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Fashion in Consumerist Society: Is Ethical Fashion the Answer?

Fast fashion has been increasingly known to create a multitude of problems. While there has been a push towards sustainable and ethical fashion, how viable is it for everyone?

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People are increasingly aware of fast fashion as the product of consumer society that does more harm than good, but is everyone ready to make the shift towards sustainable and ethical fashion?

Fast Fashion and Its Problems

In the modern era, fast fashion, or the production of inexpensive clothes to suit the latest trends, seems to be an easy way to fulfil our short-term desire for a repertoire of outfits to choose. By outsourcing their supply chains and underpaying the labour of factory workers, fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M can generate a constant flow of new clothing items that are manufactured, worn and eventually discarded. Zara, for example, introduces over 20 collections a year with a design-to-retail cycle of around five weeks. Online retailers go at an even faster speed. 

However, fast fashion is problematic in many ways. 

There are great environmental costs at every stage of the fast fashion supply chain, starting from agriculture and petrochemical production to manufacturing, logistics and retail. These costs include the usage of toxic chemicals, water pollution and other negative environmental effects. Case in point: the production of polyester textiles alone emits approximately 706 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water and produces 20 per cent of global wastewater, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). 

A figure showing the key processes of the fast fashion supply chain and their environmental effects. | Photo Credit: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment

The rate at which apparels are produced is unsustainable for the environment. Terry Nguyen, writer of “Fast Fashion, Explained”, noted that while there is no official research to fully encompass the fashion industry’s environmental impact, the industry is resource-intensive on a global level, and it is difficult to definitively quantify its impact. The nature of production cycles allows fast fashion brands to shift the blame to middleman factories to “conveniently distance their brand from wrongdoing”, Nguyen added. 

Furthermore, fast fashion is only possible because of the prevalence of sweatshops and the exploitation of workers working in them. Sweatshops continue to be part of a business model that dominates global supply chains, consisting of the “iron triangle” of sourcing, which prioritises the lowest possible cost, highest possible quality and fastest delivery time above all. At least 13 fashion brands still currently engage in sweatshops, including prominent labels such as Adidas and Uniqlo. 

The exploitation of labour in fashion is evident. In 2013, Rana Plaza garment factory, which produced clothes for global chains like Primark in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. The incident killed 1,134 workers, with thousands more injured. The factory’s collapse was attributed to the large number of workers and machinery in the building. 

Consumers’ Role in Fast Fashion

Social media has allowed the ordinary person to publicise their life in outfits, paving the way for fast fashion brands to bloom. Not only does the public nature of social media affect people’s fashion choices, it also allows their dressing habits to be scrutinised. A 2017 survey from London sustainability firm, Hubbub, concluded that 41 per cent of people aged 18 to 25 felt pressured to wear a different outfit when they head out. 

Influencer culture contributes greatly to the symbiotic relationship between social media and these fast fashion brands. With celebrities and influencers as popular as the Kardashians, anything can be turned into an instant trend. Along with it, haul culture — an online trend where content creators show off the clothes they buy — helps normalise the idea of purchasing and owning an excessive amount of clothing items, exacerbating the overconsumption of fast fashion as these items are usually extremely cheap. It is unhealthy.  

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

Mahatma Gandhi

An unintended consequence of fast fashion is the increasing usage of textile waste (that is, fabric material deemed unusable), indicating that people buy more clothes and do not keep them long enough. A YouGov Omnibus research found that 24 per cent of Australians had disposed of an item of clothing after wearing it just once, citing reasons such as a change in taste, damages and faults in clothing items or simply feeling bored from wearing the same pieces in their wardrobes.

The late Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptor Hominis warns of the dangers of consumerism and possessions: the inability to move beyond material goods, generating a restlessness expressed in the constant search for new products and creation of a “throw-away” culture. 

Consumer behaviour expert Michael Solomon summarised the phenomenon beautifully: “It’s not just about clothing, it’s about a disposable society.” 

Even when consumers are informed about the dark side of the fashion industry, the majority of them have selective memory. A research conducted by Ohio State University published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people misremember unethical aspects to avoid emotionally difficult ethical information, such as child labour. 

