I’m going to be completely honest with you: I like fast fashion. Actually, I love fast fashion. I’ve spent copious amounts of my spare time going through websites of some of the most common fast fashion brands, gushing over some of the clothes and accessories they have to offer. For a while I tried turning a blind eye to what I knew were ethical issues that existed well within many of the brands. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?
Actually, it’s not. Not when thousands of people’s rights are on the line.
Fast fashion is the phenomenon that enables brands to produce new styles in line with the latest trends. Since trends tend to be short-lived, clothing collections must be produced as quickly as possible—as a result, clothes are mass-produced and sold in relatively low prices for main target consumers (i.e. all us teenagers and young adults) to rave over (I do think fast fashion brands have a completely different reputation in Asian countries as being expensive and quite high-end, but this is an entirely other topic). This is where things get alarming: the mass-production procedure that fast fashion brands adopt has serious ethical implications.
Let’s take a look at some of the most loved fast fashion brands:
- Forever 21
The US-based retail chain has been criticized many times for its ill treatment of workers. In 2001, 19 garment workers sued the company for having them work 10-12 hours a day in unsafe conditions. In 2012, the US Department of Labor investigated Forever 21 factories located in Los Angeles and discovered that workers have to face ‘sweatshop-like conditions’ and underpayment. What’s more, Forever 21 is the one of the fast fashion brands that has not signed the Bangladesh Accord, an independent, legally binding agreement between brands that serve to protect the safety of workers in the garment industry. The company also frequently refuses to share records of its labor practices, raising question to whether the company has even more unethical practices than what is currently known. The most alarming issue, arguably, is the company’s cotton sourcing. In a report conducted to compare the quality of labor wellbeing, Forever 21 was one of the lowest scoring companies, indicating the use of forced labor to garner cotton.
In terms of environmental awareness, Forever 21’s policies only include small acts. Furthermore, 10 out of 30 Forever 21 purses happen to test positive for high levels of lead, and despite requests from formal organizations, the company continued to put the products on sale.
Many people dub the Spain-originated clothing retailer as one of fast fashion’s pioneer. The company certainly does reflect the industry’s ethical issues well; it has repeatedly faced allegations of labor mistreatment. In 2011, a group of 15 workers—one of whom was only 14 years old—were rescued by the government from sweatshop-like Sao Paolo factories. A couple of years later, Argentina’s Government Control Agency discovered mostly Bolivian workers working under ‘degrading’ conditions for 13 hours a day; they also had no official documents and many had to live in the place where they worked. Continuing the streak, earlier this year in January the India Committee of the Netherlands released a report detailing ‘appalling living conditions’ and ‘restricted freedom of movement’ for young migrant workers in Bangalore, India.
When it comes to Zara’s environmental issues, things aren’t any better. A 2013 report by Clean Clothes Campaign found Zara’s partner company, Inditex, guilty of sandblasting—a process in which abrasive sand is fired onto denim to produce ‘distressed jeans’. The procedure allegedly causes potentially fatal pulmonary disease. In addition, Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads investigation unveiled more than half of Zara samples testing positive for NPEs and a couple testing positive for cancer-causing amines. Zara happens to be the only brand of the 20 evaluated to test positive in the latter.
Unlike Forever 21, the Japanese casual wear manufacturer is still willing to be relatively transparent; the company allowed The Fast Retailing Group to monitor and publish its labor conditions. The final publication gave Uniqlo a generally good valuation, however it points out the false reporting, child labor, and unauthorized subcontracting that the company does. Workplaces were described as dirty, poorly ventilated, and hot.
The subsidiary company of British multinational Arcadia has a history of labor mistreatment. Back in 2002, the company had immigrant laborers work in dangerous conditions at London’s East End. Flash-forward to 2012, Topshop’s collaborative clothing line with Kate Moss came under scrutiny as it was accused of exploiting Sri Lankans, Indians, and Bangladeshis, all of whom had to work 12 hours a day in a six-day work week schedule. A British news channel conducted an undercover investigation and recorded terrible factory conditions as well as employees who were paid half the minimum wage. Not to mention, Topshop’s parent company Arcadia signed the Bangladesh Accord only after withstanding pressure from advocacy groups; problems still remain despite of the binding agreement anyway, including slave labor in Uzbekistan for cotton picking.
Aside from the specific problems mentioned above, fast fashion brands as a whole also may be involved in the practice of child labor. Ethical living journalist Lucy Siegle states in her book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, that 20-60% of garments are sewn at home by informal workers. This is because sequin and beading machines are very expensive, and it is unlikely for factories to invest so much for equipment. When carrying out an investigation, Siegle managed to find millions of kids in poor regions stitching and embroidering clothes in order to help provide for a whole family living in cramped slums.
And there you have it. It’s chilling to know the extent of these issues, especially taking into account that the workers have to face so many hardships, ones that violate their human rights, only to be given a small amount of payment (it’s a sharp contrast to what the leaders of fast fashion brands get; Forever 21 CEO Don Won Chang’s net worth is $4 billion). Considering the urgency of fast fashion’s ethical problems, it would be wise to refrain from brands in that industry and try finding alternative retailers that are known to protect labor rights and transparency. It’s not going to be easy, especially if you’re used to adoring Forever 21 and Zara like I do, but as long as fast fashion remains to ignore labor rights, it remains to be dangerous.
Fast fashion brands: ignorance isn’t bliss. Not when thousands of people’s rights are on the line.