"Fast Fashion" Production and the Global Economy
By Nora Delahaye
Fast fashion is the practice whereby clothing that is considered popular or ‘trendy’ is produced on an industrial scale quickly and cheaply. It is one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world, causing 10% of annual global carbon emissions, or a sum larger than what is produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined (World Bank). Moreover, many of the materials used in the production of fast fashion are themselves harmful for the environment, such as pesticides used in tandem with materials like cotton.
Another one of the side-effects of fast fashion production is the deepening of existing inequalities between the developed and developing world. Fast fashion is produced in the form of a global-supply-chain, meaning that the manufacturing of clothing occurs in developing countries where wages are cheap despite the fact that they are sold to consumers in the developed world. Generally, these low-wage working environments correspond with conditions that are unregulated and dangerous for the workers employed. Accidents caused by these haphazardly conditions are common; one well-known example was the collapse of the “Rana Plaza” in Bangladesh, a building that had been illegally repurposed for industrial production, in 2013 (Hossain).
Another way of framing this issue is by way of dependency theory, a school of political thought that rose to popularity in the 1960s. This theory explains the global political economy through a ‘core-periphery’ dynamic, where the ‘core’ represents the developed world and its consumption of the products that the ‘periphery’, or the developing world, produces. By structuring their economies in a way which satisfies the demands of the ‘core’ countries, nations on the ‘periphery’ are not self-sufficient in the production of goods for their own domestic markets. In effect, they become dependent on ‘core’ countries in a double-sense: for the revenue earned from exports and for the importation of goods to satisfy their own domestic needs.
It is clear how the production of fast fashion, and the global-supply-chain it is produced by, falls into the structure depicted in dependency theory. Fast fashion clothing, or the product, is imported into the economies of developed countries after being produced by labour within developing nations. Other than indirectly through the wages received by workers, the needs of the domestic population in these countries are not met by the production of these fast fashion articles. Thus, the economies of these countries become dependent, both in terms of workers’ wages and material needs, on the developed nations that they sell fast fashion to. As a result of this dependency, there is little opportunity for the governments of these developing nations to ensure safe and sustainable conditions for fast fashion production centers, leading to the aforementioned problems facing workers and the environment.
The solution to these issues and to an extent, to the larger structural problems presented by dependency theory, would be to transform the production practices of developing nations so that they are sustainable. Here, sustainability takes on a broad meaning, and is indicative of a respect for natural, social, and economic resources in the production process. It would not only entail changes in products used to produce fast fashion clothing but also in the environments in which they are made.
Of course, one of the primary goals of a sustainable approach to fast fashion is to reduce the associated environmental costs. It is possible to change the materials used in the process; as mentioned, dangerous pesticides - nearly 500 grams for one cotton shirt, according to Dr. Clara Vuletich - are used in the fast fashion production process. A sustainable shift would be achieved by transitioning to an alternative such as organic cotton.
On the other hand, sustainability would entail a transformation of the global-supply-chain’s structure itself. To combat the social consequences of a core-periphery configuration, including issues like child labour and hazardous working conditions, it is necessary to give the governments of developing countries more legal recourse to administer and regulate production taking place within their borders. Indeed, ''the combination of consumer and government pressure means that brands will probably be more proactive in their efforts to clamp down on forced labor in their supply chains'' (Ravi and Teitlbaum).
Through stricter regulation of fast fashion production, both in terms of the materials and labour-power used, major progress would be made in the way of reducing the social, environmental, and economic harms created by fast fashion. Of course, it is also important to appreciate the role that consumers in the developed world play in this process; indeed, by continually purchasing fast fashion products, these consumers are enabling the continuation of this exploitative system. By changing their consumption habits, then, individuals in developed nations can play a part in changing the global economy for the better.
Hossain, Farid. ''Bangladesh building-collapse death toll tops 600'' The Washington
Post, May 5, 2013.
Ravi, Aparna et al. ''The U.S. banned Xinjiang cotton imports because of forced labor.
Textile workers face abuses in other countries, too.'' The Washington Post, February 10, 2021.
Vuletich, Clara. ''How to Engage with Ethical Fashion ?'' TEDXSydney, June 15, 2016.
World Bank Staff. ''How Much Do our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment ?'' The
World Bank, Septembre 23, 2019.