The Lowdown on Fast Fashion

On Ethics

by Swetha Amaresan

The fact that fast fashion is unethical isn’t a new concept. We know that that cute striped crop top from Forever 21 with the whopping $6.99 price tag is only $6.99 because it was manufactured in a factory by underpaid laborers, including children. And we know that the other 100 crop tops on the racks and piled up in the backroom are not all going to be bought and will likely be dumped into a massive waste pile.

So, why do we still fund fast fashion companies?

  Photos by    Renata Brockmann

As a college student, myself, I can’t deny the allure of those cheap prices. I’m on a budget, but I also like to frequently update my wardrobe. Fast fashion companies provide the perfect medium: low prices and high variety. They typically have several locations; for instance, Forever 21 has 12 brand stores in Massachusetts, compared to an ethical brand like Patagonia that only has one.

I pride myself on being an environmentally and socially-conscious person by limiting my plastic usage and avoiding water waste, while also donating to and advocating for the social issues I care about. However, fast fashion is a tricky matter. After all, well-known fast fashion brands aren’t the only ones exhibiting corrupt behaviors.

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When people think “fast fashion,” their minds often go to Forever 21, H&M, and Primark. However, several of our favorite brands have been accused and found guilty of using sweatshop labor.

Zara was accused of unethical labor conditions twice in two years. The latest occurred in Buenos Aires, in 2013, when immigrant laborers, including children, were working under harsh conditions at a factory producing Zara’s men’s clothing.

In addition, Victoria’s Secret was accused of using child labor to produce its cotton in Burkina Faso. This supposedly “fair trade, organic” cotton was being picked by children, including one 13-year-old girl who was said to have been abused and refused food.

Other accused brands include Urban Outfitters, ALDO, Adidas, and Uniqlo, among others.

However, in many nations where labor is outsourced, factory work provides a paycheck, albeit small. And, without those positions, many families could perish, since jobs aren’t readily available. So, by boycotting fast fashion, are we actually causing some of those people to lose their jobs and only means of income?

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In an ideal world, boycotting fast fashion would encourage brands to rework their labor conditions and provide an environment that is socially and environmentally ethical. However, after many years of brand callouts, many have done little to make improvements. After all, in 2013, 375 million workers -- 12% of global employment -- earned less than $1.25 per day, an amount that didn’t exceed the World Bank’s absolute poverty line. Another 464 million earned between $1.25 and $2 per day. In this sense, a mere boycott may not be enough to cause companies to suddenly pay these hundreds of millions of workers a substantial pay.

Additionally, not everyone is capable of boycotting fast fashion when ethical brands are wildly more expensive. Brands like Reformation and Outdoor Voices range in price from around $50 to upwards of $150 per item.

The solution isn’t black and white. However, what’s clear is that there is more than meets the eye on this debate. Research, donate, sign petitions, and reach out to officials. The issue seems larger than us, but change can begin with a single individual.