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Fast fashion: why is it a problem?

Every year we bring more than 100 billion new garments into the world, and every second a truckload of textiles is burned or sent to landfills, where in most cases it takes more than a century to biodegrade. But the hidden cost of our clothing is not just about waste. In most cases, the garments are made by millions of underpaid and exploited textile workers who have no rights or protections. The fast fashion market bears a great responsibility. The garment industry produces collections inspired by high fashion, renewed in the shortest possible time and sold at low prices. Fast fashion is worth $36 billion today and is expected to grow even more in the coming decades. But how did this industry come to be? And how did we get to this point?

Slop shop: the origins

A few centuries ago, we realized one thing: we can wear clothes that were not made specifically for us. The roots of fast fashion go back to the 1600s, when slop stores opened in Europe and America, stores selling cheap, off-the-rack clothing. These were mostly work uniforms, as the name "slop" literally means "slop". The British Navy used it for clothing that could be worn instead of an official uniform. However, slop stores also sold secondhand clothing, often purchased by peasants and members of the middle class who did not have the time or economic means to have custom clothing sewn. Slop-shops have nothing to do with today's fast fashion, but they mark the beginning of its journey. They spread and normalized the idea of buying pre-packaged clothes.

Industrial Revolution

Before 1800, most people still relied on a slow and expensive production chain to dress themselves, but the Industrial Revolution introduced weaving machines and thus factories, and so the fashion cycle accelerated. The sewing machine, first developed in 1846, helped reduce labor and costs. Thus, small tailors began making loose (unbranded) ready-made clothing for the middle class and in a range of sizes, rather than making them to order. The poorest people, however, continue to make their own clothes or buy or receive them second-hand.

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Second World War

Garment factories and fashion houses proliferate, but in the early decades of the 1900s most ready-made clothes are produced in small craft workshops. During the Second World War, however, governments suddenly imposed fabric rationing, meaning there was a limit to the amount of fabric one could buy. The need to save fabric led clothing manufacturers to shorten the hems of skirts and sew dresses with straighter and more essential cuts. However, this new trend towards plain lines made it possible to start standard and mass production for essential items. So the middle class is getting more and more used to buying clothes from mass production. At the same time that supermarkets are emerging to make food accessible to all, textile companies are also emerging with a similar mission: to produce clothes at low prices and democratize clothing. The idea is that everyone with less money can dress with dignity.

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In the early 80s, low-priced clothing and mass production already existed, but the clothing models you find in the shops were always the same. In the mid-80s, however, things picked up speed. Inditex was born, the Zara holding company that would go on to create and take over many other companies of the same kind. Increasing competition based on time and constant updating. If collections used to follow the four seasons, now a month passes between one collection and the next, and in some cases even less. It is the New York Times that first used the term "fast fashion". "Two new shops in fashion's fast lane" was the title of an article published on 31 December 1989. The article, which referred to the first opening of Zara in New York, said that a new shipment arrives from Spain every week and that only two weeks pass between a new idea and the arrival of the product in the shops.

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In the twenty years between the 90s and the early 2000s, the pace speeds up even more with the new fashions intercepted at the moment in which they are being born: it is an ever more dynamic and complex production chain. Since the 1990s most people, even the wealthiest consumers, have been attracted to this type of consumption. In 2000 H&M, which is already very popular in Europe, opens in the United States. Meanwhile, to lower prices, the labor force is entrusted to workers from countries that have a lower cost life such as Bangladesh, China, Vietnam and Indonesia.

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The internet was born and so was e-commerce, bringing with it an even faster way to shop. Shein, founded in 2008, is perhaps the best expression of fast fashion. Today, the company produces items as soon as three days after spotting a new trend and limits its orders to small batches of 100 items to test customer interest. However, the network is also beginning to show us the effects of our new consumption. Videos are circulating on the internet showing, for example, the conditions of those who make our clothes. In 2013, we saw the images of the collapsed Rana Plaza production complex in Bangladesh, where several fast fashion companies were producing. There were more than 1,000 dead and thousands injured. It is gradually becoming clear: for one of the lowest wages in the world, millions of people are exploited and subjected to unsafe working conditions every day, in factories called sweatshops.

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In 2015 the documentary "The True Cost" and several reports released in the following years reveal that most brands do not respect the fundamental rights of workers who are often women and operate in conditions of semi-slavery. So, we understand that what for us is speed and convenience, for others is pollution, poverty and oppression. It also turns out that companies don't have logistics systems sophisticated enough to handle our returns, so they often end up in landfill. In addition, several fast fashion brands are accused of plagiarism, violation of privacy data and for the high concentration of toxic substances such as lead in their garments. All this is nothing new today and yet our consumption keeps increasing. Since the 1990s, the consumption of clothing has increased by 6 times worldwide and only in the last 15 years has production doubled. If fast fashion was born as an effort to democratize clothing, today it has far exceeded the initial intentions. This is because in the meantime we too have changed. We no longer buy what we need, but we buy clothes without thinking and get rid of them faster and faster. The average American citizen throws away 37 kilos of fabrics a year and only 1 in 10 garments ends up in thrift stores or charities. The rest ends up in landfills like the mountain of clothes in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Fortunately, the direction to take is quite clear: a circular system in which products are continuously recycled and reused. We don't necessarily have to give up expressing ourselves through clothing. We can buy second-hand garments or even rent clothes for the rarest and most special occasions with a view to extending the life of the garments. Perhaps adopting new habits will help us to give our clothing the value it deserves again. Fast fashion undoubtedly has its responsibilities, but it's time for us to take ours too.

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Written by Matilda D’Urso

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