Fashion has always been a mirror to society reflecting current global circumstances
through trends and art. Politics, sports, pop culture, and war are all reflected in fashion. As such, the current ultra fast fashion trend system reflects overconsumption, wage wars/ theft, the collapse of ecosystems, unimaginable amounts of landfill and economic recession. Being a part of this side of the industry comes with a huge responsibility: to fulfil demand (like in any economic system), whilst agreeing to the repercussions of each decision in the production process and how it affects people and the planet.
Image source: The True Cost documentary
As a system, fast fashion is globalised, it covers much of the world. For example, a Tik Tok user in Stockholm, Sweden could see a fast fashion item on someone in Seoul, South Korea that was designed in Atlanta, US but made in Dhaka, Bangladesh and have the item shipped from Manchester, UK then worn, enjoyed and donated, ending its life in Kantamanto (second-hand clothing market area in Ghana). This is how the current product lifecycle works.
Most fast fashion clothes start and end their journey in the Global South. China, Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are the biggest manufacturers of garments. Like all systems of oppression, it disproportionately affects women of colour - most garment workers in these countries are women. Ultra-fast fashion relies on the disempowerment, dehumanisation, and
exploitation of its workers. The production of fast fashion is already killing garment
workers, farmers, and factory workers. Sexual assault, physical violence, exposure to unsafe chemicals, the collapse of factories, and police brutality in reaction to workers' rights have already meant that people have died to produce our garments. That has been the cost of fashion, is it worth trading a life for a product?
Younger generations such as Gen-Zs are often credited for being more conscious of the fashion industry’s social and environmental impact. Yet, we are the same generation that made SheIn the most popular fashion brand of 2022 despite common knowledge of their exploitative working conditions (2022 Channel 4 did an investigation as an undercover garment worker exposing unlawful working practices).
Image source: Vogue Uk
In recent weeks we have seen SheIn in the heat of another controversial viral campaign with their influencer trip to look around their innovation centre in Guangzhou,
China. This is believed to have been an attempt to cover up the increasing amount of bad press the company had received in the past year for being the epitome of ultra fast fashion and the exploitation that comes with it.
The influencers who were flown out and accommodated by SheIn were made to believe there is a lot of misinformation and prejudice around SheIn’s working conditions. One described herself as an “independent thinker” for not acknowledging the exploitation of garment workers. After receiving a lot of social media backlash, she has since removed the TikTok where she stated this.
Although SheIn's attempt to brand themselves as technologically advanced fell flat we must remember that their operations have continued and little is known about the real working conditions in the factories they actually use. Ultimately, clothes still need to be made by people, machines alone cannot make a garment from start to finish, and it takes a variety of skills to make clothes. If there is nothing wrong with their factories, why couldn't they show where the garments are really made?
Image source: Bored Panda
When it comes to purchasing clothes, although better choices can be made by consumers (such as buying second-hand, wearing their existing clothes, upcycling and repairing), it does need to be stressed in this convocation that the people buying a few items from fast fashion brands when needed are not the cause of the problem. The issue begins when manufacturers operate on the pretence that they can offer low cost prices, but then request high MOQs, causing brands to drive costs per unit down further and in turn driving wages down even lower. In an attempt to keep business afloat, this makes is so that manufacturers then feel forced to cut corners and subcontract or resort to slave labour or unethically sourced raw materials - resulting in hostile, unsafe and environmentally destructive working practices. Ultimately, encouraging overconsumption, fuelling overproduction and having a disposable attitude towards clothes is the cause.
However we can hold brands accountable. When we hear of wage theft, or unethical working
practices we have rights as consumers to know the conditions of which our clothes are made.
I believe that if we think of ourselves as citizens of a global system with interlinking stories rather than as individual consumers, it's easier to think of the things we do as having a knock-on effect all over the world.
When buying garments, thinking about where it was made, who made it, and where it will end up will help us connect better with fashion. It's a start to making it a fairer, less destructive industry.
Are you interested in the topic of sustainable fashion consumption? For further reading I suggest Consumed by Aja Barbour. If you'd like to find out more about fashion manufacturing and the ethical issues within the supply chain, I suggest The True Cost documentary and Channel 4s Inside the Shein Machine.
Written by Jessica Roye, Edited by Giovanna Vieira Co, 2023
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