Taking Fashion Out of the Fast Lane

By Bria Ellis

 Fast fashion, cheap quickly made clothing to satisfy trends, is a popular segment of the worldwide fashion industry. Fast fashion lets consumers follow the latest trends inexpensively, in as little as just weeks after new designs hit the runways in Paris, New York and Milan. But the hidden costs, in water pollution, labor abuses, oceanic pollution, crowded landfills and intellectual property theft have spurred a reaction in the fashion industry, a movement advocates are calling “slow fashion.”

Fast Fashion Explained in 7 Steps

Impacts of Fast Fashion


The issues of injustice that come out of fast fashion affect everyone in and around the industry, from farmworkers in distant cotton fields to consumers at home. But the harshest realities hit garment workers overseas.

“In order for [fast fashion] to be successful, it has to exploit labor. There’s no way around it,” Professor Chaumtoli Huq from CUNY School of Law explained at the April 2019 Empower, Sustain, Change, Repeat panel discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center.

In November 2012, the Tazreen factory caught fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 110 people. Five months later, in April 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka. The building was home to five garment factories and the collapse resulted in the deaths of over 1,130 people. Zara, Walmart, Benetton, The Children’s Place and Primark are just a few of the companies that sourced their apparel production from Rana Plaza.

“It’s been consistently shown that this model does not protect labor rights, no matter how many auditing certifications” are performed, Huq continued. “The building that collapsed was certified. The auditing does not work. It’s not sufficient.

“Most fashion brands will say they can give livable wages, but the model, by its core, requires cheap labor,” she concluded.

Only 2% of that labor comes from the United States, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. Most clothing brands outsource labor. That cheap labor mainly comes from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  

In the United States 

Fast fashion is about replication, not originality. In the social media boom of today, designers of all sizes have been both victims and perpetrators of design theft. The queen of social media herself, Kim Kardashian, took to Instagram to call out fast-fashion brands for knocking off the work of the designers she promotes. The influencer posted a photo on the social media platform in a custom made dress by her husband’s brand Yeezy and captioned it “fast fashion brands, can you please wait until I wear this in real life before you knock it off?” signed with a laughing face emoji. 

Large brands like Kanye West’s Yeezy face hardships dealing with knocks-offs, but independent designers without large cash flows behind them face an even greater struggle. Kerin Rose, the Manhattan-based founder and creative director of luxury eyewear line A-Morir Studio, said she has dealt with large brands and overseas vendors stealing her designs with little repercussion.

Designers from anywhere in the world have the right to patent their original works in the United States if the design has a unique look. The cost to obtain a single design patent can run from $190 to $760. Before filing a patent application, designers also need to hire a patent lawyer to draft the patent, which can start at $1,500.  

For consumers, knock-offs come at a price. You get what you pay for. “I have eyewear that I made 10 years ago that have been knocked around that are still in great condition,” Rose said. “I can’t say the that about a case from H&M…that I bought 10 years ago. You’re sacrificing quality [and] conditioning consumers to think that they constantly have to buy more and buy more frequently, when–especially in today’s climate–you need to buy less.”

The life cycle of a clothing item is shorter than ever. Clothing is worn less and tossed away sooner with only around 14.2 percent ever being recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and over 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated every year domestically. Global clothing production is on the rise. On average, people are expected to increase the number of clothing items they buy. Between 2000 and 2014, that number increased by 60%, according to Greenpeace.

Fashion With a Conscience

The Antithesis to Fast Fashion: Slow Fashion 

“There is such a well-crafted strategy…leading us to believe that the more clothes we can buy, the wealthier we are. That if I’m able to go to the store and buy something for a party and then throw it away, it has a false sense of life. We’ve been led to believe are clothes are supposed to be used up as opposed to [lasting] a long period of time. And that’s not the case.”

Kathleen Elie

Ethical Fashion Blogger

Staying trendy in this day and age has created a culture that thrives on waste in a time where many are looking to conserve. One week, it’s about assless-chaps and cowboy hats for Coachella and the next it’s bright neon for the Spring . It’s easy to be swept away by the latest trend, but it takes only a second thought to realize that the story behind this perception of once-and-done clothes is not a good one.

For Kathleen Elie, it took one clothing sample. It may have been a stain or a smell, but it made her take a second and think. “It was just this one thought that crossed my mind. It didn’t seem like it was made in the greatest working conditions,” Elie said. That thought led her to research where her clothes came from and started her journey into ethical fashion back in 2009.

Elie always had an appreciation for clothing. When she was growing up, her mother taught her what a good garment looked like and felt like. As she got more into fashion as a career the foundations of good clothing she was exposed to as a child came back to her and Elie built on them. “It’s not that I learned more in terms of the quality of the garment, [but] I learned more about the system as a whole,” she said in a phone interview. She began to think about the impacts on workers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

In 2010, Elie created Conscious N Chic, a website dedicated to informing readers about “ethical living in fashion, beauty, food, & travel.” Since its launch the website has been featured in glossy magazines such as Elle, Essence, Flare and Fashion.

“The whole shift that we have going on is just about injustice,” she said. “Injustice takes so many different forms and I do believe that as people are becoming more aware of one form of injustice, it has this trickle effect, or the snowball effect, where it starts affecting other areas of their lives.”

