In a nation brimming with over 300 million people, most Americans still share one experience: going to the mall. We can all conjure up images from our youth of going to the mall with friends, popping into one of the stores, and walking out with an entire outfit for a ridiculously low price. We show off the outfit to our friends, family, and followers, and after a few days, if not hours, we forget about what we bought and eagerly await the next time we get to go on a spree with friends.
To us, this cycle of shopping, splurging and showing off is innocent, exhilarating and oh-so-American. However, there is a dark side to this lifestyle that Americans are rarely–if ever–exposed to. The truth is that American participation in fast fashion enables horrific conditions in factories across the globe.
This binge-buying of clothes that comes so naturally to those in the West is called “fast fashion.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary formally defines fast fashion as: “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” The origins of fast fashion can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Before this period in history, clothes were delicately made and preserved. Even wealthy people rarely had enough clothes to fill a modern-day closet.
However, during the Industrial Revolution, there was a rise in textile factories in the West. These factories were brutal, inhumane and normally exploited vulnerable women and children. They churned out fabrics that once took weeks of patient crafting to produce. Everyday people accepted the abuse that occurred to factory workers since it meant that clothes were decreasing in cost. The middle class and lower classes were increasingly able to afford necessary clothing. However, this swiftly spiraled into more human rights violations in factories that people ignored due to their desire for convenience.
In the early 20th century, the West began to reform its labor laws, particularly in the United States. The catalyst for this was a series of heartbreaking – and avoidable – factory fires in the United States that killed hundreds of people and exposed egregious abuses within these factories. Unions were established in the United States, child labor laws were enforced, and textile factories began to disappear throughout the nation.
By the late 20th century, an overwhelming number of garment factories had been moved overseas to countries like China, India and Bangladesh. These are places with dense populations of devastatingly large groups of people living in poverty.
Today the garment trade is one of the most lucrative industries globally. In the science journal Environmental Health, researcher Rachel Bick explained that in 2018, over 80 billion items of fast fashion clothing were sold: as a result, this exploitative industry rakes in over $1.2 trillion per year. Yet, according to Healthy Human magazine, the 40 million people this industry employs are barely paid a livable wage.
Americans are a massive part of this issue, although they are often unaware of the tragedies that frequently occur in cruel factories in other parts of the world. In truth, fast fashion has exploded due to the American obsession with consumerism. Bick writes that environmental researchers estimate that Americans buy over three billion pounds of clothes per year, and an overwhelming percentage of that – nearly 90 percent – is thrown away. Divided out, these numbers mean that each American wastes almost 80 pounds of clothes annually. This is partly because Americans tend to have a wasteful nature.
However, as fashion historian Dolores Monet explained in Bellatory magazine, these enormous numbers can also be attributed to the fact that 90% of the clothes sold in America are made of a mix of cotton and other cheap materials. Roughly 40% are made from polyester, which is essentially plastic. This forces people to continue buying clothes at a rapid pace since they rarely last more than a few wears.
To a certain extent, Americans are also victims of fast fashion. That is how a criminal industry like fast fashion works: It victimizes everyone involved. Due to the unrelenting nature of American capitalism, many people and families can only afford fast fashion clothing. For a heartbreaking number of Americans, they do not choose fast fashion, but they need it in order to be presentable in society for work or even school. It is a vicious cycle that forces those in poverty in America and other western nations to participate, further fueling human rights injustices abroad repeatedly. This is why corporations, not people, should primarily be held accountable.
As revealed in the documentary The Apparel Truth, the multi-billion-dollar corporations that own Walmart, Shein, Forever 21, H&M, Zara, Nike, and more are aware of how they manipulate people. When men, women and children in countries with oppressive class structures need work, these companies employ them in egregious factories with only enough pay to ward off rumors of slavery. Then, in the West, they market these clothes to people who are perpetually promised that material wealth will ensure upward class mobility.
The sad reality is that Americans are purposely left uneducated about the issue of fast fashion to guarantee that they remain pawns in the corporate fashion world’s game. Until people are informed, there will be no way to hold the businesses that perpetuate fast fashion accountable. If you are in a privileged enough position, accepting this truth requires a lifestyle change. The next time you are browsing clothing stores in the mall, before buying another item that you will forget about in a few months, stop to think about the impact you have in the world. Remember, what might be a fun shopping spree with friends could trap another impoverished woman or child in the ruthless slave-cycle of fast fashion.