Fast Fashion and Consumer Culture

By Lena Donaldson

Today, consumer culture is said to be rapidly damaging our environment. The process is formulated by the market and is the leading factor that contributes to fast fashion, plus the environmental damage that comes with it. This culture plays into a cycle of the consumer purchasing new items that they discard months later. Name brands and social media constantly evolve trends, creating a need for consumers to go through items rapidly to keep up. The biggest culprits of this loop are articles of clothing and fashion trends or fast fashion.

The term “fast fashion” refers to “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Retailers supply their stores with this clothing to quickly respond to the latest trends. Fast fashion requires massive amounts of water. One kilogram of cotton requires about 10,000 liters of water, meaning 3,000 liters make up a single cotton shirt. Dyeing the clothing requires even more water, and the entire process of making clothing contributes to 20% of water waste. Fast fashion creates a considerable strain on the environment through water waste and the use of toxic chemicals.

Clothing companies produce tons of products daily, rapidly shipping these textiles out. Since these clothes are cheap and therefore poor quality, they get old quickly or cannot be used often. This form of fashion contributes to the cycle as people will continue to buy more fast fashion clothes, and more resources, such as water, will be wasted. 

Fast fashion presents an ethical dilemma and a negative effect on the planet. Fast fashion warehouses such as SHEIN have their workers producing clothes in concerning environments detrimental to their health. 85% of textile workers are paid two to six cents per garment. These workers cannot afford to feed themselves and their families with unlivable wages. 

In addition, factory workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals in producing clothing. These clothing contain Azo dyes, harsh chemicals, and Phthalates in jeans and coats. An investigation into “SHIEN” by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation showed that “SHIEN”’s clothes contain traces of lead, phthalates, and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

These chemicals damage the health of the workers producing these clothes and the consumers. The use of dangerous chemicals in clothing is not exclusive to “SHIEN.” Popular brands such as “Lululemon,” “Old Navy” and “REI” were found to contain these same chemicals. Even used at low levels, these chemicals are linked to health conditions like asthma and kidney damage when exposed to them over time.

Around the world, child labor has been a constant issue in the fashion supply chain. With the fashion demand, child labor exists as a cheap form of labor in many factories. These clothes are so cheaply priced for consumers, achieved by child labor and cheap materials. Fast fashion denies children many rights, such as freedom, protection, and the right to education, by keeping them stuck producing textiles in factories.

 Child labor is directly linked to poverty. Many families that struggle to support their family put their kids to work for factories around the age of six. Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan are some countries where this is extremely common for families to do. These children forced to work are in the factories for fourteen to sixteen hours. There was a decline in child labor in 2012, but it still exists today in some brands that customers love. Stores such as “Urban Outfitters,” “Victoria’s Secret,” “Zara,” “H&M” and even major corporations such as Apple are found to have child laborers working their supply chains.

In general, fast fashion takes up 20% of wastewater, causes over 35% of microplastics to enter the ocean (just from synthetics in clothing), has more carbon emissions than cotton and harms marine life. Carbon emissions in the atmosphere are responsible for the Earth’s rising temperature and climate change. The production of clothes dramatically contributes to climate change through carbon emissions.

One way to help the environment and slow, fast fashion production is to shop sustainably. Sustainable fashion comprises organic fibers, fabric, and eco-friendly materials. These goods are made with the planet in mind and include locally sourced items. These items are packaged to reduce waste, made from recycled materials, and are made in ethical factories with workers that are paid fair wages. 

Sustainable shopping kills the fast-fashion idea of buying a mass amount of cheap, trendy new clothes and focuses on creating products that are made with better and more environmentally friendly materials. This form of fashion causes purchased items to last longer and become permanent staples in a wardrobe. The rise of sustainable fashion pledges to reduce global overconsumption, defined as consumer culture.