Member only
Episode
275

Fast Fashion & Disposable Clothing

Jun 28, 2022
How Stuff Works
-
21
minutes

Never before in human history have clothes been cheaper, and never before have we bought more of them.

In this episode, we'll explore this phenomenon, how it works, and ask ourselves what it's doing to society.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Fast Fashion.

[00:00:28] This is part three of this three-part series on fashion. 

[00:00:33] In part one we talked about some of the historical curiosities of fashion, and how different fashions have come and gone due to socio-political events.

[00:00:44] Then in part two we looked at some of the great fashion houses: Chanel, Gucci, Dior, and Versace.

[00:00:52] And in today’s episode, part three, it is the modern phenomenon of fast fashion, of the mass production of cheap items of clothing.

[00:01:01] We’ll look at the development of fast fashion, how it actually works, the criticisms of fast fashion from a sustainability point of view, and ask ourselves whether “fast” fashion is simply the fashion of the future, or it too is another passing fad, a fashion that will come and go.

[00:01:22] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:26] The subjects we heard about in part two of this mini-series, Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Versace, are all luxury fashion houses. 

[00:01:36] These designers, to different degrees, wanted to create beautiful garments, wonderful clothes that would make whoever wore them look absolutely stunning.

[00:01:47] These clothes would use the finest of materials, no expense would be spared, which evidently resulted in very expensive clothes that only the richest in society could afford.

[00:01:59] For the majority of the 20th century, there was this gap, this gulf, between the clothes that the rich and famous would wear and the clothes everyone else would wear. 

[00:02:12] Film stars and princesses wore dresses by fashion houses like Dior, everyone else wore, well, more plain, normal clothes. 

[00:02:22] But towards the end of the 20th century, and at the start of the 21st century, a strange phenomenon started happening.

[00:02:31] The gap between the types of clothes designed by fashion houses and the types of clothes that normal people would wear started to reduce. It became cheaper and cheaper to dress in a way that resembled your favourite star, it became cheaper and cheaper to buy any type of clothes you wanted.

[00:02:50] And as the cost reduced, people were able to buy more and more.

[00:02:56] Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century the average American spent between 12 and 14% of their income on clothes. 

[00:03:06] Now it’s more like 3%, but the average person buys much more than ever before. 

[00:03:14] Some estimates have this as people owning five times more clothes now than 100 years ago.

[00:03:22] This probably isn’t surprising to you. You may even remember clothes being a lot more expensive than they are today.

[00:03:30] Now, if you were to walk into a shop like Zara or H&M, you’d be able to find t-shirts for €5, and you probably wouldn’t pay much more for jumpers or jeans. 

[00:03:45] If you wanted a stylish dress, one that didn’t look all too different to one a movie star might have been wearing on the red carpet, you might be able to find one for as little as €10.

[00:03:58] Apps like SHEIN might even sell you a swimsuit for just a couple of euros.

[00:04:04] So, how did clothes get this cheap, and what is the effect of this?

[00:04:10] Well, to illustrate this, it’s useful to take the case of a shop that you may well know, Zara.

[00:04:18] Zara is a Spanish brand, founded in the city of La Coruña in northwest Spain. 

[00:04:24] It was founded in 1975, and went from a small clothing shop to the world’s largest clothing retailer, turning its founder, Amancio Ortega, into one of the richest people in the world. 

[00:04:39] Now, Zara is just one of many fast fashion companies, but it is one of the most prominent, and an understanding of how Zara works is helpful for an understanding of the fast fashion industry as a whole.

[00:04:54] Historically, clothes shops might have four different seasons, so the clothes on offer would change four times a year. Nobody wants to buy a woolly jumper in July, or a swimming costume in December.

[00:05:09] Zara, on the other hand, changes its collection on a rolling basis, replacing three quarters of its collection every month. 

[00:05:18] Put another way, Zara launches around 65,000 new items every year, whereas traditional manufacturers launch around 5,000.

