Americans are in love with “fast fashion” stores, where you can get a trendy outfit for a cheap price. But the industry has done some serious damage.
In my first article about fast fashion stores, which include the ultra-popular Forever 21, H&M, Zara, Gap, and Uniqlo, I talked about their social and environmental impacts. To keep costs low, these brands rely on sweatshops with under-paid, over-worked workers. And because they’re all about the latest trend, the brands promote a culture of disposability, leading to vast quantities of low-quality clothes worn a couple times and then thrown away.
But the harms don’t stop there.
Fashion Crime #1: Polluting the Planet
Polyester is the manufactured fiber of choice for fast fashion clothes, thanks to its affordability, resistance to water and wrinkles, and ease of production. Those characteristics make garment companies very, very happy.
Unfortunately, polyester is made from petroleum in what the National Institute of Environmental Health calls an “energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.” Plus, many of the harmful by-products of this process are released into the water.
No wonder the Environmental Protection Agency considers many textile plants to be hazardous waste generators.
Then there’s cotton, which unlike polyester, isn’t man-made. However, it’s almost as undesirable. According to the USDA, one fourth of all the pesticides used in the US are for cotton crops.
And things got so bad in China that Greenpeace published a report called “Dirty Laundry,” which revealed the shocking amount of toxic water pollution linked to companies including H&M, Gap, Uniqlo, and Zara. It turns out textiles are the third biggest culprit of water pollution in the nation, producing 2.5 billion metric tons of sewage in just one year. Not only does this harm the environment, but it also poisons the water supply of one fifth of Chinese cities and 300 million rural citizens.
The workers themselves are especially affected by all of the chemicals they’re exposed to; compared to normal people, they have higher rates of throat, nasal, bladder, and gastrointestinal cancer.
“Our analysis indicates that in one way or other, virtually all textile products have a negative impact on the environment. Put another way, making a shirt—any kind of shirt—can never be as ecologically benign as not making a shirt.”
Fashion Crime #2: Compromising Designers’ Rights
There’s a lot of stealing going on with Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Gap—not by shoplifters, but by the brands themselves. Every fast fashion store wants not only to have the latest looks in their stores, but to have the latest looks first. That means as soon as a Marc Jacobs model struts down the runway in a dress, fast fashion stores start the process of recreating it.
In other words, they’re ripping off designers all the time.
In 2007, more than 40 labels—including Diane Von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, and Gwen Stefani—sued Forever 21 for stealing their designs. According to The Guardian, these suits were quietly settled out of court. Forever 21 has continually racked up more accusations since then; clearly, they’ve decided it’s more lucrative to copy designers’ ideas and then ask for forgiveness (i.e. pay) after the fact.
In 2012, designer Charles Philip sued Gap for stealing his shoe design. Not only did Gap’s loafers look identical to his, but the mass retailer even took Philip’s “distinctive striped design on the inside of the shoe”… and named its version “The Phillip.”
In 2013, H&M released a collection that so blatantly stole from high-profile fashion houses such as Balenciaga, Kenzo, and Celine that it was called out as having ‘no shame.’
“Rather than hire world-class designers, Zara, which is based in Spain, politely copies them,” explains The Atlantic.
Why should we—as in the consumers—care? After all, if you’re like me, you’re never buying a $3,000 Balmain dress anyways. Isn’t it kind of cool that thanks to Zara, we can buy a look-a-like for less than twenty percent the price of the original? It’s the democratization of fashion!
Not so much. Because even if we’re not making the choice between Balmain and Zara, or Balenciaga and H&M, or Charles Philip’s loafer and Gap’s “The Phillip,” our copy-cat purchase still hurts the designer.
Fashion industry scholar Kelly Grochala states that big companies’ copies hurt all designers, especially small or new artists:
“These duplicate versions of the original design flood the market and devalue the original by their ubiquity, poor quality, and the speed at which they reach the consumer.”
Who needs to buy an original Da Vinci when there are a thousand cheaper, fake ones floating around? And how can you break into an industry, when your unique ideas are stolen and undercut?
It’s just plain wrong to let retailers indiscriminately steal creative property so they can make more money.
Between the negative consequences I already discussed, and the blatant intellectual thievery and pollution, it looks like fast fashion is pretty pricey after all. It’s just the cost comes later—after we’ve already worn (and tossed) that $10 sweater.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter: @ajavuu.