For example, she said, when consumers learn about the exploitation of garment workers overseas? “They realize that ethical fashion is actually a women’s rights issue. Then they start thinking about, ‘Oh, well, maybe I should pay more attention about how I purchased my clothing.’ And then they might learn about how the industry is destroying the environment and then [about] the toxins that are in fabric. And then they start thinking about the toxins that are in their beauty products. And it’s just, the more aware you become, the more awareness there is. It kind of opens your eyes to bigger things we weren’t aware of.”

A Sustainable Shift

“It’s important to recapture this material that would have otherwise been thrown away because so much of it is reusable”

Annie Keating

Community Coordinator , FABSCRAP

Bringing sustainability to the fashion industry comes from more than just ethical brands. It’s also about giving clothes new life.

“It’s important to recapture this material that would have otherwise been thrown away because so much of it is reusable,” Annie Keating, the Community Coordinator at FABSCRAP, a Brooklyn-based clothing donation nonprofit, said.

Fashion brands are noticing a cultural shift towards sustainability. Big brands are getting on board. 2018 acted as a turning point for sustainable fashion. The Global Fashion Agenda Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report found an increase in sustainability across 75% of the 150 fashion companies included in the report. Overall, the fashion industry increased its Pulse Score six points between 2017 and 2018, going from 32 to 38 out of 100. The score is calculated using the Higg Index to measure and track the sustainability of the fashion industry using environmental and social impact. The Pulse score measures the “global and holistic baseline of the sustainability performance in the fashion sector.”

Perhaps surprisingly, H&M, one of the leading global fast-fashion companies, has become a leader in sustainable and ethical fashion, too. The popular clothing chain has introduced donation bins in each storefront to divert clothes that would have been thrown away from the trash bin. And customers are rewarded for donating. Customers can receives a 15% off coupon for the store for each bag of unwanted clothing.

The brand also touts its Conscious clothing line. The line was created in 2012 as an experimental program for sustainability within the brand. The 2019 line now features recycled polyester, organic cotton, leather derived from pineapple leaves, algae-based footwear and citrus-derived silk.

Even with its sustainable and ethical efforts, H&M remains one of the leading beneficiaries of fast fashion’s exploitative behavior, showing how much further the fashion industry needs to go.

“Most of us, when we think of where something was made, we think of that finished product piece”–for example, Made in China or Made in US—“but under the surface of the water, there are so many layers in the supply chain and they all involve people and transportation and supply chain,” Amy Hall, the director of social consciousness for Eileen Fisher, explained.

The Fashion Transparency Index report aims to make that supply chain available to everyone. It rates and ranks brands on how transparent their production line is with the hope of benefiting the industry. “When the Rana Plaza building collapsed five years ago in Bangladesh, killing and injuring thousands of garment works, people had to dig through the rubble looking for clothing labels in order to figure out which brands were linked to the five garment factories in the building,” the 2018 report explained.

The lack of accountability allows companies to distance themselves when their practices result in tragedy. The report has already made a difference. Between the 2017 and 2018, 98 out of 150 companies reviewed “increased their level of transparency by 5%,” the report detailed, while “22 brands have increased their traceability score by more than 10%.”

There is still more work to be done. “No brand or retailer is scoring above 60% of the total possible points…there is still much crucial information that remains concealed,” the Fashion Transparency Index explained.

The fashion industry is headed towards a major shift. A lot of this shift will be caused by economic and consumer shifts. The pre-owned or secondhand business model is on the rise. Consumers want their purchases to have a value to society and the things they care about. Above all else, consumers want convenience.

The industry continues to demand new looks. “One in seven consider it a fashion faux-pas to be photographed in an outfit twice. Simply put, young people today crave newness,” according to The State of Fashion 2019 report. The second-hand market is fulfilling this gap offering new styles to consumers at lower prices while also benefiting the environment. “This trend is partly driven by the young generation’s hunger for newness, while embracing sustainability.” People have the option to embrace consumerism within a sustainable circular system.

”During the manufacturing process our clothes are touched by many pairs of hands before they ever reach the shop floor or, increasingly, the screens of our phones and computers.”

Fashion Transparency Index 2018

The Future of Fashion

B-Corps are on the rise in the fashion, apparel and beauty community. A Certified B Corporation or B-Corp is a “business that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance a profit and purpose,” as explained on the B Corporation website. There are currently 2,788 companies across 150 industries certified as B-Corps. As of April 2018, 197 of those companies fall within the fashion, apparel and beauty community, a 44 percent increase since 2015. 

The recent growth in sustainable fashion creates an outlook for a bright future. “If there is a continuation of pushing and doing research in this kind of field because the research has a lot of angles,” Eugenia Paulicelli, the founder and director of the Fashion Studies Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, said. “It’s going to be a field that develops more and more and also the culture of consumption choices that we make.”

“In my view, I think the fashion industry has been much slower than for example the food industry,” Paulicelli continued on the shift towards a more sustainable fashion industry. “It’s more difficult for fashion to leave because this question of paying the labor in a fair way.”

The fast fashion industry currently relies on low labor costs to maintain low prices while maintaining a profit. The system only works with cheap labor. “You have to go where the labor costs much less but this has always been the case,” Paulicelli said.

There is no simple fix to this problem. “Do we continue to promote the industry? If we change the business model how will it affect the worker?,” Chaumtoli Huq questioned.  “We have to take a hard look at how we want to move forward and what that would look like.”

“For Fashion players, 2019 will be a year of awakening. The ones who will succeed will have to come to terms with the fact that in the new paradigm that is taking shape around them, some of the old rules simply don’t work.”

The State of Fashion 2019