Let me start this off by saying that there’s almost nothing I love more than a good deal on clothes. And since this is a safe space, I feel like I can admit that I’m guilty of buying pieces from fast fashion brands. But in my ongoing effort to become a better global citizen, I felt like I needed to take a closer look at these brands and what they’re really doing to the planet. And as I found myself in a serious rabbit hole, I left feeling awful.
Fast fashion has gained popularity for its ability to churn out high volumes of clothing and sell them at a fraction of the price of high-end alternatives. H&M, Shein and Forever 21 are just a few examples of the brands that have made it their business to deliver trendy clothes on the cheap. But while consumers love getting their hands on these deep discounts, it often comes at a cost to the company’s employees, the environment and independent designers. Here’s what’s wrong with fast fashion as we know it.
Part of the reason these brands can offer their customers such low prices is that they’re paying their employees next to nothing to churn out the pieces they sell. UK news outlet Channel 4 recently investigated working conditions at Chinese clothing company Shein. They learned that workers in one factory earned the equivalent of $556 per month to make 500 pieces of clothing a day. If that wasn’t bad enough, employees are expected to work up to 18-hour days with only one day off per month.
Thanks to social media, trends change at the speed of light. And fast fashion brands let customers keep up without breaking the bank. But our come-up can hit lots of independent designers (including Black-owned brands) in the pocket.
In a July 2021 tweet, Elexiay, a Black-owned fashion brand, accused Shein of copying a design for their Amelia sweater. The sweater, which is crocheted by hand, sells for $330 on the Elexjay site. Shein’s version sold for less than $20.
Let’s be honest: fast fashion and high quality don’t exactly go together, which is why a lot of the pieces quickly end up in the “to donate” pile. Clothing waste is responsible for nearly 10 percent of our carbon emissions. A 2021 report from CBS News found that some of the clothes we donate to charity end up being shipped to other countries. And once there, they pollute the beaches, landfills and places like Kamanto market in Ghana, where close to 15 million pieces of used clothing come in from Western countries every week. “The whole fast fashion model is built around… building cheap clothing, and the U.S. is the biggest culprit, exporting more second-hand clothing than any other country on earth,” said fashion designer Samuel Oteng.