Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of How We Dress

Bernardo Montes de Oca

While I researched for this article, I realized that Lacoste sucks. Of course, since they're a big company, I always had a hunch, but reading about it just made it more real. And the problem is bigger than this shirt. Fashion pollutes more than the shipping and air industries combined. It's also responsible for 20% of the world's wastewater. The worst of it is that, now, we make and buy clothes faster than ever before. There's even a term for it: fast fashion, and it's revolutionizing how we dress. Two companies are leading the way in this revolution: ASOS and Shein. They're worth billions and show no signs of slowing down. So, how did we get here? Let's find out in this article.

The crazy world of fast fashion

Let's talk about numbers. How many items of clothing do you estimate you buy in a year? 10, 12?

Well, it turns out that the average US citizen buys up to 68 new clothing items per year. So now, buying clothes is easier than ever, even during the 2020 pandemic.

How did this happen? We could go back in history and do a deep dive into how the industrial revolution propelled fashion. But we'd be missing the point.

Today's consumption is a sign of our times. Plus, we'd also be leaving out that both fast fashion, and the fashion industry in general, have both grown thanks, in part, to dark realities. But before we dive into this, let's see the factors that have defined how we buy clothes today.

In the seventies, Americans bought 70% of their clothes from the US, but that number dropped to 56,2% by 1991. By 2012, that number was 2.5%.

Why? Here's what happened.

Factories popped up in India, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. American and European brands loved the cheap labor. So, both manufacturing and consumption grew at breakneck speeds.

By the early '90s, countries like China and India became hubs for cheap, mass-produced clothing. Plus, since designs and influence came from the US and Europe, it was also trendy. Thus, fast fashion was well on its way to becoming the norm.

Brands had a steady supply of inexpensive clothing. All they had to do was sell it. So that's what they did. Major brands went on a building spree, setting up shops in every corner imaginable, and some even ventured exclusively into the online marketplace.

So, while manufacturing countries benefited from "investment," textile labor in wealthy nations like the US plummeted. This decrease further enhanced the need for clothing from other countries. It's a vicious cycle that is replicated all over the world.

However, that's not to say that companies from Europe and the US benefit from this textile revolution. On the contrary, it's the total opposite and, in the UK, one company, in particular, has helped revolutionize the world of fashion.

The drug behind Europe's fast fashion addiction

We've all seen the videos: millions of people unbox clothes, try them, review them. But then, there are hilarious comparisons between what you get and what the ad said.

One question you might have is how teenagers can afford so many clothes. Well, fast fashion has gotten so efficient that it's cheaper to buy clothes now than it ever was before. So, now, you can buy a complete wardrobe for less than $30.

In Europe, ASOS is a brand that dominates this sector, but it hasn't had an easy ride. When it first started in 2000, the company had to convince the world that online shopping was by selling things you saw on TV.

That's where the name comes from; ASOS used to stand for As Seen On Screen. While the idea seems logical now, let's remember that this was back before online shopping was even a thing.

Companies like Amazon aimed at a future in which everything you wanted would be a click away, but it was farfetched. Still, ASOS wanted to be a part of it.

The first steps weren't on the internet

ASOS created its website with little success. Founder Nick Robertson recognizes that, at first, they were trying to sell anything to make money, but sales were low.

For years, ASOS struggled to make ends meet. From convincing people that online shopping was a thing to surviving the big crash of the dot-com bubble (we have a video on that), it was a difficult time. Then Robertson noticed something: fashion had the highest markup, and it became ASOS's goal to focus on that.

And sales didn't go up. You see, ASOS sold expensive stuff, and those navigating the web weren't precisely wealthy back then. Instead, they were young shoppers who were broke.

That was the Eureka moment. Sell stuff from TV to broke teenagers. And, not just any stuff: cool stuff. The recipe was a hit: the products were trendy, cheap, and easy to buy.

From then, the company evolved to become one of the UK's and Europe's biggest clothing providers.

ASOS was part of a vicious cycle in which it produced more products because the buyers wanted more variety. Forget the seasons; people wanted cool clothes all year round. So, ASOS increased its catalog by offering thousands of new pieces in small batches at an almost daily rate.

In short, they became the epitome of fast fashion, but they weren't the only ones.

Asia's Fast Fashion Lord

When it comes to Asia, one brand stands above the rest: Shein. If we could summarize it in one word, it would be efficient.

The Chinese manufacturer was born in 2008 as Sheinside and began by selling wedding dresses. But founder Chris Xu quickly changed his focus into general fashion as people wanted more than just that unique dress.

Thanks to a growing market in China, the company expanded fast during its first five years, reaching 100 employees by 2013. Also, Xu shortened the name, moved to Guanzhou, and opted to become a real-time retailer.

By the way, there's one thing I didn't mention. Xu also loves algorithms. So, from the start, he wanted to use data to be as efficient as possible. That's why the company has prioritized that products need to get to the hubs fast.

Shein is king by being fast.

Here's an example. Providers must be within 5 to 8 hours driving distance from the headquarters in Guanzhou, tops. In addition, products must be available only days after approving concepts, and batches are small, no more than one hundred, to sell them fast.

