The dirty secret behind the fast-fashion market

The ‘so-appearing’ sartorial elegance and being linked to the refined luxury (in terms of style, colors, silhouette and appearance), makes fashion followers to be tempted by fast-fashion retailers to buy inexpensive garments due to their ability to deliver new styles at more frequent intervals.

Fast-fashion companies focus on popular apparel that has less durable quality, low costs, and up-to-minute designs. The growth of mass production replaces tailors and designers with wageworkers, forcing artists to lose their techniques and skills to afford a living and please consumerism. Ready-to-wear, however, offers convenience, more styling options, and a quick response by reducing time to present fashionable garments with the means of increasing customer satisfaction. The fast-fashion industry is one of the largest businesses in the world. According to United Nations Environmental Program, the textile and apparel production is valued at 1.44 trillion dollars making it the second largest global economic activity in terms of trade.

Manufacturing Process in ApparelThe fashion supply chain is a multiple step production, including: design, raw material harvesting, spinning, yarn production, dyeing, weaving, cutting, stitching, and final garment construction. The production of fashion products is an organized industry made up of cottage labor as well as high-volume technology in intensive facilities. Unfortunately, this complex cycle leaves a terrible environmental footprint along its entire manufacturing process. The raw materials used in most fast-fashion production are rayon and nylon – petroleum-based synthetic materials that have been linked to nervous system damage, and are possible carcinogens. In addition, artificial dyes that are used to design these products contain heavy metals, such as copper and chromium, which accumulate in ground water supplies, and are toxic to fish and humans. Asia has the largest fashion production in the world, if Asian countries change towards sustainable manufacturing; it would have a significant worldwide impact. Sustainable production correlates with sustainable design, fashion designers’ decisions on fabric, construction, and production techniques constrain or facilitate the activities throughout the manufacturing process.

H&M collections_DressesFast-fashion retailers have to adjust to economical changes to keep their business growing. It is incredible how 4.95 US dollars can take a shopper far in an H&M retail store making it cheaper to buy a dress than it is to buy a meal at Mc Donald’s. How can a trench coat cost 20 US dollars? And how can a fashion company manage to keep such low prices? Just by reducing to the point of squeezing the capital invested in their manufacturing chain to use it towards marketing and advertisements instead? On top of that, apparel workshops are pushed to make the largest quantities of garments in the least amount of time. The greater the number of products a factory produces, the more the factory gets paid. Basic math, right? It is a trend that is followed by fast-fashion brands that has caused repercussions to their image and customers’ health along the way.  Fast-food places are unhealthy for their consumer due to the various additives used for food preservation and fast-fashion has managed to reach the same level of unnatural production.

Green peace ProtestThe investigative report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up conducted by Greenpeace Detox Campaign tested 141 garments from twenty major fashion brands and found out products from every brand containing dashes of hazardous chemicals and carcinogens. Surprisingly, the worst offenders were not the obvious targets like Forever 21 or H&M, but brands placed in higher price-points such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s, and Zara. According to Toxic Threads, 88 percent of Calvin Klein ’s garments tested positive for endocrine-disrupting nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), followed by Levi Strauss & Co.’s with 82 percent and Zara at 70 percent. Moreover, high levels of phthalate, a solvent added to synthetic to produce plasticity and found in materials used to print images, was found in four garments; this solvent is linked to obesity, cancer, and early menopause. “As inherently hazardous substances, any use of NPEs, phthalates, or azo dyes that can release cancer-causing amines, is unacceptable,” said Greenpeace, in a press release. Several fast-fashion brands have extended their product portfolio to the undergarment production, using inexpensive fabrics and dyes that are extremely dangerous on their consumers due to the intimate contact that these garments have with their bodies.

Zara's new eco-friendly store in LondonSince 2011, the Greenpeace Detox Campaign has been urging major fashion brands to “detox” their manufacturing process by 2020. With this recent report, companies, like Zara, are being pressured to do the same. Greenpeace is also reaching out to the consumers to participate in the campaign by cutting off fast-fashion companies that resist on joining the movement. The fashion brands Espirit and Mango are the ninth and tenth companies ranked on the list, after Adidas, C&A, H&M, LiNing, Nike, Puma, Marks & Spencer, and have agreed to eliminate chemicals in their supply chains towards the goal of zero discharge on the environment. In fact, the irony lies in the fact that Marks & Spencer even has long had its own organic and fresh food chain, trying to show the ‘care for the environment and people’s health but on the other hand, profiting on damaging both. What a deceive from what goes behind the close doors of their apparel factories.

Well, the Greenpeace’s brought-forward issues did some good as well. The textile corporation Inditex SA has launched a new sustainability plan where they demand all suppliers to disclose confidential information on pollution data by the end of March 2013. Recently, H&M joined the race too. Fortunately, the number of fashion brands adhering to the environmentally responsible practices is growing, although slowly, but growing.

Sartorially speaking, fashionable garments should be accessible to fashion lovers as soon as these pieces are seen in runway shows. Fast fashion companies should modify their manufacturing process by spending more on production and less on advertisements. Fashion companies may reduce negative environmental impacts through selecting recycled or innovative fabrics based on biomimetic designs to reduce resource consumption or the use of pesticides.

Fast fashion brands could hire biologists to participate in the design ideas, to be less wasteful and harmful to the environment and more efficient, and use this as a tool to market a new image and change the mind-set of their existing and potential loyal customers. Furthermore, companies could change to nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing for the textile industry rather than manufactured by etching; this will improve the product’s resistance and durability to extend a garment life between washes and improve the lubrication in sewing machines to eliminate the use of oil in the sewing heads. Fashion brands’ primary concern should be social sustainability, if a loyal customer feels valued and looked after, the reciprocal will, eventually, occur.