By Asia Menendez
The week from 17 to 23 September we celebrate World clean and green week, what better time to talk about it! In fact, Fast fashion has a very strong environmental impact. For example, according to a recent report by CNBC, just one pair of regular jeans requires 3,625 litres of water which equals to the same amount of water one person needs for surviving for around 2.5 years.
Before diving any further, let's start from the beginning.
In the first part, this article will analyse the historical origin of the term ‘Fast fashion’, deepening its development over time. It will continue then by focusing on the issues originated from this phenomenon and the duality that can be perceived towards this industry from the point of view of Generation Z.
To discuss this heated topic it is crucial to also comprehend the historical and cultural roots of Fast fashion. The Fast fashion approach has in fact transformed the way people both consume and perceive fashion. Rather than prioritising durability, it promotes disposability, favouring affordability and the production of cheap and trendy clothing very quickly.
What is the story behind it ?
The term ‘Fast fashion’ appeared for the first time in the late ‘80s, coined by journalist Anne-Marie Schiro in an article in the New York Times, while talking about the opening of the first Zara’s store in NY. She described the propensity of these shops to fast fashion and their objective of moving a garment from the design phase to the sale in stores within only two weeks.
However, the roots of fast fashion can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries, coinciding with the onset of the industrial revolution.
Prior to the industrial revolution, clothing and textiles were meticulously crafted by highly skilled artisans within local communities. Obtaining new clothing was a luxury reserved for the upper strata of society who could afford the services of the tailors. Lower and middle-class individuals typically had to rely on second-hand clothing or making their own. With improvements in technology brought about by the industrial revolution, the production of textiles became more efficient and, consequently, companies began to take control over textile production.(1)
But when was the real turning point of the Fast fashion industry?
Back in the swinging 60s, when everything was changing, fashion became a way to make a statement, a way to express yourself. That's when fashion trends really took off. Young folks wanted cheap clothes to keep up with the constant changes.
During the late 1990s and the 2000s, the era of budget-friendly fashion reached its peak. The companies worked hard to keep up with the super-fast trends and the huge demand for them, setting all-time records of production.
The rise of online shopping was a game-changer and the possibility of returns has transformed the purchase into a simple, accessible activity.
The continuous offer of sales and discounts makes the purchase very attractive, preventing self-reflection on the actual need for the product leading to the consumer to always buy more than what they really need.(2)
And what about Gen Z? Where do they fit into this big puzzle?
They are known for being the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet and digital technology from a young age. When it comes to fast fashion, Gen Z has a complex relationship with this industry, and their attitudes and behaviours have had a substantial impact on it.
According to recent research, Gen Z is mainly concerned about things like climate change, income inequality, and poverty. They prefer companies that pay attention to social responsibility, that want to address these challenges and that aim to build an environment that is tolerant and inclusive.
But controversially on what just said, people aged between 15 and 29 are the ones who shop the most for fast fashion items.
To put into numbers, It was found that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. Moreover, it is also estimated that textile production is responsible for about 20% of the global pollution of drinkable water, not to mention the textile waste (industrial or from consumers) where only in Europe, for example, citizens consume almost 26 kg of textile products each year while disposing 11 kg.
This situation creates a paradox, the so-called duality, where Gen Z, despite their significant concerns about these pressing issues, still shows a strong affinity for fast fashion, which appears to contradict their values.
Throughout the centuries, the constant growth of textile factories led to a bunch of serious issues. From water waste, food, energy to labour exploitation, these are a few key subjects on which young people are most aware. It is crucial to understand that, along with its environmental repercussions, Fast Fashion also carries a series of socio-economic abuses. Beyond its impact on climate change, this industry has been criticised for its negative social impacts including dangerous and terrible working environments, economic contraction and gender inequality.
Fast Fashion is first and foremost a gender issue. The relentless demand to meet strict production deadlines is exposing female workers, particularly those in Asian factories supplying these brands, to cases of gender-based violence.
According to Global Labor Justice, women from Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and other countries are frequently subjected to a wide range of violence on the basis of their gender and when they are brave enough to report the harassments, they are just told to be silent about it.(3)
In countries like India and Bangladesh, labour exploitation is widely reported, but what happens if these abuses take place within the so-called developed countries? Let’s take a look at what happened at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic in the UK, where many clothing factories shut down because of a scandal involving Boohoo, a British online fashion retailer, when workers at a Leicester-based supplier were discovered to be receiving wages as low as £3.50 per hour.
Successful companies like Boohoo, have been using factories in Leicester to produce domestically their cheap clothing for years shedding an unpleasant light onto the European relationship with fast fashion. As we have seen, the indirect cost of fast fashion is very high. The people that work within these supply chains, and the earth we live on, are the ones bearing the brunt of it.(4)
Another interesting relationship to analyse is the one between Fast fashion and globalisation. Both the positive and negative aspects of the former have been accentuated by this process which led to an opening of global markets. The fashion world has evolved, it has gone from a means of breaking down social classes, creating an idea of fashion for all, to an ultra consumerism ideology that fuels this capitalist machine.
Gen Z has never known a world without the internet. They grew up in an age where content and information are freely shared and accessible for all, at a time when the phenomenon of globalisation reached one of its peaks. In a world of endless opportunities and things to consume they face these huge challenges. They are perceived as the most aware generation ever about the problems of the planet: climate change, gender gap, minority rights. They travel a lot and are connected with their peers from all over the world. We expect from them a great awareness, but we also need to remember that as with all generations it cannot be generalised; while there is a strong push for sustainable fashion within Gen Z, not all members of this generation are the same.(5) Gen Z has grown up in the age of e-commerce and is very comfortable shopping online. This has contributed to the rise of online fast fashion retailers that cater to their preferences and habits. This generation is also highly influenced by social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest, where fashion trends are often showcased. This has accelerated the pace at which trends come and go, aligning with fast fashion's business model of quickly producing low cost clothing. But there is also a significant portion of Gen Z that has embraced thrift shopping and buying vintage clothing as a more sustainable alternative to fast fashion.They appreciate the uniqueness of vintage items and the idea of recycling fashion.
In summary, in an era of complex, intertwined dynamics, Gen Z's relationship with Fast fashion is nuanced. While many Gen Z individuals are critical of the industry's environmental and social impacts and are actively seeking sustainable alternatives, others are drawn to the affordability and accessibility of this industry. The fashion industry has responded to these trends by incorporating more sustainable practices and options, but the extent, and impact, of these changes varies among brands. Ultimately, Gen Z's influence on the fashion industry is significant, and their choices and preferences will continue to shape the future of fashion.