What is fast fashion?
We did a little research for you and here's what we found - most definitions agree on 2 key attributes when it comes to fast fashion:
- Items are made and sold at a low price
- Items are produced at a high speed
Oxford Dictionary defines it as "inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends", while Cambridge calls it "clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often".
According to Investopedia, many of the high-street brands we're familiar with (e.g. Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, Forever 21, Topshop) count as "fast fashion leaders".
So far, so good. It feels like fast fashion has a bad rep though. Why? Isn't cheap clothing a good deal for us consumers?
Well ... yes and no.
Is fast fashion bad?
One of the main problems with fast fashion is precisely its cost.
As consumers, we may get the feeling that fast fashion is a "good deal" because we're able to buy a t-shirt at just $10.
But if that t-shirt won't survive 4 washes and so lasts you only 1 month, we're really looking at = $10 x 12 months a year (since it has to be replaced) = $120
Compare this with a well-made tee that costs maybe $50 and lasts you a year. Isn't that a much better deal?
Aside from that, most of us buy items when we really like them, so isn't it really sad if the seams started twisting after a wash so it no longer fits right, or if the colour starts fading after just a few washes? That's not a good deal at all! On top of that, the combination of low-quality clothing that doesn't last and cheap prices is leading many of us down a dangerous path of viewing fashion as something disposable. This is bad news for our planet.
The thing is - when items are sold cheaply and therefore produced at even lower prices (because let's be real - every company is still earning a profit even when things are sold cheap), sacrifices have to be made, corners have to be cut.
And often those corners are the planet and the people who make our clothes.
On the planet front, this could be
- using less durable textiles
- fabrics that develop holes or pills / becomes fuzzy easily - this is bad for our planet because it means we need to buy more to replace this item, but it's also bad for our wallet
- using synthetic (plastic!) textiles that tend to be cheaper than natural textiles (do we really need to extract oil from our earth to make clothing?)
- processing textiles with cheaper, hazardous chemicals (often dyes, anti-wrinkle or waterproofing chemicals)
- flouting environmental regulations
- discharging hazardous wastewater without treatment
- contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions
- instead of sourcing and producing regionally, raw materials, fabrics and products are shipped across the globe multiple times to take advantage of cheaper labour costs elsewhere
These are just some ways fast fashion hasn't been fair to our planet. Sadly, it doesn't look much better for the people who make our clothes.
To produce cheaply, fast fashion brands can shave costs by engaging the cheapest supplier, who may:
- cut cost on the building structure
- the Rana Plaza building collapse happened because of structural faults - the building was allowed to be built without any of the necessary permits
- not provide health & safety equipment
- leather tanners in Bangladesh often work with their bare hands and stand barefoot in the soup of chemicals (e.g. chromium sulfate, a common tanning agent known to be corrosive to mucous membranes and skin, elicit allergic reactions and/or cause lesions) on the tannery floor
- pay makers far below a living wage so they don't have enough for food, housing, and other basic needs, much less escape the poverty cycle
- not pay wages at all
- Zara's supplier Bravo did not pay their workers, leading them to hide notes in the clothing they made
- disregard basic human rights
- child labour (all throughout the fashion supply chain)
- bonded labour (e.g. the Sumangali Scheme that trafficks young women aged 14 to 23 into the spinning, weaving and dyeing factories in India while being promoted to parents as a marriage assistance scheme)
- sexual violence at work (e.g. in a denim factory at Lesotho that supplies to Levi's)
- physical abuse at work (e.g. at Asian factories that supplied to Gap and H&M)
We as consumers are often not privy to these practices that are prevalent in the industry. If we knew, most of us would not support the companies that allow this to happen. Ok, but enough doom and gloom. We're here to find solutions!
Is sustainable fashion the answer?
Before we can answer this question, let's first define what sustainable fashion means to us here at Shop Bettr.
At Shop Bettr, sustainable fashion is fashion that is responsible to both our planet and us, its people.
Often, we hear that sustainable fashion is expensive. While we agree that buying new from sustainable brands will not be as cheap as buying from fast fashion (and for good reason!), we feel this misconception stems from the fact that many of us associate sustainable fashion consumption with buying new from a store.
