The fate of fast fashion after a pandemic

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Trainees work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. A survey of factory owners in Bangladesh has found that major fashion retailers that are closing shops and laying off workers in Europe and the U.S. also are canceling their sometimes already completed orders, as workers often go unpaid. About 4.1 million people work in apparel factories in Bangladesh, the world's No. 2 garment exporter after China.  Photo by A.M. Ahad, File/AP

Trainees work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. A survey of factory owners in Bangladesh has found that major fashion retailers that are closing shops and laying off workers in Europe and the U.S. also are canceling their sometimes already completed orders, as workers often go unpaid. About 4.1 million people work in apparel factories in Bangladesh, the world’s No. 2 garment exporter after China. Photo by A.M. Ahad, File/AP

Now that we are all social distancing, it is no secret that non-essential businesses are suffering. The fashion industry, for example, has been hit hard. Nearly $825 million worth of designs for this season are predicted to go unsold. Many are wondering what this may suggest for the future of fashion, especially as it interacts with the environment and with its workers.

At the beginning of March, Carlo Cabasa, the head of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, foresaw failure for the $100 billion-plus fashion industry. This came from supply chain issues and lessening demand in China, the heart of the coronavirus outbreak. The localized crash of the Italian fashion industry is suggestive about the future of the global fashion industry. Italy’s crash is a model for the world’s expectations for the global fashion industry. The pandemic has revealed the deep weakness of the global fashion industry’s dependence on labor outsourced to China and Bangladesh. 

A fall in clothing sales may not necessarily be a bad thing. A good portion of the industry has been compared to fast food and dubbed “fast fashion.” Brands like H&M and Zara mass-produce trendy clothing that pollute during production and promote consumerism that causes people to quickly cycle through cheap, low-quality clothing and fill up landfills. Fast fashion is such a widespread and accepted part of the fashion industry that the incredible environmental damage that comes with it is often overlooked. The silver lining to the industry’s halted growth is that perhaps the fast fashion aspect of it will slow down, introducing a system of clothing consumption that is less damaging for the environment. 

However, there is a very real human impact of this halted growth, as well. Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter, after China, and incredibly dependent on the fast fashion industry as 84% of its exports are ready-made garments. The lack of shopping, then, has a very real and tragic impact on many factory workers. A survey of factory owners in Bangladesh found that nearly all clothing distributors refused to contribute to worker wages and follow through on payments, over 70% of those furloughed were not given pay and over 80% of those fired were not given severance. Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters Association, stated that the situation is “apocalyptic” and 4.1 million workers are in danger of literally starving. These unfair and dangerous situations that workers are currently in are reflective of their working conditions in factories. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse killed 1,134 people and injured over 2,500. The coronavirus pandemic reveals that fast fashion is not simply an environmental issue; it is also a human rights one.

Thus, we are left with an uneasy choice: preservation of the environment or preservation of human lives and rights. There is some argument that we can do both. But how? Brands like H&M and Zara have already made weak attempts to try by “greenwashing,” or creating clothing lines that are not clearly and thoroughly eco-friendly to appeal to concerned shoppers. These attempts are relatively meaningless in the face of their inherently environmentally unfriendly business model. But their failure does come with a few lessons. 

There is no easy solution. This is to be expected with such a complex and important problem. Any approach to a solution must be interdisciplinary. Fast fashion is an incredibly problematic industry with consequences that range from economic to anthropologic. It requires both the individual effort of self-questioning and sustainable action, like thrifting, and the collective action of holding corporations accountable and providing aid to exploited and dependent countries. The coronavirus pandemic will likely do little to productively solve the issue of fast fashion, but it certainly has revealed its flaws. Hopefully, it will inspire the anger and unity to create real change.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

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Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at aarushi.nohria@uconn.edu.

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