Words: Tezbin Haider (She/Her)
I’m scrolling through Instagram, and videos of the maxi dress from SKIMS litter my explore page. You know the one I’m talking about. I know she’s doomed to the same fate suffered by the Hockney dress from House of Sunny, those strappy trousers from I.AM.GIA. or those cardigans with the fur trim that were everywhere in 2021. Fast fashion in the age of the internet is unrecognisable from what it looked like just 20 years ago. Terms like ‘micro-trends’ and ‘ultra fast fashion’ have had to be coined to describe the sheer scale of how much we produce and consume. In 2019 alone, we consumed 62 million metric tons of apparel, and, like every year, we threw away around 57% of it.
Before the popularity of social media, we received fashion content in small doses from magazines or movies or celebrities. The rise of social media and influencer culture, however, has ensured greater and constant exposure to celebrities and fashion trends. Social media has opened up a whole new avenue to customers, and who has taken more advantage of it than fast fashion retailers? Fast fashion brands have snatched up endorsements from the likes of Cardi B, the KarJenners, Madelaine Petsch and other big names on the internet. Last year, Boohoo made the news by appointing Kourtney Kardashian as its ‘Sustainability Ambassador’ — ironic, I know.
Fast fashion brands like Boohoo have dismal records when it comes to sustainability. The worst culprit of them is arguably Shein. The fashion giant churns out a staggering 10,000 new products daily and sells them at incredibly low prices. In April 2022, Shein was valued at $100 billion, surpassing all other big fast fashion names like Zara and H&M. Shein is only able to take up such a huge market share through abhorrent labour and environmental practices. A Channel 4 documentary found that workers in a SHEIN factory were working up to 18-hour days with only one day off a month. These workers were penalised two-thirds of their daily wage if they made a mistake on a clothing item. In one of the factories, the investigative team found women washing their hair during lunch breaks.
Shein has been repeatedly accused of any and all unethical business practices, from breaking labour laws to producing clothes with high levels of toxic chemicals to stealing designs from independent designers. Yet, it remains one of the most popular fashion brands. TikTok, for instance, is replete with Shein haul videos full of items that are ‘so worth the money’. It doesn’t matter if the clothing disintegrates in the wash; the next new trend is only a few weeks away.
It’s now cheaper than ever to stay on top of the ever-shortening trends. It is now cheaper than ever to reinvent ourselves. You can be a clean girl, a downtown girl, a cold girl. It’s all just a few clicks away. If you grow tired of your new aesthetic or if you don’t like it in the first place, the garments are so cheap you won’t feel bad about throwing them away either. This trend in consumer culture provides the perfect case study for what Marx calls commodity fetishism. This describes the false attribution of value, almost a magical value, to commodities in of themselves instead of the labour that goes behind them. This is because the workers producing these commodities are largely invisible to consumers, just like the workers in the Global South who are labouring away so that fast fashion brands can sell us individuality packaged into plastic bags with return labels.
The current model of the fast fashion industry is built on the exploitation of the Global South. Economics scholar Emmanuel Wallerstein states that the Global North, or the ‘core’ as he calls it, extracts cheap labour and materials from the Global South or the ‘periphery’ in order to produce goods which the Global North then sells to the rest of the world at a surplus value. So then follows the economic prosperity of the Global North, relying upon the exploitation of the Global South.
By virtue of being citizens in the Global North, we are then participating and benefiting from the current model of global capitalism.
I often hear the expression ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ in conversations about buying from fast fashion brands. Often the saying is misused to wash ourselves clean of any blame. While it is true that no single person can avoid participating in a capitalist, and therefore unethical, system, we do have some control over the extent of participation. Sometimes we have no choice but to participate, but participation is different from active promotion. There is a difference between a person buying from fast fashion brands because it’s all they can afford and the fashion influencer that just spent £100 on a Shein haul.
It is especially harmful to use rhetoric like ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ to excuse overconsumption because it breeds apathy. Somewhere along the line, we decided that consumption is more important than the lives of those producing our clothes in the Global South. I am not saying that we must cut out fast fashion brands entirely, but we should be mindful of giving our money to these brands. When the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, brands cancelled around £12 billion worth of orders. Millions of workers in the global garment supply chain have not been paid their full wages or have lost their jobs without the severance pay they are entitled to. They are still owed £2.46 to £4.46 billion from the first three months of the pandemic alone. Meanwhile, the fast fashion industry is bigger than ever. When the SKIMS dress inevitably becomes obsolete, and a new flurry of videos pop up on our Instagram telling us to ‘run, not walk’ to follow a new microtrend, I hope we ask ourselves, ‘Who does over the top consumption benefit?’