We all love a great bargain. Two for one jeans sale at Old Navy or a Shein haul in honour of a birthday weekend getaway has become a must-do activity in the modern era of e-commerce. Once your credit card is handy and internet connectivity is within reach, those much sought-after TikTok fashion trends are yours as soon as you proceed to check out.
No longer are we relegated to waiting weeks on end in high anticipation for de barrel our auntie sent from the US to clear. We now have access to lightning-speed courier services that allow us to keep up with our favourite brands and the must-have trends of the week. As a result, brands like Fashion Nova, Shein and PrettyLittleThing have changed the game of online shopping and, in the process, altered the way we view clothing.
Everything, from dresses to swimsuits, footwear and accessories, the world of instantaneous fashion has changed how we view fashion and has fuelled an insatiable desire for newness that wasn’t existent a few generations ago.
One article reports that two decades ago, companies like Zara and Forever 21 were seen as revolutionary for offering hundreds of new items a week; nowadays, Asos and companies alike add as many as 7,000 items weekly.
When we consider ultra-fast fashion, you might be quick to deduce that it allows us to live glamorously at an affordable cost. What we don’t realise is the severe impact fast fashion has on the environment, sustainability and, in some cases, human rights.
According to one blogger, fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at break-neck speed to meet consumer demand. It is premised on getting the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can get them while they are still popular and then get rid of them after a few wears.
But beyond the glamour of fast fashion, companies have been accused of circumventing best practices, breaching environment and employment law and engaging in harmful practices against animals.
As much as we love the thrill of opening a package filled with goodies, the sad reality is that a human cost is associated with fast fashion and it flies in the face of international labour laws and basic moral principles. At the heart of the fast fashion industry is the untold story of offshore outsourcing.
Most of the trendy brand-name clothes we wear are produced by overworked, underpaid workers who operate in unsafe conditions that fail to conform to health and safety standards.
The Clean Clothes Campaign (2020) reports that 93 per cent of brands are not paying workers a living wage. The minimum wage is known to be from half to a fifth of a living wage, forcing some workers to work overtime to survive.
In addition, the International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million children are engaged in child labour worldwide, with many working in factories that produce clothing for fast fashion outlets.
Sure, those bright coloured bikinis from Shein might be easy on your pocket, but the process by which they are made is harsh on the environment. Garment factories contribute to pollution wastage and can potentially contribute to atmospheric and surface-level degradation. One major issue in the fast fashion industry is non-sustainable manufacturing processes, leading to illegal wastewater dumping and micro-plastic pollution. These factories dump their wastewater, which contains dye and other harmful substances in local rivers instead of collecting and processing it.
Our obsessive relationship with shopping puts our health and the environment at risk, and industry leaders believe that only sustainable legislation can curb these issues.
Earlier this year, the European Commission announced an EU-wide due diligence proposal, demanding companies in the fashion sector to identify, prevent, or end environmental and labour abuses in their supply chains.
In the US, the proposed Sustainability and Social Accountability Bill in New York would require fashion companies to share their environmental and social impacts publicly. For example, companies would be forced to map at least half of their supply chains and report how much their suppliers pay garment workers. The bill will also require companies to publicly declare their greenhouse gas, water and chemical impact, total volumes of materials produced, and how much is recycled. This bill, once enacted, would ensure that companies adopt best practices and face penalties when in breach.
Only so much could be done at the legislative level, and environmentalists and human rights organisations believe that we, the buyers hold the power. As much as we would love to conform to the unspoken “wear an outfit only once” rule, it is suggested that we shop less and purchase items of high quality. For example, instead of buying five pairs of jeans of poor quality with a short closet life, we should try investing in perhaps two high-quality jeans that would last much longer.
One blogger believes that the best way to ensure your clothing choices are not harming the environment or people is by paying attention to where you shop. Shopping from sustainable and ethical fashion brands is one way to do this. These brands pay attention to every step of the supply chain when producing and selling their products and ensure that garment workers are paid fair wages.
Self-expression defines so much of who we are as individuals, and fashion undoubtedly influences this.
But are we allowing our love for colourful pieces of polyester and cotton to undermine our very existence? Or are we willing to break poor consumer habits to bring balance to the world once more?