[00:05:30] If you’re thinking, “why launch so many new items, wouldn’t it be better to launch fewer items and have them around for longer?”, well, that might seem like a sensible question, but it is the complete opposite of the philosophy and business model of fast fashion.

[00:05:47] Fast fashion, and the success of companies like Zara, revolves around the idea of very quickly adding and removing new collections, often based very closely on designs created by expensive fashion houses. 

[00:06:04] The result of this is that shoppers feel like they need to buy it now otherwise they won’t be able to buy it in the future.

[00:06:12] You could argue that this is nothing new, and that this sense of “FOMO”, this fear of missing out, is something that is as old as time.

[00:06:23] But even 50 years ago, even if there had been the consumer demand for it, fast fashion wouldn’t have existed because it simply wouldn’t have been possible to produce these new items as quickly as the fast fashion industry requires.

[00:06:39] It’s thought that now, a brand like Zara can go from having the idea for a particular item of clothing through to having that item of clothing for sale in a shop in as little as four weeks. 

[00:06:55] We’ll come to some of the consequences of this in a minute, but it is unprecedented. It’s incredibly fast, and means that these fast fashion retailers can produce new items of clothing faster than ever before.

[00:07:10] Now, at first glance this might seem like a welcome development. 

[00:07:15] If clothes are cheaper it means people have more money to spend on other things, and wearing clothes that make you feel great should be something that is accessible to everyone, not just people who are able to afford Versace or Yves Saint Laurent.

[00:07:32] It certainly has democratised fashion in a way never before, but the fast fashion industry is not without its critics.

[00:07:41] And the criticisms fall into two main categories: damage to the environment and exploitation of workers.

[00:07:50] To start with the environmental criticisms, we can also split these into three main categories: climate change, pollution, and water usage.

[00:08:01] On the first issue, of climate change, the fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for between 8-10% of global carbon emissions, about 4 or 5 times as bad for the environment as the airline industry. 

[00:08:17] Making and transporting clothes uses a lot of energy, especially when one considers that in many cases these cheap t-shirts or dresses will be being produced in countries using coal-powered electricity, then put on a ship and sent thousands of kilometres to their final destination.

[00:08:38] In terms of water usage, again we might not necessarily look at our t-shirt and think that much water has been used to produce it, but the fashion industry is responsible for almost 20% of all wastewater produced worldwide.

[00:08:56] If you’re wearing a cotton t-shirt, which I am actually at the moment, it takes around 3,000 litres of water to produce the raw materials that went into making that t-shirt. 

[00:09:08] And to put that another way, if you take a five minute shower every day, the amount of water that goes into making the cotton in your t-shirt is comparable to two months worth of showers.

[00:09:21] Or in terms of drinking water, the amount of water that goes into making your t-shirt, is similar to what the average person drinks in about two and a half years. 

[00:09:34] Now, on the pollution side of things, the fast fashion industry stands accused of using toxic and polluting chemicals both in the cloth itself and in the dyes used to create different colours.

[00:09:48] Because the emphasis is on reducing the cost as much as possible, the factories producing these goods have little incentive to spend money on more environmentally friendly raw materials or on disposing of waste products, and this ends up in rivers and polluting nearby environments.

[00:10:08] And there are countless stories and investigations into cases of villages in countries like India or Bangladesh where the residents have suffered because of waste pollution coming from garment factories.

[00:10:22] What’s more, with clothes made with synthetic materials, these often contain microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic which are washed away when the clothes are washed. 

[00:10:34] These microplastics end up getting washed out into the sea, polluting the oceans, being eaten by fish, contaminating water and food supplies.

[00:10:44] Now, moving onto our second category of complaints about the fast fashion industry, this revolves around the maltreatment, the exploitation, of workers.

[00:10:54] And for many people, it wasn’t until 2013 that the reality of how cheap clothing was made was finally made blindingly obvious. 

