The theory of the consumer society relates to the Western Capitalist Culture encouraging acquisition of products in ever increasing amounts. This has been so extensive that Cross-fertilisation between Western and non-Western fashion systems has caused a distinction between the two to be no longer plausible (Leshkowich, 2013). The social normality of behaviour that are accredited to the capitalist economic system promote an accretion in the quantity of consumption through the commercialisation of culture. Consumption has become a means of differentiation, not satisfaction, with a restlessness to incessantly gain clothing without any prospective or rationality. ‘It is no longer desire... but a generalised curiosity, driven by a vague sense of unease’ (Baudrillard,1998, p.45).
The use of popular clothing stores to aid fast fashion to grow is an example of conspicuous consumption in society, one that is ‘constituted by the multiplication of objects, services, and material goods’ (Baudrillard, 1998: p.31). The growth of fast fashion during recent years has been considerable, with fast fashion growing by 45% from 2010-2014, and a further third in 2015 (fletcher, 2015). This substantial growth rate in which fast fashion is continuously rising is facilitated by popular high street stores such as Primark, New Look, Zara and H&M, where both the quality and price of clothing is decreased as a growing effect of fast fashion (Figure 1). The longevity of an item and the unethical repercussions that are linked to consumption is seen as secondary to the captivating renovated trends available.
TheGreenHub, (2019), Zara Queue [ONLINE]. Available at: Thegreenhubonline.com [Accessed 3 December 2019].
Fashion business success in being built on the concept of ‘Fashion Adoption’(Birtwistle, 2006) which indicates that the industry must embrace new trends, and drive them through their business in order for them to survive. Customers are dependent on fast fashion high street stores to allow the over consumption of clothing and fuel the habit of purchasing without requirement. A mis considered mindset such as this has led to increasing over consumption and over production.
French sociologist, Philosopher and cultural theorist Baudrillard, believes that ‘There is all around us today a kind of fantastic conspicuousness consumption and abundance’ (Baudrillard, 1998: p.31). The observable consumption of clothing is one that is inescapable in society, with conspicuous consumption being a means to show one’s social status. The term, conspicuous consumption, was established in American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s book, ‘the theory of the Leisure Class’ and was considered to be a product of the developing middle class during the 19th and 20th centuries; and has progressed since due to the result of fast fashion (Veblen, 1889). The theory portrays a transparency to a person’s fortune, specified through their extensive levels of purchasing of goods, with an intent of providing a representation of their wealth. The increase of fast fashion provides the consumer society with approachability and accessibility to reach new styles and trends for an inexpensive cost.
Due to the accessibility of trend adapted clothing in high street stores fast fashion has produced a rivalry within the consumer society for who can purchase the maximum volume of clothing, shown as a trophy to other consumers. An intention has been established for high amounts of consumption to equate to high levels of wealth, and therefore the frontrunner is an admirable figure in society. The competitive mindset within the consumer society is aiding the ideal that consumption is necessary to prove yourself to others, fuelling a negative mindset personally and ethically.
Fast fashion has also produced a competitive nature for what retailer is selling the most fashionable clothing, with Fashion houses accommodating this by trying to keep updated and compete for more collections each year (Ledezma, 2017). Haute couture has now taken a back seat in terms of popularity to the trendsetting fast fashion retailers. Due to fast fashion being both trendy and affordable, fast fashion causes trend flow from top to bottom and bottom to top, which is very different to haute couture. Such availability to clothing from fast fashion, with the addition of competitivity, results negatively in a rivalry of who can look the best, or have the highest volume of clothing. This encourages us to ‘live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’ (Braudillard, 1981), fuelling a more significant relation with the quantity of clothing than the garment itself.
The necessity for self-esteem is fulfilled by both the comfort of clothing and the appearance of looking good, strengthening confidence both physically and psychologically. This is resulting in the image of a fashionable outfit constantly increasing and changing. With a large amount of people that do not have accessibility through resources or wealth; this is creating a negative impact on the consumer society. Furthermore, this competitivity has resulted in designers feeling overworked from trying to produce six or more collection per year that are unique whilst attempting to continue to still fit the brands image (Ledezma, 2017). This is unsustainable and unnecessary.
It is argued that fast fashion retailers are not taking responsibility for how their actions affect the planet; with them being the major resource and ease of access for consumers to purchase more, they are largely seen at fault. Consumers shop for enjoyment and recreation, therefore fast fashion stores operate by tapping into consumers inclination to have a selection of separate trends at a low price, with no implications of its ethical competence. This is accomplished by selling in mass quantities, in standardised sizes, and in finished conditions. The culpability of this leads to low cost manufacturing and mass production, as they are directly linked to the rise of fast fashion.
The ecological cost of mass production in Fast Fashion:
Fast fashion is problematic due to the entirety of the fast fashion cycle causing damage to the environment. The consumption of fast fashion has both negative manufacturing and consumption environmental consequences.
