The fashion industry is always changing, but one system that has stayed constant for many years is fast fashion. Fast fashion operates on a business model that produces garments cheap and quick. This model has normalized prioritizing quantity over quality to keep their customers interested and improve customer retention. 

History of fast-fashion

The first fast-fashion company created was Inditex in 1985, more commonly known as the brand Zara. Similar to the mindset of all fast fashion companies, the growth of Inditex is dependent on the customer’s demand. This mentality is created from consumers buying a lot of “cheap clothes” and then disposing of them as soon as the trend fades. When purchasing clothing, people often make impulse decisions and overlook the harm that the fast fashion industry has caused. Customers succumb to consuming more and fast-fashion brands can easily monetize off this. Even after the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, fast fashion still requires a highly responsive supply chain that prioritizes profit and exploits the workers.

Feeding off cheap labor

According to Labour Behind the Label, a living wage enables workers to meet their basic needs and provide discretionary income. This allows them to participate in their society fully and live with dignity. Unfortunately, many retailers and large brands do not calculate a fair living wage for their workers.

Two years ago, Labour Behind the Label published a report that analyzes Marks and Spencer’s (M&S) and H&M’s public promise to pay workers a ‘fair living wage’ by 2018. The report shows that these companies failed to do so. For example, in an M&S factory, workers in Sri Lanka said even with supplemental jobs and overtime, their pay of 13,000 rupees ($174) does not allow them to provide basic needs and live with respect. To do this, they would need 33,000 rupees ($441). From the top supplier factories of H&M, workers in Cambodia only receive a basic pay of $130.48. However, they said they would need $230 to take care of themselves and their dependents. Fast fashion has repeated the same narrative as they fail to support their workers. When we truly listen to the responses and experiences of these workers, we can then learn the truth behind fast fashion. 

Physical and verbal abuse

Within the fashion industry, women play such an important role. Nearly 80% of the garment sector in Bangladesh are women. However, they are not treated with the respect they deserve. In addition to unfair pay, they are abused daily. The 2019 study, Sufferings in silence: Violence against female workers in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh, includes in-depth interviews of female garment workers and stakeholders, focus group discussions, and factory observations. According to this study, one supervisor said:

Garment workers always work under pressure. We need to control the women. If we do not shout at them they will talk and we will always lag behind to meet our production target.

The supervisors’ aggressive and dehumanizing behaviors towards women is a result of the over-demanding target they receive from upper management. The verbal abuse that many workers face has become the norm in these factories. In this toxic atmosphere, it is hard for women to speak out against the abuse due to fears of job loss. In addition to verbal abuse, one worker commented: 

“I was thirty minutes late to arrive at the factory and my supervisor got angry with me. He (supervisor) pushed me, yelling and raised his hand to slap.”

Workers are abused physically and verbally to meet unreasonable and inhumane demands. For instance, in a 12-hour workday, retailers demand 100 shirts be processed every hour. However, only 80 shirts can be processed with the number of workers and machinery available. As a result, the women must work an extra 2 hours without payment to meet their daily production targets. The pressure that retailers put on factory supervisors is then put on the garment workers. This cycle continues because “cheap” fashion only exists when workers in the supply chain are exploited.

Sustainable fashion

In response to the broken system that fast fashion operates on, more sustainable brands are becoming popular. While sustainability in fashion is a much-needed change, this space is often white-dominated. Aditi Mayer, photojournalist, and stylist, wrote:

“I quickly learned that the sustainable fashion movement was homogeneously led by well-off white women; where the presence of women of color was often tied to their labor. ‘Are you here from India to represent the brand?’ was a question I received on numerous occasions.”

“Sustainable” brands often represent a woman of color smiling and making a piece of clothing while a white woman models it. This perpetuates the white savior complex because customers view this as saving garment workers from their troubles. However, this should not be the case. Fast fashion cannot be replaced by brands that claim sustainability when they do not respect their workers. Dominique Drakeford, founder of MelaninASS and co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, highlights:

“If a WOC is dying, sewing, weaving and helping to cultivate your brand in any way and she is not seen outside of being a laborer, then you are not a sustainable brand… you are in fact appropriating and fake as hell.”

When only targeting white customers and not representing the stories of garment workers, brands are appropriating the workers’ culture. In a podcast with Llenay Ferretti of Ten Thousand Villages, she emphasizes how sustainable companies have the privilege of witnessing the value and skills of the artisans. It is important to understand, meet, and share the stories that many women of color have allowed sustainable brands to be a part of. This is the start of what more brands should be doing. Without this progression, it is simply not sustainable, and it is cultural appropriation.   

Culture appropriation in fashion

Stealing from cultures without understanding the context or history behind them is violent. This endangers and oppresses the original meaning of many cultural elements. Brands have been guilty of cultural appropriation time and time again.

2017: Victoria Secret’s show called “Nomadic Adventure” ripped off Native-inspired accessories and apparel. After countless shows of cultural appropriation in 2012, 2014, and 2016, this luxury lingerie brand has still not learned their lesson.

2018: Gucci released the “Indy Full Turban,” ignoring that this design is very similar to the turbans many Sikh people wear as a religious piece of their faith. Shortly after this, Gucci introduced a sweater that resembled blackface; they completely disregarded the long dehumanizing history of blackface.

2018: Sweatshirts from H&M displayed one white child in apparel that read “Mangrove Jungle Survival Expert” and one Black child in apparel that read “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” These sweatshirts are harmful because they instill the white savior complex at a very young age. Many celebrities spoke out against this print and emphasized how Black people must continuously work harder to break barriers.

2019: Shein released mats called “frilled Greek carpets” when these are actually Muslim prayer mats. Shein took an essential aspect of an entire faith and appropriated prayer mats as carpets for casual use. Last month, Shein introduced a necklace that resembles a spiritual symbol meaning “well-being” for many Indian religions called a Sathiyo. This symbol has been modified into a swastika: a symbol of hate and antisemitism. Frankly, Shein’s purpose does not matter because either way, it is unacceptable.

Overall, these are just a few cases of how brands are constantly appropriating cultures from people of color. Stealing identity, disregarding culture, and ignoring workers’ rights has all become too normalized in both fast fashion and sustainable fashion.

What can we do?

It is important to hold brands accountable and demand transparency. Whether it is the questions you ask yourself about the next piece of clothing you buy, spreading awareness amongst your friends, or talking about fashion on a public platform, it is important to understand the context of your clothing. Researching brands before buying from them and seeing how they portray their workers is an important task for consumers. Boycotting fast fashion may not be an option for all or may not be something you can do right now in your life. However, if you have the means, you should both aim to shop sustainably and ensure that you are supporting the sustainable brands that respect their workers and their culture. As always, support your local thrift stores and look in your closet one last time before buying the next new trend.

BI – POC sustainable brands to support
BI – POC thrift /vintage stores to support
  1. Day Fifty One Vintage
  2. FYRE Vintage
  3. Gimme Vintage
  4. Golden Twelve
  5. Go Margaux
  6. MAW Supply
  7. Nello Vintage
  8. NOWHERE Vintage
  9. R Couture
  10. Sooki Sooki Vintage

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A Big Part Of Who We Are: Our Skin