[00:11:05] On April 24th of 2013, in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, a building called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing at least 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. 

[00:11:20] The factories inside made clothes for a number of well-known Western manufacturers, such as Primark, Walmart and El Corte Ingles, as well as some expensive fashion houses such as Prada and Gucci.

[00:11:36] In the aftermath of the tragedy, it became clear that the building was entirely unsafe and the owners had ignored safety concerns for months. 

[00:11:47] Previously conveniently hidden from view, the grim reality of life inside these garment factories was now shown to the world. 

[00:11:55] Low-pay, long hours, and potentially fatal working conditions were simply a reality for someone working in one of these factories.

[00:12:05] And while the perhaps stereotypical, or cliche, idea of the exploited fast fashion worker is someone in a factory in India or Bangladesh, it’s come to light that exploited workers are often based far closer to the end consumer. 

[00:12:22] Indeed, there have been investigative reports that have shown that Leicester, a city in central England, has become a hub for garment production, with workers often earning as little as £3 an hour and employed on unstable, temporary contracts.

[00:12:41] To give you some perspective here, £3 is about €3.50, and it’s less than a third of the government “living wage”, which is £9.50.

[00:12:52] Interestingly enough, the reason that these fast fashion companies are working with garment factories in England, and specifically in Leicester, in the centre of the country, is because the goods can be delivered very quickly to anywhere in the UK.

[00:13:09] Factories in India and Vietnam and Bangladesh might be able to offer lower prices per item of clothing, but they can’t deliver as fast, so in a strange twist of fate, this type of exploitative manufacturing has returned to the UK. 

[00:13:27] Of course, exploitation of workers is exploitation of workers, whether that’s in Leicester or in Dhaka, but an interesting development that not everyone is aware of is that these factories are sometimes a lot closer to home than people think.

[00:13:44] So, where does this leave the fast fashion industry? 

[00:13:47] Well, bigger than ever, and showing no signs of slowing down.

[00:13:52] It’s estimated that by the year 2050 global fashion sales could triple, while the global population is only estimated to be just under 10 billion, up from just under 8 billion today. 

[00:14:06] So there will be 25% more people, but we will be buying three times more clothes.

[00:14:13] Clothing has become, and will become for many more people, an increasingly disposable item, something that you buy and wear a few times before it’s never worn again.

[00:14:24] And this is by design.

[00:14:26] The nature of these cheap clothes, produced in a fast and often unsustainable way, is that they don’t last very long.

[00:14:35] No doubt you don’t need me to tell you this, and if you’ve bought a t-shirt from H&M or Zara and then found that after a month or so it’s all out of shape and needs to be thrown away, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

[00:14:50] Because the quality of these clothes is often so low, it’s not easy for them to be re-sold, to be bought and worn again by someone else.

[00:15:00] The destination for these clothes is, more often than not, the landfill, the rubbish tip, with an estimated 85% of all clothes in the United States going either to the landfill or being incinerated, being burned.

[00:15:16] Even for the clothes that are given to clothing banks, where clothes are either recycled or given to charities to distribute, it’s estimated that less than 1% of all clothes are ever recycled.

[00:15:31] So, what is being done, and what is to be done?

[00:15:36] Commentators point at three major areas: government legislation, the fast fashion retailers themselves, and us, the consumers. 

[00:15:45] On the government and fast fashion retailer side, there is the argument that there should be more government regulation that requires fast fashion retailers to have a more transparent supply chain, to make sure they are paying fair wages and using sustainable partners. 

[00:16:02] Ultimately, we cannot rely on the fast fashion retailers to do this themselves as they will continue to maximise their profits for as long as they can. 

[00:16:12] So this is where governmental legislation is required. 

[00:16:16] But this is only one half of the question. 

[00:16:19] The other side of the coin is the demand side, the consumer side, the person scrolling through Instagram and buying a dress or t-shirt on a whim, because perhaps they might wear it someday.