There are many ways we as consumers can partake in sustainable fashion! Here we're happy to introduce Sarah Lazarovic's Buyerarchy of Needs to help us illustrate our point.
Use what you have
The base of the Buyerarchy reads "Use what you have" - and this is incredibly powerful. It's really important to first reduce our consumption because that would directly reduce the strain on our natural resources. We need to fall in love with our clothes again. Look at our relationship with them as long-term ones, not flings. Shop our wardrobe and relive that moment with each piece when we fell in love with them and bought them. It's said that we wear 20% of our clothing 80% of the time. This means that 80% of our clothing is yet to be discovered, it's basically a treasure trove right in our own wardrobes! Bonus? We don't have to spend a single cent to shop our wardrobe!
The next step is to borrow - from a sibling, a friend, a clothing rental platform like Style Theory (@styletheorysg) or Rentadella (@rentadella). We like this method for themed-dinner outfits and fancy events.
Next, explore swapping. It's no secret that we're huge fans of local swap studio The Fashion Pulpit (@thefashionpulpit). Swapping is not only a great way to extend your wardrobe at a very affordable price while doing good by the planet, but also wonderful for experimenting with new, different styles!
Thrift - aka buying pre-loved / second-hand - is another favourite at Shop Bettr (fun fact: we originally conceptualised Shop Bettr to be an aggregator of all pre-loved clothing worldwide, but that proved to be a technical challenge so we tabled that ... for now). Some great options in Singapore are available in our previous post on decluttering.
DIY if you're crafty! There are many great resources out there, and making ensures that you have 100% control over how the garment looks, fits and feels. Some local sources of inspiration: @gwenstella.made, @lisatengstudios, @agytextileartist
And only when the previous options have been exhausted but you still need something, let's look at buying (we're aware how counter-intuitive this sounds coming from a sustainable fashion search engine, but this is something we truly believe in).
Here, we think it's important for each of us to understand what matters to us.
- Is it the people who make our clothing?
- Do we want to make sure they're paid fairly, work in safe environments, and are provided with protective equipment when needed?
- Do we want to make sure no child labour, bonded labour, or abuse is present in the process that made our clothes?
- Do we want to empower makers by not just employing them, but also equipping them with skills so they can achieve their goals?
- Is it the planet?
- Do we want to make sure we no longer wear clothes made from plastic, which profits the oil & gas industry?
- Do we want to use low-impact, certified organic, or recycled fibres that are gentler to our planet?
- Do we want to avoid hazardous chemicals in our clothing?
- Do we want to rethink the way we consume fashion and support companies that are in the circular economy in ways other than rent / pre-loved / swap?
e.g. take-back programmes that help extend the product's lifespan and so reduce the strain on natural resources, pre-order / made-to-order business models that only produce what has been ordered to reduce the chances of overstock and so the unnecessary use of resources.
- Do we want to buy designs that are timeless rather than trend-driven, so they have a longer "shelf life" in our wardrobes?
- Is it the animals?
- Do we want to make sure that the clothes we wear don't contain / contain minimal animal-sourced products?
- Do we want to abstain from materials with known ethical issues, e.g. angora wool, fur and feathers?
- Do we want to support responsibly produced animal-sourced products, e.g. recycled leather, peace silk, non-mulesed sheep wool?
Whatever the value that matters to you, hold on to it and live by it. At Shop Bettr, we make it easy to shop by your values through pre-vetting all our brand partners by our Bettr Values. But as always - shop consciously and only if you've exhausted all other options!
While fast fashion claims to make fashion accessible to the masses, allowing more people to share in the joy of fashion, it does so at the expense of the planet and the people who make our clothes. We disagree with that "trade-off". We believe that sustainable fashion is not only the antidote for fast fashion, but the future of fashion. And we invite you to join us in making fashion a force for good.
Thoughts, comments or questions? Drop us a message! (@shopbettr)
Having worked on business strategy and implementation in the corporate world, Chu now focuses on solving problems and increasing efficiency in projects related to the environment and social causes. Chu specialises in sustainable fashion, with experience spanning across multiple organisations in the industry, both non- and for-profit. She is currently the founder of Shop Bettr and the Country Coordinator of Fashion Revolution Singapore.