Fast fashion is considered as the cause of the many sustainability issues the industry is facing. But people have always been looking for fast fashion to wear the newest styles. For companies, the business model is very lucrative, as it enables companies to cut costs and streamline their supply chains. Eventually, resulting in a fall in the price of clothing. It has also allowed clothing makers to produce clothing lines more frequently. For example, Zara offers new 24 clothing collections every year.
These firms also choose to produce their products overseas but unethically. As developing nations lack regulations and labor rights, big firms take advantage of this situation and exploit workers overseas by paying unfair wages and forcing them to work in hazardous working conditions. These conditions have led to horrific events such as the Rana Plaza accident in Bangladesh where a building collapsed and killed more than 1000 people; 29 global brands had orders with one of the five garment factories operating in the building.
Overproduction is the main contributor to fast fashion's environmental tolls. It has been causing mass pollution worldwide. According to WWF, it takes 2700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed to make one shirt, which is enough for one person to drink for 900 days.
Customers have become more aware of fast fashion's negative social and environmental impact. Consequently, companies have been investing more to meet the sustainability and ethical standards their customers demand. More established fashion companies are becoming more environmentally conscious. Big firms such as Levi’s launched a waste less collection for men and women in Spring 2013, involving 20% post-consumer recycled content. The organic and waterless jeans campaigns have reduced Levi's water usage by 172 million liters, as reported by the company.
Technology has also facilitated the development of sustainable fashion. Services like ThredUp and Poshmark are used by millions to buy and sell second-hand clothing - encouraging reusing and recycling clothes among customers.
Wages have always been paid unfairly in the fashion industry. But sustainable brands are working towards paying fair wages and providing safe working conditions. For instance, companies such as ABLE publish the wages they pay to their employees to promote transparency in the market.
The next time you are buying a cute top from Zara, remember that it might come with significant environmental externalities.