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Shopaholics repent! Exploring the economic cost of fast fashion

"Fashion fades," said the legendary Coco Chanel, "only style remains the same." She may have said it sixty years ago, but Madame's words are worth invoking when we look at today's proliferation of fast fashion.

Fashions are fading (and being replaced) faster than ever before. Twenty years ago, clothing chain stores and department stores typically introduced four collections a year, corresponding with the seasons. Today, fast fashion chains may bring out 20 new collections a year or more.

As a result, we are buying more clothes than ever before — yet spending less. Where's the harm in that, you ask? Well, if you think fast food is bad for you, wait till you hear the truth about fast fashion.

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How fashion got fast

In 2002, British retailer Topshop was bought by self-made billionaire entrepreneurs Philip and Tina Green. They transformed the brand by mass-producing runway and celebrity fashions in small batches with super fast production times. Young women could spot Kate Moss wearing a skirt in Vogue and a knock-off would be in Topshop stores almost before the magazine was off the shelf.

Swedish-based H&M (OMX:HMB) saw Topshop's success and moved even faster. They got designs from the sketchpad to sales racks within three weeks. But it was Spain's Zara (BMAD:ITX) that really upped the ante. Zara reduced the quantity of their styles, making items seem super exclusive and quick to disappear. Zara produces 12,000 styles a year and if you don't grab the one you want when you see it, you could miss out forever — a fashionista's nightmare!

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The industry was revolutionized. Clothing got cheaper and trendier and retailers and shopaholics ate it up. While sales ballooned, average retail clothing prices fell by 10% between 2003 and 2007. Everybody from Joe Fresh (TSX:L) to Uniqlo (TYO:9983) got in on the action and we all started to look a lot more chic…and cheaply so.

Fashion crimes

Oh, but there is a dark side. Approximately 40 million garment workers are responsible for the cut, make and trim (CMT) phase of production for those cheap and cheerful fashions. Another 30 million or so (mostly women) do the beading, embroidering and decorating of the garments. The vast majority of these workers are employed in southeast Asian factories with little or no labour standards and no minimum wages.

As intense pressure to meet ever-faster deadlines is imposed by retail fashion companies, the long hours and working conditions become even more deplorable and dangerous. It has been reported that in one Bangladesh factory, the average time allowed to create a t-shirt is 48.5 seconds. Even if a responsibly-minded retailer has contracted a factory on the basis of certain working conditions, a factory under extreme deadline pressure might sub-contract help from another facility where the conditions have not been inspected and the treatment of workers is not monitored.

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Then there are the cotton subsidies that support western producers to the tune of nearly $5 billion a year — keeping cotton prices down and undercutting farmers in developing countries. According to experts, getting rid of American cotton subsidies would level the playing field and increase the income of West African farmers by 5-12%. You can easily see how fair trade — not aid — is more effective at alleviating world poverty.

According to The Guardian columnist and author of "To Die For", Lucy Siegle, "Human misery seems endemic at every point in the production line, from the alarming suicide rates among Indian farmers to young seamstresses forced to take contraceptive pills."

Environmental effect

Speaking of cotton, farmers use highly toxic pesticides to protect their lucrative crops. According to the World Health Organization, 40,000 people die each year and millions more end up in hospitals due to pesticide poisoning.  Cotton also has a big impact on the world's water supply: the production of a single pair of jeans requires between 11,000 and 20,000 litres of water. Not to mention the carbon footprint of transporting those jeans around the world on ships and airplanes.

Throwaway culture

Perhaps the biggest impact of fast fashion has been cultural: shifting our mindset from clothing as investment pieces to disposable items. In the UK, it was measured that British consumers buy approximately two million tons of clothes per year; or 66 pounds of clothes per person. Sadly, 1.2 million tons end up in landfills every year. This is not just a function of fickle taste…cheaper clothing wears out more quickly and is more likely to get tossed out rather than handed-down, taken to a consignment shop or donated to charity. While we may pride ourselves on recycling paper and eschewing plastic bags, when it comes to our clothes, we are more wasteful than ever.

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Slow fashion

Just as the slow food movement arose out of a desire to move away from commercially prepared fast food and return to locally-grown ingredients prepared with care and nourishing cooking methods, a slow fashion movement is starting to emerge.

A new book by Elizabeth L. Cline, called Overdressed, calls for a return to mid-priced and ethically produced garments. The Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label seek to raise awareness about practices in the garment industry, while The Ethical Fashion Forum provides a database for consumers to seek out ethically made fashion products.

Enlightened shopping

Meanwhile, fashionistas hooked on fast fashion are starting to feel the kind of regret that comes after a diet of too many take-out burgers or frozen pizzas. Where can a woman find fashion without guilt?

Fortunately, a whole new market of slow fashion is emerging, catering to a more enlightened fashionista who wishes to be less wasteful. Here are just a few:

  • Fashion-conscience.com sources ethical clothing "for stylish women with a conscience, a site which is genuinely fashion forward."
  • The Brides Project takes donated wedding gowns and sells them to new brides, donating the profits to cancer charities.

  • With & Within is a global social network for women, encouraging the swapping of clothing, home-based business services and children's items.

  • Edun is a high-end fashion brand started by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono — it's not cheap, but the designs are beautiful and soulfully made.

  • Yoox offers Yooxygen, a cool collection of clothing, bags, shoes and jewellery from international eco-conscience designers.

Following the stars

Of course, no movement ever really takes off without the help of a few big-name celebrities. Livia Firth (wife of the hunky actor Colin Firth) has been doing her part, convincing famous actors and designers to get onboard with the Green Carpet Challenge; the fashions are designed in "eco-certified fabrics" and you have never seen recycling get so glamourous. Hopefully, fashion retailers will start following this fashion lead. We think even Madame Chanel would approve.

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