Please Stop Describing Fast Fashion As Democratic

by: Chloe Borich | 1 year ago | News

Image: from H&M's campaign, 'She's A Lady'. Image source.

Fast fashion is often marketed as something within reach of us all, a viable solution to fulfilling our previously unattainable clothing aspirations. Through its neverending, inexpensive, supply of colours, patterns, sizes, styles and sales, fast fashion has come to be referred to as ‘democratic’. When Ivanka Trump wears a $46 dress or Gigi Hadid dons $72 jeans, they endorse on-trend fast fashion items, and subsequently receive public appraisal for projecting an image that’s attainable for the average income worker - for us, the people. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. When it comes to fast fashion, though, this description couldn’t be any more irrelevant. Cheap price points and the rapid turnover of trends has led to a celebration of cheap excess in the western world, while the environmental impacts and human impacts of this modern supply chain (remember, fast fashion has only been around since the ‘90s) are ignored. Democracy, in its essence, is supposed to represent the needs of all people, and, notoriously, the fast fashion industry does not.

Though cheap and accessible, fast fashion is produced with the developed world in mind, making it democratic only to people who live in it. Topshop, H&M and Zara line the high streets of cities around the world, while ASOS.com and Boohoo.com provide similar kinds of shopping experiences to those physical stores online. Every year some of the 1.5 billion garments found in these stores are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories in countries the UN describe as the world’s least developed. The average garment working in Bangladesh earns just 3,000 taka a month, which is just above $40 AUD, far below the living wage of  5,000 taka a month (about $80 AUD), which would provide a family with shelter, food and education. This exploitation is often justified by the concept that investment in the industrialisation of these countries eventually enriches the lives of everyone who lives in them, however, this recent trial by the New York Times proves this simply isn’t the case. According to  Liva Firth from Eco-Age, “When [clothing] production is outsourced to poor countries, they are enslaved by an addiction to the idea of enrichment. That is when corporations start driving production costs down with volume.” On top of exploitative payment conditions, Bangladeshi factory workers face 14-16 hour working days, seven days a week, in unsafe and hazardous conditions, resulting in work injuries and factory tragedies. Not to mention being subjected to abuse and sexual harassment, with the right for maternity leave commonly disregarded by employers, who are also responsible for employing child labourers. These working conditions countless Bangladeshi garment workers are exposed to on a daily basis fail to justify fast fashion’s ‘democratic’ persona.

Fast fashion undermines nuanced problems in the fashion industry supply chain, in favour of price-focussed marketing, which is, because of the reach and therefore power of these marketing campaigns, adopted by consumers (what Otto Von Busch, Associate Professor at Parsons The New School, describes as ‘inverted totalitarianism’), obscuring the true cost of these clothes from everyone. A study last year by The Ohio State University showed that people remain wilfully ignorant to the conditions their clothes are produced in.

This philosophy isn’t doing people in the developed world much good, either. In a recent report by Greenpeace, studies found that in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy and Germany, overconsumption of clothes is a widespread problem, with people revealing they actually buy more than they can afford, only to feel either a short-lived sense of gratification or actually worse than they did before. Disturbingly, Australians rank as the world’s second largest consumers of textiles, buying on average 27 kilos of clothing and other textiles a year.

This fast fashion philosophy also obscures the truly democratic clothing options which exist: shopping second-hand clothing, vintage clothing, and affordable ethical clothing (we, for example, sell certified organic cotton t-shirts for $35AUD). Fast fashion is founded on a system that glorifies and encourages excess and perpetual change, with fashion researchers identifying that “new styles swiftly supersede the old, defining and sustaining constantly emerging desires and notions of self”. Transience is being played with here, retailers are capitalising on shopper’s quests to create shifting individualities, as well as their quest for acceptance, through buying into “massclusivity”. Though H&M, Zara and the like pride themselves on producing masses of styles at ‘throwaway’ costs, their price point or aesthetic value isn’t always comparable to that of unique and one-off second-hand or ethically made garments.

The good news is an anti-consumerist sartorial revolution seems to be occurring, with secondhand apparel, offline and online now an $18 billion industry, forecast to grow by about 11% per year and become a $33 billion industry by 2021. With consumer trends showing that women wear a garment on average just seven times before moving on, and 94% of women say that they rarely buy clothing that’s not reduced in price, it makes sense for them to return to inexpensive, (sometimes barely) pre-worn garments sold at readily accessible second-hand stores or on online selling groups. Nothing says democratic like ethical sourcing, recycling and reusing; the people, as well as the planet, are being spoken for.

 

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