This is the first installment of a 3-article series on the dangers of “fast fashion.” Read the second edition here, and the third here

My friends and I love trendy, affordable stores like H&M—and we’re not alone.

H&M has stores in 55 markets across the nation and is #30 on Forbes’ World’s Most Valuable Brands. Zara is #52 on that same list and has more than 2,000 stores. Forever 21 is the fifth largest specialty retailer in America. By 2020, Japanese brand Uniqlo will have more than 1,000 US locations. Gap Inc. did over $16 billion in sales last year. Zara has 2,700 locations in more than sixty countries.

These stores—which are the leaders of the “fast fashion” industry—appeal to my age group because their clothes are trendy, hit every style from grungy to prep, and most significantly, fit into our budget. For $50, it’s totally possible to walk out of Forever 21 with a brand-new outfit. At the local boutique down the street, all my friends and I could buy for $50 is half a skirt.

But the convenience, selection, and low costs come at a price. The instant gratification of a cheap new shirt is far outweighed by its social and environmental impacts. Just as hitting up a fast food restaurant every day for lunch will add up to some health problems, a habit of shopping at fast fashion stores harms our local and global communities.

First, a formal definition of fast fashion: it’s a retail model where trends are delivered as quickly as possible at highly affordable prices. For example, French fashion house Givenchy just sent black dresses with grommet lacing down the runway for its Spring 2015 show. The real deal won’t be sold in stores for half a year, but Forever 21 can have a much more wallet-friendly copycat version on shelves within three weeks. According to NPR, “a relentless drive for speed now characterizes the industry.”

And this revolving door of merchandise isn’t ethically sound, even though its price tags are cheap.

1. Their Labor Practices Are Unacceptable

To keep their expenses low, fast fashion brands rely on low-wage, overseas labor. I’ve written before about how Zara has been found using slave labor more than once. H&M is the biggest garment-producer in Bangladesh—where in April 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing 1,100, injuring 2,500, and drawing attention, but not change, to the devastating conditions of clothes manufacturing in the country.

Forever 21 came under fire in 2012 for its “sweatshop-like conditions” and has a history of refusing to hand over documentation of its labor practices. In 2011, the book The Glory and Disgrace of UNIQLO was published, condemning the company’s “extremely harsh, slave-like labor conditions.” Despite having good domestic policies, last October Gap Inc. was accused by The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights for using a Bangladeshi sweatshop where workers regularly must work 100 hours per week for less than 25 cents per hour.

“The reason we have fast fashion is the cheap exploited labor around the world,” Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion, says. “Less than 10% of what we’re wearing… was made in factories where people were paid a living wage and working in safe and legal conditions.”

Suddenly, the $30 Uniqlo jeans that make my butt look cute don’t look so innocent.

2. They Compromise on Quality

All of my friends buy H&M and Forever 21 clothes knowing they won’t last—and at first, that feels totally okay.

Yeah, we’re all obsessed with jogger pants right now, but a month from now they’ll be out of style and our pairs will be lying forgotten in our drawers. We don’t need high-quality pieces, because we won’t be wearing them for long. And the more we have to pay for the jogger pants, the less money we’ll have for the next trend of the week.

But while this works for the customer, it’s clearly promoting a culture of disposability.

Americans, as a group, hoard more than 20 billion pieces of clothing per year; I’m clearly not the only one with a closet full of options and “nothing” to wear.

There seems to be an obvious solution. Let’s just give away our unused clothes! Shockingly, centers such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill actually receive too many low-quality donations. Cline went to a major center in NYC and discovered that while they process around five tons of clothes per day, only 11,200 pieces are actually sent to stores.

The leftovers tend to be so undesirable they’re thrown away, which has sparked a new term: landfill fashion. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the “recovery rate” for all textiles in 2012 was a mere 15.7%.

Let’s recap. So far my investigation into the impacts of fast fashion has turned up blatant human-rights violations and a huge amount of waste.

But we’re not done. In my next column, I’ll look at more environmental harms, as well as how fast fashion brands often “borrow” (read: steal) from major designers. However, I’ll also discuss how some of these brands are better than others—so if I’m set on buying a $50 outfit, I can make the most ethical choice possible.


 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.