Living in a material world: the changing fashion industry

Nadene Budden unravels the truth within the thread of the five dollar t-shirt.

Finally, with an exhausted sigh from fashion bloggers, global fashion month has finished its round for another year. The world’s biggest names in fashion have truly shown us all the uses of velvet and exactly how to style a statement coat, but have we ever stopped to think about where these clothes came from? Who carefully hand-stitched each individual bead to that jacket? Did the pastel pink tulle on that skirt magically appear, or is there something much darker behind it, sewing it together thread by thread? As the costs from the customer’s pocket go down, the social and environmental costs of fast fashion rise, and it’s something the big companies don’t really want you to know.

Fast fashion is an industry that relies on heavy consumerism. The 1950s saw a boom in the advertising industry and along with it grew the desire to have everything we saw. This is how the fashion industry worked – the labels would decide on the big trend for the season and that was the thing that everyone wore. Fast fashion however has only been around for the past 10 years, but in that time it has restructured the industry, the rising materialism of our society creating a spending frenzy as people try to keep up with the latest trends.

Today, 97 per cent of clothes sold in the US are made overseas. To put that into perspective, 95 per cent of clothes sold in the US 50 years ago were made locally. Big fashion businesses today have a new goal: to give us what we want. Fast. Instead of showing the public a set of new trends every turn of the season, trends as we know them today last only a few weeks, a few months if they’re lucky. Zara is famous for their ability to push out new pieces every few weeks and keep them relatively affordable. Fellow fast fashion giant Forever 21 also earns roughly $US4.4 billion each year in sales alone across 600 stores by keeping costs and prices low.

How do big brands like these still manage to make a profit? A huge player is outsourcing the supply chain for cheaper options. Labour costs are often outsourced to countries like China, Bangladesh and Thailand, where the minimum wage is low and employees and their unions have little rights. Never mind that three years ago, a building in Bangladesh containing five garment factories collapsed, killing over 1000 workers even after they pointed out cracks in the walls to their managers. Other strategies include using cheaper dyes on clothing with less natural ingredients as well as using more synthetic fabrics. The cotton used is also often from a genetically modified variety of the plant or is heavily sprayed with pesticides.


Sweatshop factories in Bangladesh are used for their cheap labour, providing fashion companies with hundreds of millions of clothes each year. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The cheaper dyes are created from a mix of chemicals, the water used to rinse clothes with the dye sometimes being thrown back into fresh water and contaminating nearby rivers before heading into the ocean. Some of these dyes contain lead and go unwashed between being manufactured and arriving at the store, with the often lower quality synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon also being non-biodegradable. This means that not only can the low quality garments poison waterways and our own skin, but they will also take thousands of years to break down, which doesn’t exactly help the climate change cause.

Fast fashion is no longer made for the individual but for the masses. It’s shipped to us and within one or two washes, it loses shape, fades or maybe the whole thing starts to unravel. So we go and buy another one. There are, of course, still plenty of companies that try to bring integrity back into their collections, but they’re often more expensive than their fast fashion counterparts. And that’s what fast fashion is counting on.

Rethinking that 70% off knit jumper you saw the other day? Yeah, me too.



Feature image:, Wikimedia Commons. No changes made.


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