Sustainability and Ethical Consumerism

Sustainability has become a hot-button issue in the 21st century, as there is a greater awareness of the economic, environmental and social impacts of production and delivery of goods and services across all industries. 

The fashion industry is no exception. 

In July 2019, Inditex pledged that they would utilise sustainable or recycled material in all of their clothings by 2025. However, given how its child company, Zara, did not vow to slow down their manufacturing process, sceptics were wary of accepting such a pledge at face value. Instead, they saw it as an instance of “greenwashing”, or the tendency of companies to inflate the environmental benefits of their products. 

Fast fashion brands going “sustainable” is likely to increase customer loyalty and consumers’ demand for clothing, but committing to their mission statement to remain a credible source for sustainability may be a problem. 

Rebecca Thomson, head of commercial content at Draper’s & Damon’s, a California-based fashion retailer for women, remarked that fast fashion brands can achieve both sustainability and growth, but they have to make a long term investment to keep up with consumers’ concerns. 

The  required actions for stakeholders to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry. | Photo Credit: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment

Ethical consumerism is a form of political activism based on the premise that buyers in markets consume both the goods and the implicit processes used to produce them. Consumers have the freedom to accept or reject ethical values they hold about environmental and labour practices. In fashion, the push for ethical consumerism can be seen in campaigns for animal rights, workers’ rights for a fair wage and the use of sustainable fabrics.

While the intention of ethical consumerism is good, critics perceive it as a dangerous marketisation of ethics. This is because wealthy consumers can unfairly impose ethical consumer behaviour on ordinary people who are unable to afford ethically-made items. 

In a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review, 65 per cent of consumers said they would want to purchase brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26 per cent actually did. There appears to be a tension between consumers’ desire to use sustainable products and what they can realistically afford. Cost is thus a huge factor. From a sociological perspective, recognising that ethical and sustainable products are often more expensive and may not be affordable for the average consumer is important.

UK-based filmmaker Alice Aedy is a fervent supporter of ethical and sustainable products. She may be able to afford fashion items from independent local stores which are certified with quality assurance, are handmade and utilise practices that do not exploit labour, but others might not be so lucky. 

Alice Aedy detailed the sources of the sustainable fashion items she was wearing and urged others to participate in ethical consumption in an Instagram post. | Photo Credit: Alice Aedy/Instagram

Although ethical consumption may be the “noble” thing to do, most citizens in the UK cannot afford the accessories that Aedy was wearing. Based on the data provided by the UK Office of National Statistics, the average take-home pay of a person was about £585 (S$1022) per week in 2019. Meanwhile, a Wolf & Badger fashion item product on average is £300 (S$524) while Yala Jewellery’s prices range from £44 (S$77) to £75 (S$131). 

If ethical consumption is not viable for the average consumer, what else can we do?

An alternative would be thrifting or secondhand shopping, as buying secondhand items is relatively cheaper than most ethically-sourced fashion items. For instance, thredUP, a major online thrift store, sells products at prices as low as US$3. On-selling or giving away apparels to a willing recipient is also better than purchasing brand-new items from fast fashion brands. 

Fashion in a Consumer Society

Herein lies the dilemma — unfortunately, fashion is inseparable from its capitalist production. The acceleration of fashion cycles leads to sales increment and the high turnover of low margin high street clothes, which are the main objectives of the fashion industry in a consumer society. 

Both Marx and Engel praised the workings of capitalism, but they also acknowledged its exploitation of many with only a handful of people enjoying its benefits, such as the access to commodities in markets.

American fashion theory professor Renate Stauss wrote in her article “What Fashion is Not (Only)” that “fashion is not a product but a commodity, an abstraction that entices us to forget about the processes and people involved in its production”. We need to readjust our perception of fashion, as this allows us to “acknowledge fashion as process and creative human labour”. 

As Norbert Stern, author of Mode und Kultur, aptly put: “Fashion reveals itself as the most reliable cultural mirror we own.”

By moderating our purchases from both fast fashion and ethical brands, it is possible to live a reasonably ethical life in a consumer society. It is also important to realise the inherent value of clothes instead of just mindlessly purchasing and throwing them out. Producers, retailers and consumers all have a vital role to play for a sustainable industry to thrive.

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