Fast fashion: the biggest black brand in the clothing industry

The price tags don’t lie. Fast fashion is cheap. According to New York Magazine, the average product at H&M sells for $18. This final price includes the cost of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, operating costs, and labor, all topped off with a company profit margin.

With only $18 to work with, how can businesses stretch the budget? Who pays for the overflow?

The response is both humanitarian and environmental. According to experts and activists alike, fast fashion feeds on two unintended benefactors: underpaid workers and the environment.

Defined as cheap, mass-produced clothing to satisfy the cycle of regenerative trends, fast fashion has become a major player in the modern shopping experience. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average consumer will wear an item seven times during its lifetime.

After the seventh wear, the garment will join the 21 billion tons of textiles that end up in landfill each year, according to Vogue. As trend revenue continues to accelerate, experts predict that number will only increase.

Sara Kunkel, junior apparel merchandising and editor-in-chief of SWATCH, believes that technology plays a big role in the shortened lifespan of modern trends.

“We have been given the tools, through technology, to overconsume,” Kunkel said.

Today, in the digital age, services such as overnight shipping have conditioned society to expect instant gratification. In order to keep up, online retailers like Fashion Nova release up to 900 new styles each week, according to CEO Richard Saghian.

While consumers can quickly view, save and click “add to cart” from the comfort of their own home, the physical implications of their purchases are felt thousands of miles away.

The garment industry is notorious for its poor labor practices, particularly with regard to the use of child labor. According to UNICEF, approximately 170 million children are employed in conditions that violate child labor laws. Many of these kids work in the apparel industry, supplying fast fashion retailers with new styles to feed a global audience.

Experts believe the same technology that normalized overconsumption will save society from it.

Dr. Young-A-Lee, professor and head of the graduate program in the Department of Consumer Science and Design at Auburn University, is one such expert.

Lee realized his passion for sustainability in the garment industry in the 1990s, while spending time in South Korea and surrounding countries.

“Living in the United States, we don’t actually see the factory, how it works and the impact it has on the environment. I had to see the dark side of the garment manufacturing industry,” she said.

Since then, Lee has dedicated his life’s work to reshaping the garment industry.

In 2017, Lee and his team challenged society’s perception of textiles by creating a leather substitute made from fermented green tea. The product offers insight into a possible solution to dwindling natural resources.

“It’s about reusing the existing by-product to create a new material,” Lee said.

In the short term, Lee said the future of sustainability lies in integrating technology into the buying process.

This movement is already underway, with many brands using virtual try-on options and creating modular design garments, otherwise known as garments, that can be deconstructed for multiple purposes. Lee believes personalizing clothing will encourage consumers to forgo fleeting trends in favor of personal style.

“As consumers, we hold the power. Until we realize fast fashion is not going away,” Kunkel said.

Michael O. Stutler