribute both to the environment, and the perpetuation of unsustainable and unethical practices that come from this creative, yet dissipative industry.