The Fast Fashion business strategy is conditioned on the consumers want for purchasing clothing for each occasion, relating to the large amount of clothing retailers must sell each year to make a profit. Consumers are taught to think of clothing as disposable and to renew their wardrobe every season (Joung), implementing clothing retailers to generate a substantial amount of clothing in a small period of time, a production method that has many environmentally destructive elements to it.
The rapid turnover necessary for retail ready clothing has led to an increase in air pollution, through the transportation of the garments. Companies frequently export their production from overseas to maximise their profits. Both companies and consumers have been introduced to transnational corporations, cyber technology, and electronic mass media; intensely shifting the way that fashion is produced, marketed, sold, bought, worn, and thrown away. Although a connection is made to complete the exportation of the clothing, a disconcerting insufficient protection is shown for the clients manufacturing the garments.
With brands such as H&M and Primark helping to produce 400% more clothing today than was used 30 years ago (CNBC), a growing consensus has been formed that the production of clothing manufactured for fast fashion is a large waste of resources. To produce simple pieces of clothing an unavoidably excessive amount of water is required. This is worsened by the practices used in fast fashion companies, with the addition of efficiency dramatic techniques such as dye management adding to the water footprint of the garment. This is exacerbated by the ecological cost involved in the amount of chemicals used in the production of synthetic fibres and dyes (pollution).
An unsustainable future for fashion is aided by the by-product of global transportation and the utilisation of heavy waste; both of which are indispensable to the cheap manufacturing process of fast fashion. The result of these ecologically harmful production methods is non-durable, non-biodegradable and causes irreplaceable harm to the environment. With environmental damage increasing as the industry expands, excessive damage is produced to the ecosystem, through carbon dioxide emissions; which are the leading source of atmospheric pollution. The global competition of globalisation benefiting fast fashion results in a boost of economic activities that deplete the environment and its natural resources. As the industry expands the diminution effects of these movements will continue to multiply.
Labour concerns are a controversial topic relating to the low-cost mass production of fast fashion in sweatshops in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and more. Large companies such as Zara have been under scrutiny for unsuitable working conditions described as ‘slave-like’ (Forbes). This is possibly due to many nations having inadequate labour laws that large companies will chose to not enforce. (refer Fig 3) Amongst many hazardous factors this includes dangerous working conditions, excessive hours, and underage workers aiding the production of the clothing that is sold in our stores worldwide. One of the most infamous stories in elation is the prominent debate on the collapsed industrial building in Dhaka, where over 1,100 workers were killed and 2,000 workers injured, Disasters such as this intensify consumer responsiveness and attention into the ethical obtaining of their clothing and the conditions in which they are manufactured. This pressure is necessary to beneficially coerce corporations into a public demonstration of the measures taken to relieve the working conditions in which there products are made, to prevent disastrous incidents such as this occurring again.
Laura Garcia, (2016), Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of the Industry [ONLINE]. Available at: https://rgnn.org/2016/08/04/fast-fashion-dark-side-industry/ [Accessed 4 December 2019].
An additional critique to the manufacturing process of fast fashion is the use of cheap, low quality fabrics, with over 60% being synthetic. These synthetic fibres end up in landfill sites where they will not break down easily. It is also argued that even the use of natural fibres will also have a detrimental impact, as they also will not decompose easily. Common fabrics such as polyester are used due to it being low cost and versatile; but it is also a non renewable, non biodegradable resource, that will take over 200 years to decompose. An obvious solution to this is for businesses to use materials that do not release plastic microfibres, such as cotton, cashmere, linen and silk. However, this could be argued to provide an additional ethical issue and would consequently become essential that they are sustainably sourced to become effective.
The rise of fast fashion is directly linked to low cost manufacturing and mass production, as there are as of yet no ethical mass production methods that cannot be argued to negatively affect the environment. This is reinforced by sustainable design focusing on the symptoms that come with environmental disposal, rather than the actual causes creating an unethical industry. ‘In consequence, deeper strategic possibilities are overlooked which, if developed, might build further value into existing creative methodologies.’ A rise in knowledge and subsequent awareness and understanding is necessary to prevent an unethical industry.
Moreover, the pressure that this has given on international firms to remain competitive has forced them to adapt to cost saving production techniques that can be environmentally harmful. The consumer society has led to fast fashion with quicker production, leading to increased competition between popular high street stores. This has guided to ‘The entrance of fast fashion operators…with rapid stock turnaround and vertical integration, into the clothing market has further increased competition and rate of obsolescence’ (Bruce and Daly, 2006, p.6). The rising level of fast fashion is equating to higher levels of detriment ethically; with high street stores competing with each other to make a profit.
Larger corporations however have been seen to have a positive effect on fashion, with World Trade Organisation (WTO) spurring enthusiasm for sustainable development and environmentally friendly trade plans. Recognition from organisations such as WTO begin willingness and a curiosity into the wider ethics of fashion and develops knowledge from an esteemed company that consumers are more probable to pay attention to. With this form of attention consumers are more probable to perceive fashion as a sustainable industry and perform in ethical ways; such as purchasing second hand, or disposing of their clothing through recycling, reusing, or redistributing.