Breaking the Chains of Fast Fashion
By Bobbie Lehrmann
Gif Created By: Eliza Jones
Consumers coveting the latest trends have always propelled the fashion system, but with the growth in mass-production systems and fast fashion retailers, the rate at which we consume these trends has dramatically sped up. Fast fashion satiates our desire for newness like never before, but at what cost? Do consumers understand where their clothes come from, and if they are ethically sourced? Do they even care?
According to a 2017 survey conducted by YouGov Omnibus, Australians are discarding clothes at an extraordinary rate, with one in five surveyed admitted to ditching clothing after wearing it just once. Fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M, Cotton On, Uniqlo, and Espirit try to meet this demand with weekly drops of new stock, encouraging consumers to keep up with new trends by constantly adding to their wardrobe. “I do keep up with fast fashion,” admits Public Relations intern Amy Wilson. She works in an industry where style is everything and looking the part is an essential aspect of the job. “However, I do try to keep it within my own personal style” she adds.
Manufacturers of fast fashion labels are generally located in third world countries where workers in these locations can be hired on the cheap, often working long hours despite their little pay. However, there is a much larger process involved than just the sewing of clothing. Many customers lack understanding of where materials come from and how clothing is distributed to the consumer. As a result of outsourcing, manufacturers have become increasingly ignorant towards ethical breaches such as safety issues and working conditions below the Australian standard.
Brands defend outsourcing the manufacturing process by citing competition from cheap imports and the high costs of manufacturing locally here in Australia. They believe they gain a competitive edge through these practices, thus expanding the business rapidly. However, according to Baptist World Aid’s latest Australian Fashion Report, 61 percent of companies were unaware of where their clothing is made, 76 percent were unaware where the fabric comes from, and 93 percent were unaware of the origin of their raw fibre. Campaigners for ethical clothing insist manufacturers should be in total control of their supply chain, as they could be unaware of existing unethical practices.
American fashion researcher Joelle Firzli says companies need to step up their game to become more ethically responsible. “It means adopting a circular approach to fashion, using recycled and sustainably-sourced materials, acknowledging fair job practices for all, being transparent in their approaches, and promoting a diverse and inclusive culture,” she says. Ms Firzli states the garment industry is currently dealing with human rights violations such as modern slavery, poor working conditions, wages, and environmental concerns. “While things have improved significantly within the factories of signatory companies, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee fully ethical and responsible acts,” she says. “[Fast fashion] are not clothes to invest in, it’s more ‘wear once, throw away’. Those garments will most likely end up in the trash and in landfills.”
In the face of these issues, a new trend has emerged to combat this issue: sustainable fashion. There is a major push for manufacturers and brands to be more ethically responsible. The question remains – will consumers respond to this push?
Local brand Sinerji has created a fashion line where clothes are designed using organic natural fibres, nontoxic dyes, and have made use of fair trade partnerships in order to be sustainable. “Sinerji garments are designed and produced to have minimal environmental impact in the production process, and to connect the wearer with the garment through this positive production story,” spokesperson Alice Jones says. The key stakeholders travel each year to work personally with the farmers who grow the organic cotton used by their brand and keep in contact with the tailors who sew the garments. The prevention of labour exploitation is key to their philosophy. “With Sinerji, we wanted to show that a fashion label can be successful while supporting the makers, and maintaining high environmental standards at the same time,” she says.
Brisbane fashion store Nook prides itself on sourcing ethically responsible clothing. Michelle Gillies, the owner and manager of the store, says all her clothing items are sourced right here in Australia. “I stock a small number of labels,” Ms Gillies says, “in the end, it comes down to trusting [that suppliers] are being honest in regards to their claims of ethical practice”. She relies on these suppliers to report on the working conditions of their employees. “These suppliers have told me they visit the manufacturers they use throughout the year,” Ms Gillies says.
The response by her customers has been positive. They intentionally seek out smaller Australian labels and are more thoughtful of where their clothes come from. “I understand that ethically made clothing costs more – however, cheap, factory-made garments are only available to us at the expense of exploited factory workers,” she says. “Ethically made clothing will generally last far longer than something cheap and mass produced.” By knowing where the clothing comes from, Ms Gillies and her store Nook have closed the gap between consumers and manufacturers.
Major retailer H&M recently announced the promotion of reusable fashion by allowing consumers to exchange older clothing for store vouchers. Initiatives such as these have been implemented in an attempt to force transparency and increase awareness surrounding the labour and safety conditions workers face when manufacturing fast fashion; particularly after the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy. It is yet to be seen if these fast fashion giants have actually changed practices internally.
As for Amy, she disposes of her old clothing in an ethical way. “Lately, I have been donating my clothes to the Salvation Army or Op Shops,” she says. It is up to consumers to reverse the trend of fast fashion by closing the gap between customers and brands. This can be done by understanding the supply chain of where their clothing comes from. Consumers need to remember that money talks and they can cast their vote with their dollars, by helping to make a difference in the fashion industry.