Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

 Why bargain purchases may be costing you (and others) more than you think

In the realm of the contemporary retail landscape, retailers are churning out new styles and lines every other week, as opposed to a new collection being released every season. Alongside frequent releases, the merchandise being offered to consumers is often priced alluringly low. The Forever 21’s, the H&M’s, and the Zara’s are prime examples of retailers who gravitate around such business models – low cost, fast fashion, where new merchandise is made available on a periodical basis at the lowest retail price possible. This model centers itself on the idea of mass production and economies of scale, which allows them to sell their merchandise at a lower cost primarily because of the immense volumes they develop.

From a consumer standpoint, this is essentially a win-win situation as a constant stream of new fashions and styles are available at highly affordable price points. Especially in the case of the retailers mentioned above, at any given moment, an article of clothing could be purchased for as low as $10 (and maybe even less if you dig deep). What has made this business model so successful is that for the most part these low prices do not equate to some sort of compromise in style, as opposed to years ago, where bargain clothing may have only meant the neglected, decaying and aged pieces on the sales floor that nobody wanted. We can now purchase, on trend, relevant clothing for next to nothing! (relatively speaking of course)

In this day and age, as we slowly trudge our way out of the tail end of a global recession, we have as a result hold on to our earnings with a firmer grip. We have become more frugal thrifty and informed consumers, with have a higher sense of awareness with what we perceive as value. There has been a shift, more apparent in recent years with regards to the celebration of bargain purchases with the influx of fast fashion retailers. Long are the days of frugality and thriftiness to be seen as a faux-pas.  We have now transitioned into a mentality and attitude where bargain purchases are celebrated, as it serves as a reflection of just how savvy the consumer is.

And there you are, smug in the face, coming out of the store with several bags of new clothes that you purchased for essentially next to nothing.

This has altered the consumer mentality when it comes to clothing. In essence, it has made clothing a disposable commodity that can easily be replaced. The value has been shifted from the garment itself, to the price of the garment.

 Some may argue that these retailers are contributing more bad than they are good to the realm of fashion. To maintain a reasonable margin, the quality of the garment is inevitably compromised. What this has created is an abundance of low-priced clothing that is surely low in quality and craftsmanship.  With such attractively low price points, this drives out competition from independent retailers who simply cannot compete.

How about from a manufacturing perspective? How does the mantra of fast fashion affect those who are involved with making the clothing? For starters, this has lead brands that we continually support to subcontract their production offshore to produce garments at the very lowest price possible. Consequently, these factories are often faced with making the slimmest possible margin, which has a direct affect on work place safety and standards. In order to continue operating, workplace conditions and safety may often be an afterthought, as maintaining operations and meeting the demands of clientele is placed as the priority.  On our end, this has affected local production, as they simply cannot compete with such low prices that offshore production firm’s offer, putting many individuals at risk of losing their jobs.

With such tight deadlines these manufacturing companies must to abide to, they may lose large contracts if they fail to meet these deadlines or their quality is not up to par with the retailer. At the factory level, this has then created added pressure to the laborer physically developing the clothes.  With added pressure on workers, this then contributes to lower workplace standards, and with lower workplace standards, safety issues may arise.

Renee Dudley’s article, The Hidden Cost of Fast Fashion: Worker Safety found in Bloomberg Newsweek puts it best by saying that, “Retailers are wedded to the sales-driving power of fast fashion crafted in low-cost Asian Factories as a way to draw Western shoppers wrestling with joblessness and higher taxes…The American consumer wants it now…they don’t want to wait”. In retrospect, who’s to blame at this point? The consumer for driving the demand for fast fashion? Or the manufacturer pushing the limits of production to maximize margins? Or perhaps both parties are equally guilty?

There are however, some grassroots solutions in battling with the hidden costs of fast fashion. For starters, transparency from a manufacturing standpoint must be established. In the exact same way we would like to know where the food we are about to consume, it is an obligation to know where and how the garments were made.

 For the most part, the contemporary consumer has been so far disjointed from the clothing that they buy, that they no longer feel some sort of personal connection to it. As mentioned earlier, clothing has become a disposable commodity that can easily be replaced at a moments notice. Amongst the masses, there is no longer a value and appreciation placed on quality and craftsmanship, as many will place price over quality. If that is achieved, we can potentially be on our way in consuming less, and being one step closer to finding a solution to the hidden cost(s) of fast fashion.

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