Opinion | Fast fashion is unethical, but so is the system that created it

Many facets of the fast fashion industry are horrendous, but to decry those that buy from it is missing the point.


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Peter Anders, Opinions Contributor

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

Fast fashion may be unethical, but it exists for a reason.

Many college students turn to less costly ways of buying clothes. This is one reason for explosive growth of cheap clothing apps such as SHEIN and Zara.

Fast fashion is made through unethical working conditions and has a negative impact on the environment. But instead of criticizing those who buy it, we should place blame on the companies themselves.

The growth of fast fashion companies has brought the revelation that the cheap costs of the clothes come at a humane and environmental price. Mengmeng Liu, a third year doctoral student and instructor for environment-related courses at the University of Iowa, said that fast fashion contributes to issues such as labor exploitation and environmental pollution.

“[Fast fashion generates] labor exploitation, and environmental pollution,” Liu said. “And then a lot of corporation’s locate their factory in cheaper labor [markets].”

Fast fashion is made in unethical conditions. According to Sustain Your Style, an environmentally focused fashion website, workers in these factories work as many as 16-17 hour work days. The wages range from as low as four cents per item of clothing.

The companies behind this trend are unethical, but the people who use them should not be demonized for trying to get cheaper clothes in an uncertain economic climate. Instead of blaming consumers, efforts should be made to make fast fashion more ethical instead of demonizing it completely.

Fast fashion also allows a convenience factor to come into play. Amazon was once viewed as the easiest way to shop for clothes, and it still holds a considerable market share, of 11.5 percent as of 2021.  By the time a company like Amazon will have identified a new fashion trend, the algorithm of SHEIN will already have it on sale thanks to its algorithm.

SHEIN is privately owned. They can afford to take losses on certain sales because they do not have to explain themselves to shareholders. Zara has the benefit of being part of one of Europe’s biggest clothing chains and loss leaders are a natural part of the business for conglomerates.

Pundits argue that customers should avoid fast fashion and instead save up for high-quality clothes.  Solutions put forward include renting clothes and keeping up maintenance on clothes already owned to make them last longer.

There are various problems with this argument. College students are often expected to dress presentably. Social media can create unrealistic goals for self-image, leaving college students to feel the need to buy clothes.

The moral responsibility some like to place on customers of fast fashion is misplaced. The system of late-stage capitalism that allowed cheap labor exploitation companies to capitalize off of affordable clothing should be criticized, not people shopping looking for heaper options.

Most customers just try to find alternative lower cost means of acquiring clothes, unaware of what the reality of the clothing industry is.