PART 1- HOW DID FASHION BECOME SO FAST?
Fashion wasn’t always such a big and important industry as it is today. We normally bought new clothes when we really needed them or for a very special occasion or only when we outgrew what we had. We used to wear them for many years and repair them before we could finally say goodbye to our favorite pieces. So what exactly happened that led fashion to become one of the most globalized and one of the most polluting industries of the modern world? When did it become too fast and too furious with no regard to the environment, animals and sometimes even to human lives, just focusing on profits driven by over- consumption and “throw-away” culture? As an introduction to this blog, I would like to give you a quick history of the concept known as “fast fashion” and highlight some of its negative impacts.
In the past and certainly before the Industrial Revolution, clothing and shoes were either a simple necessity to protect ourselves from the elements or a “luxury” reserved mostly for the high society. Before, it was a slow process where people relied on sourcing their own materials like cotton, wool, silk, weaving them into fabrics by hand, and then making them into garments usually tailored to an individual size and taste. It was also a creative process – textiles and clothing were always part of many different cultures and traditional crafts which you can see from such a rich and diverse spectrum of patterns, weaves, colors and textures in traditional costumes.
19th Century: cotton empires Britain & USA
As we entered the Industrial Revolution with new inventions like sewing machines, cotton gins and modernized textiles mills, clothing became much easier, faster and cheaper to make. Cotton became the most used and cheapest fiber for clothing production and by the early 19th century England became the world’s leading cotton textile manufacturer. British cotton goods accounted for more than 40% of its total exports in 1804-1806 compared to just 15% a decade earlier*. This is also when fashion industry started to show the first signs of workers’ exploitation: like low wages, long working hours, forced labor and child labor, particularly in the Lancashire textile mills. And you certainly don’t need a history lesson from me to know that cotton production in The United States was literally built on slavery. By the early 1830s the United States produced the majority of the world’s cotton*. What is really shocking is that even today there are cases of forced and child labor not just in cotton production, but in the fashion supply chain in general.
20th Century: “democratization” of “fashion or fast fashion”?
From the early 1900s and until around 1950s clothing production grew steadily and fashion became a lot more accessible to the middle class, but it was still primarily produced in local factories or in small workshops and homes. This is when the concept of “sweatshops” emerged*, with familiar issues like employing immigrants and minors, paying below minimum wages and of course the lack of safety regulations. “Sweatshops” conditions are still a sad reality in some garment producing regions and not only oversees but surprisingly even in the US and Europe as well.
Then came the liberating 60s and 70s and we entered the consumer culture. Young people were creating new trends and clothing became a way to express our individualism or belonging to certain cultural groups. Fashion brands realized that they need to keep up with this increasing demand for cheap and trendy clothes. So they started copying runway styles, and producing them quicker and for much less by opening up textiles mills and production factories in the developing countries. In the 80s and 90s fashion became accessible to everybody and we celebrated the phenomenon as “democratization of fashion”*. This is when the term “fast fashion” became part of the vocabulary and was defined as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”.
Then something very important happened… In 2005 the quota system, which was established by the UK and other developed countries in the 1970s to limit textile and apparel imports from specific developing countries was eliminated. And that is exactly when the floodgates to outsourcing abroad opened up! “By the mid-2000s, fashion had become a huge global business with production steadily moving to countries that offered the lowest wages, the least regulation and fewest protections for workers and the environment in order to maximize profits by producing larger and larger volumes for the lowest cost and as quickly as possible”(from article by Fashion Revolution). And it’s not just the fault of the biggest “fast fashion” retailers like Zara, H&M, UNICLO, Primark or Top Shop that now offer new collections almost every other week, but also the mid-market and luxury fashion. During my carrier I personally witnessed many premium brands and designers moving their production overseas and increasing the number of collections per year from 2 to 6 or more in order to keep up with the industry pace and consumer demand. Last but not least, the rise of social media in the past decade only fueled this desire to always have the latest trend as seen on runways and celebrities, to ware an outfit only a few times or even just once before moving on to the next trend, literally making clothes “disposable”. This is where the responsibility of consumers becomes very real as we all are guilty of contributing to this “fast fashion” phenomenon.
Read the next post where I highlight some of the negative impacts of fashion industry…