The Truth of U.S. Fashion Companies

Cloths on racks

By: Jackson Flint

Fashion has a long history with humankind. It takes different forms, and its offering covers people of all ages and backgrounds. Since the late 20th century the mainstream trend for fashion development has been offshoring work from western countries to the developing countries, leaving people in the western world without a job whilst introducing new ways of growth to the developing countries. 

This, however, is not the whole truth. While bringing jobs, companies have created longer supply chains, not knowing the whole ‘story’ of a garment. Prices have been cut from where it is seen as possible, reducing the quality of the work as workers have to produce more clothes in lesser time. Cutting costs in the production phase has also reduced the safety of the worker; weakening buildings, exposure to chemicals used, and health issues from bad working conditions. 

The fibres themselves are stretched so far their quality is deteriorating, thus having an effect on the lifespan of the garments consumers wear. Among chemicals used in the growing a crop, or child labour in producing clothes and collecting cotton, and slave labour still linked to not only fashion, but also fashion in Europe. Consumers are mostly unaware of the issues the fast fashion industry is riddled with, and some turn a blind eye. Earth’s capacity to keep up with humankind’s ‘innovative’ ways of working has become a subject of concern. As the Paris Climate Treaty signed in 2016, the world leaders are showing a direction of which we should head towards. Sustainable development has become paramount in the last decades.

There are two main markets in the fashion market haute couture, which is exclusive custom-fitted fashion, and pret-a-porter, which produces standardised clothing sizes. Fast fashion falls into the high-street section in the ready-to-wear segment. Similar to fashion, the fast fashion industry is broken down into sections. Fast fashion firms meet the demand of consumers with low prices and new weekly product offerings, which quickly fall apart or become outdated, pushing quantity demand up while pulling prices down. 

Fast fashion is a concept, which revolutionised the fashion industry. As the term implies it is about the pace of the production. Brands tap on consumers’ interest for not wanting to invest in ever-changing fashion trends. There are huge opportunities for profit and innovation within the model. Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Zara, and Forever 21 are examples of fast fashion stores. Stores like this will be requested to manufacture four styles at 500 garments per week for five weeks. The remaining 30,000 garments will be ordered last minute when the client has resolved whether the consumer has taken on with that trend. A few years back, a factory supplying a retailer would have expected to manufacture 40,000 garments across four styles in twenty weeks.

Fast fashion is a business model rapidly taking over the industry, where firms design fashionable clothes as quickly and cheaply as possible, demanding a highly responsive supply chain able to support product assortment, which changes seasonally. Quick response and the assortment changes are fundamentally operational, allowing the ex Fashion Haute Couture Ready-to-wear Premium Highstreet Middle-market Down-market Supermarket the execution of the model, whilst the price represents the value proposition.

These facilities, with typically poor and often unsafe working conditions, are most accurately described as sweatshops. Originally described as a system outsourcing or subcontracting labour. This depiction holds true today, although extended, applying to any manufacturing facility where an employe endures long hours in unsafe working conditions and receives low pay. Using cheap labour in developing nations allows firms to increase production speed and volume. The industry is fast-paced and greatly globalised; designing is done in one country, raw materials sourced from another, manufactured in another, and dispatched to numerous countries. While logistics is challenged with shorter product life cycles, more seasons and reduced lead times, the industry is sourcing a greater amount of product offshore. Fast fashion firms rely on efficient supply chains to maintain large quantities of rapidly changing merchandise. In order to maintain this, a complex global supply chain with many layers and contractors is necessary. Brands contract manufacturers, suppliers, and logistical companies around the world so they can move products quickly and cheaply, which loosens the brands control over the production process.

Tracing a garment’s origin is near impossible. The rapid demand cycle is the main issue; increased consumer demand results in higher demand for firms who then demand products to be produced faster. Manufacturers undertake every order; it is not in their best interest to turn away an order. When suppliers cannot keep up with demand they subcontract work without the permission of the brand. 

The industrial nature of the production of clothing is having a sustained impact upon our environment. The production levels of fast fashion challenge the ethics of the whole process, whilst the many levels of the production chain make it near impossible to know the origin of a garment. 

