By Phyllis K. Kennemer
Is clothing an enduring investment or is it a temporary treasure? Answers differ depending on age, occupation, social status and personal values.
Trends in clothing have changed significantly over the years. Nowadays, few people wear custom-made clothes designed by local tailors and seamstresses. The production and distribution of clothing has transitioned over the years from handmade pieces to mass-produced, ready-to-wear styles. For many years, only the rich could afford to stay current with seasonal designs appearing on fashion show catwalks in New York, Paris and Milan.
What is Fast Fashion?
The concept of fast fashion began to emerge in the 1980’s. Fast fashion is a term used by retailers to describe clothing based on catwalk designs which are made of cheaper fabrics and mass produced to bring the most recent fashion trends to the general public. The supply chain for these trends is structured to design clothing quickly and inexpensively to enable working women to buy current styles at low prices.
The idea of moving merchandise quickly from the designer’s table to the retail sales floor has influenced the global retail industry. Zara, a company located in Spain, has been at the forefront of making and marketing fast fashion clothing. It continues to be a leader in the field, although companies in the United States and other countries are beginning to be competitive.
The concept of quick response has transformed the manufacturing processes in the textile industry. Product lead times have been cut in half due to manufacturing efficiency. The quick response time is used to support fast fashion through creating fresh new products. This has greatly reduced the time between design and production and enabled companies to change their stock more frequently. As a result, the number of fashion seasons has increased. Instead of the basic four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter), a fashion season has been reduced to a four to six-week period. This more than doubles the number of seasons in a year and entices women to shop for new clothes twice as often.
How It’s Changing the Fashion Industry
Fast fashion has become associated with disposable fashion. It is delivered to the markets at relatively low prices; it is generally worn “for the moment”; and it is quickly discarded. Then the problems begin. What can be done with these increasing mounds of unwanted used clothing?
Alden Wicker explores this question in his article, “Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis,” published in the September 1, 2016, issue of Newsweek. He explains that the usual methods of disposing of used clothing are disappearing. Many second-hand stores reject clothing that is of poor quality. Some charitable organizations, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, are being forced to do more sorting of their donations. In many places, the number of sellable garments has dropped to less than 50 percent of the amount they receive. Clothing that is not sold is placed in large bundles and sold by the pound to textile recyclers.
Some of the bales go to foreign countries where the clothing continues to be used, but cheap garments made of inferior fabrics are not generally acceptable. While some fabrics can be cut into pieces to be used as cleaning cloths for industrial uses, fast fashion materials are too flimsy to be recycled in that way. A lot of discarded clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills. Chemicals in these garments can release toxins into the air if burned and they can leach into ground water if buried.
Clothing is not biodegradable. Those made of natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, go through too many processes involving chemical changes to remain natural. Synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum products that take hundreds of years to dissipate.
Fast fashion appears to be meeting a perceived need of being up-to-date and stylish, but the current trend is producing unintended consequences. The cost of cheap clothing is not yet known in terms of the broader concerns about our environment.