In spite of the fact that this is not a new issue to be brought to light - in fact, an issue two decades in the making - it is a topic that I myself have only recently become sufficiently cognizant of to want to do something about it. It is one thing to be only vaguely aware of something that it dances at the edge of your consciousness. It is quite another for it to pull and nag at the heartstrings of your morality - enough to feel a deep sense of guilt and a compulsion to address it and a hope to somehow help facilitate a shift in how we relate to style, trends and consumption and hopefully an ultimate change in buying behaviour.
What I want to address and discuss is the concept of 'fast fashion', it's social history and context, it's impact and some potential solutions that I feel as a collective we could and should implement. I want to start off by saying that I am not an expert on this subject. It is merely something that has been brought to my attention through some research and as someone who has recently entered the space of fashion and design, I feel compelled to heed the human and social impact created by this realm of creation vs consumption. This is a large issue of human exploitation and environmental destruction, too large to fully unpack here...but I hope to grasp and exemplify the finer points.
Fast fashion is defined as 'inexpensive clothing, made with cheap materials and produced rapidly in large quantities to replicate the trends seen on the catwalks and in celebrity culture in 'real-time' in order to meet the insatiable demands of the average consumer who want to be seen in the latest styles and fashion TODAY.
How did this phenomenon come about? We might recall that the life cycle of fashion in retail was defined by and distributed on the basis of the four seasons.
The agency of the buyer was limited to what fashion forecasters and trend setters in the industry (top-down) defined as stylish for the season and constrained by clearly-defined seasonal time-frames. But the rise of social media (especially fashion blog(ger)s and instagram) decentralized and shifted the authority of trend setting and distribution from those strictly within the industry, to the consumer themselves and rookie fashionistas who suddenly had a very forgiving platform for expression and opinionated sentiment. I speak of the Influencer - a breed (and now profession in many cases) of its own. The impact of the Influencer on the fashion industry has been unprecedented, 'globalizing' fashion more than ever and has forced it to completely shift and adapt the way it operates and engages with its consumer. Four distinct seasons turned into new styles hitting the shelves every week - a rabid beast of consumption.
Our constant visual exposure to new trends and forms of expression through apparel has increased our desire to be on-trend NOW and consequently, the demand for new styles to appear on the shelves at a ready pace has increased exponentially. Our buying agency has been revived and as a result, we have become entitled. The industry (based on profit) had to respond.
The optimal solution to take advantage of this high demand for goods was to outsource production to places where labour would be cheap and profit margins large.
Have you ever stopped to ask why the clothes you buy from commercial retailers are so cheap/affordable? Fast fashion is not 'free' - someone has to pay for it. In most or all cases, something's gotta give and in this instance, it's at the cost of human rights and environmental degradation. China and India are the industry's primary suppliers and they are willing to do it at life-extinguishingly low prices.
Desperate people tend to do whatever they need to to survive and the commercial fashion industry is exploiting this need perfectly, justifying its cause by saying 'we are providing jobs which otherwise these people would not have'. This is a blatant example of shifting accountability. Why is it okay for these people to work in horrific conditions, under immense pressure and time-constraints, for inhumanely long hours, in cramped, stuffy and unhygienic environments, for disgustingly low wages when we cannot ask the same of ourselves? There is a lack of integrity in this kind of moral rationalizing. Surely a huge double standard?
To me, a huge part of the solution is one that a mindful group of people have been making generous stabs at for a while, one that has been gaining traction yet does not seem to be fully compelling enough to have affected a real shift in the way we think of fashion and our buying behaviour. I fully include myself in this need to change our incessant buying habits - and it's a hard one to kick. We need to revert back to 'slow fashion', buying from local designers, producers, brands. This is a mantra we've heard for a long time and is possibly part of the reason why we've become deaf to it. It is possibly because we don't fully understand the reasons and impact behind the plea: It's not merely about bolstering the local economy - it's bigger than that. Local brands and designers need to work together and be collaborative to increase the likelihood of the success of this cause; not treat each other as competition in a negative sense. There are so many talented, upcoming designers/brands in Cape Town and South Africa that are producing quality trends on tap - 'homemade' garments made consciously. Yet they are being trumped by the competitive prices and blind loyalty to fast fashion distributors like Mr Price, H&M and Superbalist to name a few (I am an equally guilty party of frequenting these labels).
I believe that the way we feel about fashion and and the success of the industry is fueled by two core concepts: novelty and aspiration. Fashion is highly aspirational - we want to emulate the people or (pop) cultures we admire through the styles they are broadcasting. Fashion panders to our egos and excites our ambition in that we feel it helps us portray the way we want to be perceived and thus accomplish our goals.
Commercial retailers skillfully market to these aspirations; yet I don't know why these ideals cannot be made to include local brands in a more instinctive way....and ultimately exclude fast fashion distributors. Clothes made locally are just as beautiful, trendy and of a much better quality. I believe we need to make a concerted effort to source out the local brands we like best and limit our purchasing as much as possible to these labels, supporting local designers and clothing manufacturers.
Design and tech students should harness their skills and knowledge to produce clothing patterns for wardrobe basics and styles that are trendy so that they are readily available to the public. Then we could be making our own clothes, sourcing our own fabrics and wearing unique garments that have been made locally by skilled manufacturers that need the jobs.
These are simple solutions in theory, but processes that need to be facilitated by people with the know-how who are already within the fashion and design network.
As a label, this is a goal I would like to work towards. There is no perfect solution, but there are still steps and measures one can take to improve and be more conscious of our global impact.
If you want a more in depth exploration of this subject from more knowledgeable individual and see some real illustrations of the negative impact of the fast fashion industry, I advise watching the really eye-opening documentary The True Cost.