Do you still have fast fashion garments in your closet? I know, it can be very hard to escape the temptation because it’s conviennent, fun and cheap. Yes, the price is one of the most important factors that influences our buying decision. But maybe understanding why fast fashion is so cheap will help you to make better choices.
Clothing labels give us insights on the fabric, the washing instructions and where the garment was made: Turkey, China or Bangladesh. But they don’t tell us exactly where and how the garment was manufactured which would give us more insights as to why the garment is so cheap.
Since the Rana Plaza Factory in India collapsed in 2013, many realized how bad the conditions in the clothing industry had become. But in 2022, fast fashion is still popular and it is expected to grow from $68.6 million in 2020 to $211.9 million in 2030.
One reason for the popularity of cheaply produced fashion is the lack of awareness of the daily problems of the fast fashion industry. When we take the time to understand the mechanism behind the industry, we can see that it comes at a high cost for the planet, animals and people.
$5 for a shirt and $12 for a dress seems like a dream for many when they look at the price tags of a fast fashion retailer. But how is it possible that clothing equals the prices of for example, a burger? (Well, currently in spring of 2022 the world is facing a crisis of inflation but you know what I try to say here.)
Despite all of its popularity and challenges, here are the top 10 reasons why fast fashion is so cheap.
1. Fashion production is outsourced to cheap workforce
It’s widely known that fast fashion companies outsource their production to emerging and developing countries like Bangladesh, India, China and Indonesia because of its cheap workforce.
Bangladesh, as one of the cheapest places for fashion production, has a legal minimum wage for garment workers of 8,000 taka (about $94) a month. That is more than half under the estimated living wage of $189, which would provide a family with necessities like food, shelter, and education.
2. Fast Fashion companies follow the volume-based business model
Fast fashion brands place orders of high quantities of garments to their manufacturer which reduces the price per item.
This also means that the fabric and accessories (like zippers, buttons) can be ordered in bulk, reducing the cost per garment even more.
Do you know how many fast fashion garments are made yearly? In 2018, Zara alone, one of the world's largest fast fashion companies, produced and sold more than 450 million products.
3. The fabric is low quality and cheap
Synthetic fibers (e.g. Acrylic, Nylon, Spandex and Acetate) are cheaper than natural fibers (e.g. Cotton, Wool…) because they can be produced efficiently in large quantities from cheap raw materials. In general, Polyester is the cheapest fabric on the market, followed by cotton.
‘63% of textile fibers are derived from petrochemicals.’ (Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018) The production of these synthetic fabrics comes with a high pollution of the environment, making recycled synthetic fibers the better alternative. Yet, recycled Polyester turns out to be more expensive than cotton.
4. Garment workers get paid per piece not per hour
Fast fashion production and bad labor conditions don’t only exist overseas but also right here in the USA. L.A. is actually the nation’s garment production capital.
L.A. garment workers get paid a piece rate of between 2-6 cents per piece instead of a minimum wage. ‘Most garment workers work 60-70 hour weeks with a take home pay of about $300 dollars.‘
This system also puts garment workers at risk of not earning any money if their garments don’t pass the quality control.
5. Garments are kept simple
When I say that garments are kept simple, I refer to the difficulty of its design.
If a garment is more complex and has twists, knots and many details, it takes more time to develop a tech pack and pattern for it. A tech pack is a CAD file that illustrates next to the silhouette all important information for manufacturing like fabric type, color, special trims, closure options or other garment specific information.
Fast fashion garments are mostly not made out of more than one or two different fabrics. Inner lining is only attached when absolutely necessary like for chiffon or mesh embroidery. Special stitching, embroidery or pleating are for example more time consuming techniques and usually you don’t find more than two of these craftsmanships in one garment.
Each additional unique feature or design costs more time and money to develop and manufacture so it’s therefore kept to a minimum. For the same reason, fast fashion retailers like to reuse patterns and remake the same outfits with different prints.
6. Fabric for garments is cut in large numbers
Fast fashion is defined as mass-productions made quickly. This means that fabric cutters cut hundreds of yards of fabric for one outfit style at the same time with a cutting machine.
If you try on for example a dress in a medium size and it doesn’t fit well, it’s worth trying on several more medium size versions of this dress.
The differences in an outfit with the same size lies in the fabric cutting method. The lower layers of fabric aren’t cut as exact, causing inaccuracies in the silhouette.
7. Consumers demand cheap and trendy clothes
With all the inexpensive products around us, not only in fashion but other industries like food, our brain has been trained to think that paying more is a rip off.
94% of online shoppers are willing to spend time in order to find the lowest price before buying as a study by the e-tailing group found out.
For many, buying fast fashion is an addiction because it gives us a fast satisfaction. Furthermore, because it is so inexpensive, we don’t even have to feel guilty about purchasing it more often.
But we do know today that the true cost isn’t the one on the price tag.
8. There are no contracts between fast fashion retailers and manufacturers
Fashion retailers work with manufacturers that offer the cheapest price without having long-term binding contracts. This has a couple benefits to the fashion company that often works with up to 3,000 suppliers. On the one hand, the manufacturer has to offer lower prices to stay competitive. On the other hand, if a scandal from one of the manufacturers arises like child labor, the fashion company can suspend work with that supplier right a way. Without these long-term binding contracts, there is unfortunately, very little control and no improvement of the working conditions. (Book: Fashion Circus #1; Dress me up in green)
9. Bad working conditions for garment and textile workers
Garment workers overseas and in sweatshops in America not only don’t get paid a living wage but work in bad conditions. ‘Workers are not paid overtime and toil in unsafe, cramped, dirty, and poorly ventilated factories.’ according to the Garment Worker Center in L.A.
In order to keep the prices low, they can’t afford to renovate buildings and create safe work spaces which often causes fires, diseases and injuries. The most well-known is the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 garment workers.
In addition, textile and garment workers breathe in toxic substances or fiber dust. Polyester textiles for example rely on the use of heavy metals, like antimony which can cause respiratory issues and may even cause cancer. (National Institutes of Health)
10. Designs are copied
It’s no secret that fast fashion retailers copy prints or entire outfits straight from runway shows of luxury brands. Unfortunately, also small fashion brands and Independent Fashion Designers are likely to be copied.It is obviously cheaper and more lucrative to copy designs than investing the time to come up with innovative ideas. And it’s not even illegal because in the USA clothing designs are not protected under American copyright law.