They're also beyond cheap. So, you don't expect much in the way of quality, so your new shirt wears out fast, but that's no problem - you can buy another cheap shirt!! Reports say that Shein can come up with 1,000 new items per day. So, it's not out of the question to have a different outfit for each day of the year if you can afford it.

But Shein isn't free of controversy. I'd say it's the total opposite. Significant brands like Levi's have sued it for copyright infringement. The company also has a reputation for stealing designs from independent artists and selling them online.

Speaking of products, some have enraged customers, like a chain with a Swastika and a phone case with a handcuffed Black male outline.

Still, these two companies are worth billions. ASOS reached a $5.5 billion valuation in March 2021, and Shein reached a $30 billion valuation in August 2021. These are massive numbers, but don't let them blind you from a harsh reality.

Fast fashion factory shows heaps of clothes that will go to waste, in different colors, piled up

The price to pay for clothes

Those at the top of the fashion industry move some significant dough. According to Forbes, in 2018, five of the world's 55 wealthiest individuals owned fashion companies.

It seems the entire industry has grown at an exponential pace. In 1990, it generated around $500 billion, and now, McKinsey estimates that it's closer to $2.4 trillion.

So, there's no sign of slowing down. But, there's another side to the story. After all, this growth comes at a cost.

First of all, there are the working conditions. It's no secret that these factories are dangerous. In Bangladesh, for example, 500 workers have died in factory fires between 2006 and 2012.

Primary sanitary and safety conditions aren't frequent. There are reports of laborers clocking in 16 to 18 hours of work a day, seven days a week. Still, big brands take advantage of countries' poor regulations and turn a blind eye.

Big Brands, Big Controversies

Take Lacoste, for example. Whenever there's an article or report on the fashion supply chain, its name comes up. This company has earned a reputation for keeping a tight lid on anything regarding production.

But the truth still comes out. For example, a 2018 article by the New York Times revealed that Lacoste works closely with TAL, a manufacturer from Malaysia known for having multiple factories that more resemble sweatshops. Worker abuse, excessive working hours, and a lack of bare necessities are commonplace in these factories.

Also, in 2018, Lacoste agreed to cut all ties with Chinese factories that used forced Uighur labor. But that was only after a report came out revealing that Lacoste had links with these facilities.

ASOS and Shein are also part of the problem. Both companies have faced accusations of unethical labor practices, sweatshop conditions, and questionable supply chains, AKA modern slavery.

During the COVID pandemic, reports surfaced of ASOS not fulfilling safe working conditions, to a point where employees were walking out. Shein, on the other hand, consistently denies all accusations and is quick to silence any reports. Still, both companies insist that they are working to improve on these conditions.

Fast Fashion Doesn't Care About Earth.

Then, there's a problem that most, if not all, fashion companies share, and that's pollution.

According to the EPA, textiles account for 16 million tons of waste a year in the US alone. On the other hand, only 700,000 tons of used clothing get a second life as export products. When it comes to water, it's no different.

The fashion industry consumes 10% of the global water supply dedicated to running factories. On average, one cotton shirt requires 3,000 liters of water. Moreover, those shirts come in different colors, so dyes are responsible for 20% of the world's wastewater.

And, this isn't any wastewater. Changes in acidity cause irreparable environmental damage. But, then again, a lack of regulations in developing countries means there's little control over pollution. And, there's no sign of it slowing down. If anything, it's getting worse.

After all, Gen Zs are now used to having an endless closet. So, what does this mean for the future?

Where is fast fashion taking us?

I'll be honest; there's very little evidence that any of this will change. If anything, it's growing. Experts now call it Ultra-Fast Fashion.

Take Shein, for example. It's a company that understands how young buyers work. As a result, they've become a mainstay in social networks, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok.

It's no secret that they partner with influencers globally and have a relentless promotion tactic. Plus, they've even created incubators for fashion design. These harbor over 500 designers and add new ones each month. In short, they've turned fashion into a gig economy.

And, they're not the only ones. Adding to the heaps of fast fashion companies, giant Alibaba has also ventured into the market. It launched allyLikes this year to attack Shein.

The thought of these two duking it out leaves little hope for a change in how we buy. The world's giants aren't letting go. It seems that we're bound to consume clothing till there's no more to have.

There's Room to Change

Even the efforts seem lackluster. Lacoste created a campaign for saving animals and the environment, which involved changing the legendary logo to raise awareness about endangered species.

The world took notice, but for the wrong reasons. First of all, the company tackled the problem of clothing by making more clothes. Then, Lacoste sold the limited-edition shirts, which were $190 each, for charity.

Yes, it managed to raise around $300,000; it turned in $3 billion in revenue the same year. So, these efforts leave a bad taste in our mouths. It's more greenwashing than anything else.

ASOS and Shein have promised to improve and provide better working conditions and a sustainable future by 2030. But, the question remains. Is there a solution? I mean, I could ditch my Lacoste shirts and aim for another brand, but will that change anything?

And, there's even a bigger question, do we want to?

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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