The Wasteful Culture of Forever 21, H&M, and 'Fast Fashion'

Fast fashion has created a culture of disposable clothing, which exploits low-wage workers in other countries and is environmentally unsustainable.

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People walk past a Forever 21 store in New York's Times Square in 2010. U.S. consumer confidence jumped this month to the highest level since February.
People walk past a Forever 21 store in New York's Times Square in 2010. U.S. consumer confidence jumped this month to the highest level since February.

Lisa Chau is the assistant director of Affiliated & Shared Interest Groups at Dartmouth College.

Thanks to globalization and cheap labor abroad, companies are now able to inexpensively and quickly churn out trendy garments at low prices. In an age of rampant consumerism, as evidenced by tens of millions of views of YouTube "haul videos" and other media devoted solely to materialism, retail chains such as Forever 21, H&M, and Charlotte Russe have proliferated at an alarming rate over the last decade. 

"Fast Fashion," as the movement is known, has paved the way for outright disposable fashion. It's not uncommon for shoppers to don items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it's not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after a single wearing.

"The specificity of the fashion business is that it is subject to trends," says Andrew A. King, professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business, who has researched the fashion industry. "As such it brings suppliers to seasonally offer consumers new alternatives to stimulate their purchases. Fast fashion poses a threat since its logic is based on copying the designs of high-end producers and quickly diffusing them—sometimes even before the high-end goods, which are based on a complicated and high quality supply chain, are distributed. As such, it mines the overall investment in style by design departments of high end producers."

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Research by the American Apparel and Footwear associations tends to back this up. They report that Americans annually purchase an average of eight pairs of shoes and 68 pieces of clothing. Meanwhile, secondhand clothes molder. According to Elizabeth Cline's book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, a New York based Salvation Army only sells approximately 11,000 items of the five tons of clothing which is processed daily. 

Unfortunately, I expect this trend to get worse before it gets better. As upscale brands such Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Prada report flagging sales growth in the luxury market, shoppers will flee to lower end stores to indulge their buying addictions. 

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This culture is a problem because it often exploits low-wage workers in other countries, feeds an industry of counterfeits, and is environmentally unsustainable. Moreover, the movement is not limited to the apparel industry. Our landfills are packed with disposable products such as razors, drinking cups, and even furniture.  

Single-use goods are nothing new. Nor is planned obsolescence, which has existed for decades. But this movement is becoming more disturbing as the trend accelerates. New electronic gadgets are constantly launched, but we haven't figured out how to recycle all of the old components nor handle the hazardous chemicals in their cores. 

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We need to shift back to a time when longevity and craftsmanship are valued. Harding-Lane's CEO Stephen Gifford agrees and commits his company to promoting eco-friendly materials and sustainable manufacturing of baseball caps with needlepoint stitching. His inspiration springs from watching more and more garbage wash up on the New England beaches he loved as a child. He says his company, Harding-Lane, "prides itself on producing high-quality products whose proceeds allow for us to explore the ways in which we can live a more environmentally responsible life." His company Web site offers visitors the story behind the product and links to some of his favorite companies and organizations that are also doing their part to educate consumers and protect the environment.

It's a good start, though it's doubtful such a countermovement will have the same momentum as the culture which necessitated its birth.

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