After a long wait, I had finally arrived at my destination.
I paused in the doorway to take it all in: a gold ornate chandelier dangled from a two-story high ceiling, all framed by beautiful white archways. A harlequin tiled floor peeked through the rubble with green foliage dotted about in random clumps. It was beautiful, it was majestic, it was… “Hey, watch it!” someone shoved past me, “you’re blocking the door.”
No, I wasn’t in some grand, yet peaceful, church in Europe, I was in Swedish retail giant, H&M, on the hectic second day their doors had opened to the Australian public.
The promise of cheap prices and on-trend, fast fashion had lured me in. Same as every woman, man, child and their dog. So lured in I had stood in that ridiculous line over two hours for the chance to grab one $15 top and a $20 pair of pants.
On the tram ride home I reflected on the past five hours, thoughts swirling around in my head. I may have saved $100 plus, but how could they offer these unbelievable low prices? What impact would this have on local Australian businesses and designers? And – as I hung the top and pants up in my already full and bursting wardrobe next to a similar top and an even more similar pair of pants – I wondered what fast fashion meant for the future of the environment.
If you’ve ever bought clothing from Sportsgirl, Dotti, H&M or Zara, you’ve purchased fast fashion. Fast fashion means retailers no longer stick to seasonal selling and instead churn out new stock on a regular basis.
Although still a relatively new concept in Australia, we have had enough time for it to alter our consumption habits.
Britain’s Topshop landed in Melbourne during 2011 and Spanish megastore Zara followed a few months behind. With H&M’s plans to open more than 55 stores in Australia, fast fashion well and truly has us in its grip.
But what does this really mean? Why should we oppose cheaper clothes and why should we deny ourselves a wider variety of immediate trends?
Because fast fashion has no long-term sustainability.
In Elizabeth L. Cline’s book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, she describes overflowing waste in America’s landfills and extra costs to charities for recycling your unwanted donations. She talks of garment factories in polluted China, and sweatshops in Bangladesh.
And, according to Cline, the industry in China is showing signs of distress.
“Because of the country’s one-child policy, the labor pool of young workers is finally shrinking, and young people, many of them children of first-generation migrant factory workers, are choosing to better their lives by going to college and looking for office jobs instead of factory-line work,” says Cline.
“As a result of this confluence of massive changes in China, labor costs are surging, by as much as 10 percent to 30 percent per year.”
Michael Kane, of American brand, Karen Kane, attests to this, “In China, prices have really started to go up incredibly. The rate it’s occurred is phenomenal. It’s not even competitive to produce there anymore.”
To keep providing low prices, says Cline, retailers have moved to poorer countries – like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia and Vietnam. These places lack the infrastructure of China to support the exponential growth of the industry.
Relaxed labour laws and no union support mean factory workers work a minimum 12 hours a day, with one day off a week. Or, in even worse cases, one day off per month.
An even bigger factor to consider is the safety of the workers.
In 2013, at least 200 Bangladeshi garment workers died when their eight-story factory collapsed on them.
“Global buyers who buy cheap apparel from Bangladesh do audit safety issues in factories, but these audits are often not actual inspections,” says Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group, estimates at least 700 workers have died since 2006.
The safety and rights of the low-paid unskilled workers who make our garments are not the only factors to consider, there is also the huge environmental impact.
In Australia a 2010 study by Constanza Bianchi and Grete Birtwistle found textiles make up four per cent of current landfill.
This may not seem like a huge number but if you consider that nearly 100 percent of textile waste is made up on recyclable materials, why is any of it ending up there?
In America – where fast fashion has been around much longer – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found textile waste had increased by 40 percent since 1999.
We also need to think of the environmental impact to the countries that churn out our must-have trends.
Polyester makes up around 50 percent of garments. Polyester is, in effect, just plastic. Plastic that carries a heavy ecological footprint.
I did a Google search on “pollution in China caused by garment factories” and turned up article after article on the negative effects caused by the large scale manufacturing.
In January this year, Greenpeace found a textile treatment plant had discharged toxic waste into the ocean roughly the size of 50 Olympic pools.
“From China to Bangladesh, rivers run purple, blue and black with waste from garment factories. Locals say they can tell what colors are in fashion by looking at the river. Meanwhile, the air is so thick with toxic fumes- it causes regular nosebleeds, fainting, and retching- especially in children,” writes Goldman Staff on the Goldman Environmental Prize blog.
And this is only beginning to scrape the surface.
Fast fashion has also had a negative impact on the quality of vintage items in America, says Cline.
Decent second-hand clothing has become harder to find due to low-quality, fast fashion. This gives consumers less reason to shop second-hand and has a negative impact on recycling.
When faced with a decision between a $7 second-hand H&M top with a missing button, and a brand new H&M top for just a few dollars more, I know what I would have previously chosen.
In protest to the increasing rise of fast fashion, the concept of slow fashion is now gaining traction.
Slow fashion “celebrates personal style, encourages education, promotes conscious consumption, values quality and asks us to slow down,” says website, SlowFashioned.org.
It’s about becoming educated and asking where, how and who has produced your garment. It means paying more for pieces that will last longer. It means mending, sewing, altering or designing your own clothes. It means thinking long and hard about the far reaching consequences of that $10 top. It means considering the real cost (hint: it’s much more than the label price).
An advocate of the slow fashion movement is Elaine Briggs, founder of Australian label, Cosi.
“In the UK, cheap, mass-produced clothing has had a major impact on a large number of high-end European designers. Some survived, many did not. I believe that the Australian market is soon to mirror the UK experience,” says Briggs.
“A fast fashion shawl is one of maybe 400 made in one day by machine-operating, low-paid, unskilled workers. We strive to create products treasured for generations and handed down – the antidote to the throw-away society. Fast fashion is not evil, but its constant need for ‘new’ is just not sustainable.”
Armed with my new knowledge I returned to H&M a few weeks later to see if it was still teaming with people. Although thankful that the line had disappeared, the busy hoards of shoppers that greeted me was saddening.
Where once I had grabbed armfuls of the latest fashions to try on in the change-room, I now looked around and saw only a vast array of poorly manufactured clothes.
When once I filled with awe at the styling of mannequins, who looked as though they had just stepped off a Paris runway, I now felt only disgust with myself for buying into the shoddy illusion.
As I touched the cheap material, seams almost falling apart in my hands, I saw the blood, sweat and tears of the workers in China, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia. I smelled the musty, rotting scent of landfills, slowly bloating with textiles around me. I heard the sounds of marine life drowning under colourful toxic waste dumped in the ocean.
And I tasted our collective regret for the future if we continued along our current path.