Suppose the current levels of consumption stay the same, with the rising population, the planet cannot sustain this level for long. The land we have and its supplies are limited. (Morgan, 2015) We are already living on “borrowed time” with our consumption exceeding the biological capacity the planet can support; in 2015 the Earth’s overshoot day was on August 13. The overshoot is the time, when humanity has exhausted earth’s biocapacity. In 2016, Finland consumed its share on April 17, much earlier than the rest of the planet on average. According to Liisa Rohweder of WWF “Developing countries end up paying for the ‘debt’, where [the western world] outsources the consequences of its own overconsumption.” The materials used in clothing production have a direct impact the environment, local populations and workers.

Fast fashion depends on cheap fibres, natural or synthetic. Polyester and cotton amount for more than eighty per cent of all fibre production, both of which are riddled with sustainability issues. Leather is not that much better; “the physical waste alone comprise of fleshing, trimmings, split off-cuts, and shavings from skins. Garment production involves chemicals at every step of the way, whether the process begins “on the land” or involves manmade textiles. Some are used during the dye and fabric production phase, whereas others are used to give fabrics, odor-, stain-, water and wrinkle-resistant traits.

Cotton is known as the natural fibre in the fast fashion industry. Producing it is a major business employing over 300 million people, ninety-nine percent of which work in developing countries. Rarely pays attention where or how cotton is produced and collected, fast fashion only demands huge quantities of it. Once cotton is treated and sewn into million pairs of various garments, the true origins of the components of the garment would be hard to know. Cotton crops are addicted to agrichemicals, especially India’s where harvests are among the lowest in the world. The pressure of producing enough of cotton cheaply has made farmers increasingly reliant on pesticides. The average cotton farm in Punjab produces 180 kilograms of cotton lint per hectare, compared to China that yields on average 3878 kilograms per hectare, and in Pakistan 1867 kilograms. The fibre cannot be described as low maintenance, when farmers need it so cheaply and in such huge quantities since the demand for it is enormous. There is an overabundance of parasites, hence the farmers’ demand for pesticides.

Synthetic is made by extrusion, using oil to create the fibre, coming in many forms, including acetates, polyamide, elastane, rayon, and polyester and viscose. Their price has been in decline over the last 25 years, making them as cheap as cotton. The need for synthetic fibre has nearly doubled from 1990 to 2005. By 2006 synthetics accounted for 58 per cent for all fibre in global demand. Synthetic and regenerated fibres account for 56 per cent of total annual global fibre production. Over the last thirty years there has been a significant increase in both the total amount and the market share, lead by polyester.

Being one of the most common materials in our wardrobes, leather’s production and processing phase is one of the grittiest of the fashion chain. Classified among the most harmful industries and most polluting systems, its impacts lead to deterioration of a wide range of organisms and ecosystems. In common with other materials, leather has become more affordable to shoppers, the industry can barely keep up with the demand; it has lost its ‘status’ as a quality product. Facing issues as high lead content, and greenhouse gasses from cows, leather does not have the most appealing environmental profile. Leather is a big consumer of water, demanding enormous quantities. After using freshwater to convert skin into leather, wastewater filled with chemicals is flushed back into the river. Locals use the same water to drink, bathe, water their crops, and to feed their families. The problem is the locals have no other sources for water. Research shows around ten percent of particular types of chromium can remain in the human body for five years, resulting in damaged DNA. 

In 2000, PETA released a video revealing conditions in which Indian leather was produced in, seemingly having an effect as retailers began to avoid it. Since then similar evidence has surfaced displaying an industry with little care for animal welfare. The demand for millions of cow skins and desire for the cheapest of products still continue being produced despite promises Moving to the Amazonian rainforest, where ranches holding hundreds of thousands of cattle appear to be expanding into the rainforest, turning the land from trees into scrub. A fifth of the rainforest has been lost since 1970, 65 – 75 percent of it attributed to cattle ranching. In 2009 the Brazilian government announced its aims to grab a bigger piece of the global beef market, growing from thirty to sixty per cent, by 2020, which would also have a direct cause of increasing the leather production. 

The fast fashion model exploits globalization to its benefit, which specialists in finding the cheapest labor through outsourcing. Large quantities of garments go through countries that all are increasingly dependent on the garment trade to lift their GDP. Brands are continuously on the lookout for a better deal and a faster turnout, the choice given to them is vast, and if not supplying with a cheaply enough or at the required pace, the retailer will look for a supplier who can.

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