In today’s world, we like everything fast—from our food to our cars to our fashion. Fast fashion is a new business model retailers have adopted in order to cash in on the consumer’s constant demand for new products at a low price, but this business model is as bad for the planet as fast food is for our health.
Big retailers, such as Zara and H&M, are well-known for implementing the fast fashion business plan. A fast fashion system combines short production and distribution timeframes with trendy styles. Fast fashion is lucrative because consumers demand a constant flow of new items on the selling floors, but don’t want to pay top-dollar for trendy items.
Since consumers know that the products are stocked in limited quantities, a “buy-it-now” frenzy occurs, where the consumer impulsively buys the item before it runs out. This enables retailers to profit off the consumer’s spontaneous buying decisions. It also allows retailers to sacrifice the quality of the merchandise because, by the time the consumer gets the item home, he or she is unlikely to return it due to the constraints of the company’s return policy.
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The environmental impact of the fast fashion business plan is serious. The quick production and turnover that the system demands means that retailers will overlook both the quality of the merchandise and will forego using lengthier processes that may be more eco-friendly.
The use of water is one of the biggest threats fast fashion presents to the environment. Huge quantities of water are used to produce clothing. According to the Protected Water Fund, the production of one pair of jeans requires 11,000 liters of water and a single t-shirt uses 400 liters. This is a huge amount of water waste on clothing considering the United Nations recommends individuals need a minimum of 50 liters of water per day for drinking, washing, cooking and sanitation.
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The excessive use of water, combined with the retailers’ need to use the cheapest materials available prevents retailers from using eco-friendly fabrics, like organic cotton. The price of organic cotton is too high for fast fashion retailers to consider using. Organic cotton is 10 to 45% higher than regular cotton, because what the consumer is paying for is the guarantee that it was produced with clean water, fresh air, fair wages, sweatshop-free production and with a minimal environmental footprint (Everman, 2007).
Not only does the fast fashion industry negatively impact the environment, it also puts the workers who produce the clothing in the factories at risk. The human impact of the fast fashion business is alarming and unethical. In order to keep the cost of the merchandise down, retailers outsource the production jobs to other countries, where workers will work for less wages. According to the U.S. National Labor Committee, some Chinese factory workers make as little as 12 to 18 cents per hour (Cladio, 2007).
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Not only are workers subjected to unfair wages, they are also exposed to unsafe working environments. A report in the Environmental Health Perspective states:
A textile worker takes a break at dawn after sanding jeans all night at a clothing factory in Guangdong Province, China. The blue dust from the jeans is a heavy irritant to the lungs. The factory where this worker is employed uses a wear-and-tear process to achieve the fashionable distressed look for the approximately 10,000 pairs of jeans it produces every day. Thousands of workers labor around the clock scrubbing, spraying, and tearing jeans in order to meet the production demand. China is one of the world’s largest producers of jeans (Claudio, 2007).
The wildly popular fast fashion business model meets the demands of consumers for fashionable items at an affordable price and retailers strive to profit by supplying this demand. But, between its environmental and human impacts, fast fashion comes at a steep price—the cost of the earth and humanity.
Claudio, L. (2007). Waste couture: Environmental impact of the clothing industry. Environmental Health Perspective, 115(9), A449-A454.
Everman, V. (2007). How eco is organic cotton? Gaiam Life. Retrieved from: http://life.gaiam.com/article/how-eco-organic-cotton-facts-7-questions
Protected Water Fund. (2007). Water shortage facts. Retrieved from: http://www.pwf.co.im/watershortage.htm
Water Neutral. Q&A. Retrieved from: http://www.waterneutral.org/faq.asp