[00:16:33] The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had some advice on what people should do, and it’s a simple message: “buy less, choose well, make it last.”

[00:16:46] In short, buy better clothes that you know you’ll wear, and buy less of them.

[00:16:51] It sounds good, in theory, but it’s somewhat at odds, it’s contrary to, what has become the norm for behaviour, especially among certain age groups. 

[00:17:03] Fast fashion has reduced the cost of clothing so much that, for many, clothes have become a disposable item, something to wear once, perhaps twice at a push, but then to throw away or keep in a cupboard, never to be worn again. 

[00:17:20] It’s so cheap and easy to always wear different things, and there is so much pressure to always be doing something new and different, that it will take a cultural shift to escape the claws of fast fashion.

[00:17:35] There are some signs, though, that, at least in some sections of society, there is a rising understanding of the impact of fast fashion, and a movement towards buying less, choosing well, and making it last.

[00:17:49] Companies like North Face and Patagonia, which make high-quality and durable clothing, encourage customers to buy refurbished or recycled products, or even not to buy their products at all.

[00:18:03] There are other companies that offer the ability to rent pieces of clothing. There’s one quite interesting one called Mud Jeans, which allows you to rent a high quality pair of jeans for under €10 a month.

[00:18:18] And even one of the original fast fashion companies, H&M, seems to be paying more attention to the sustainability of its supply chain, and has promised that raw materials for its products will consist of a minimum of 30% recycled materials by 2025.

[00:18:38] Now, there are plenty of people who have accused companies like H&M of what’s called “greenwashing”, of pretending to be environmentally friendly in order to hide what it is really up to.

[00:18:51] That might be the case, but if these fast fashion companies believe that they can be more successful and appeal more to consumers if they are more sustainable, surely that must be a positive development.

[00:19:05] So it is ultimately the shopper, it is me and you, who will decide how the fast fashion industry develops.

[00:19:13] The temptation to buy just one more €10 t-shirt or pair of jeans is hard to resist, and the price is so low that to many it might feel too good to miss out on, but this is entirely the point. 

[00:19:27] The fast fashion industry has been created around the idea of allowing normal people, me and you, to participate in the fashion industry at a fraction of the cost that it might have cost our parents or grandparents.

[00:19:42] On one level, yes this is a wonderful thing, but on another level, it’s important to remember that the true cost of that cheap pair of jeans is hidden deep beneath the surface.

[00:19:57] OK then, that is it for today's episode on fast fashion, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on fashion.

[00:20:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:20:12] Can you ever see a world where we return to a slightly slower fashion industry, of buying fewer but better quality clothes that last for longer?

[00:20:22] What are some of the other impacts of fashion becoming a disposable item?

[00:20:27] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:20:31] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Fast Fashion.

[00:00:28] This is part three of this three-part series on fashion. 

[00:00:33] In part one we talked about some of the historical curiosities of fashion, and how different fashions have come and gone due to socio-political events.

[00:00:44] Then in part two we looked at some of the great fashion houses: Chanel, Gucci, Dior, and Versace.

[00:00:52] And in today’s episode, part three, it is the modern phenomenon of fast fashion, of the mass production of cheap items of clothing.

[00:01:01] We’ll look at the development of fast fashion, how it actually works, the criticisms of fast fashion from a sustainability point of view, and ask ourselves whether “fast” fashion is simply the fashion of the future, or it too is another passing fad, a fashion that will come and go.

[00:01:22] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:26] The subjects we heard about in part two of this mini-series, Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Versace, are all luxury fashion houses. 

[00:01:36] These designers, to different degrees, wanted to create beautiful garments, wonderful clothes that would make whoever wore them look absolutely stunning.

[00:01:47] These clothes would use the finest of materials, no expense would be spared, which evidently resulted in very expensive clothes that only the richest in society could afford.

[00:01:59] For the majority of the 20th century, there was this gap, this gulf, between the clothes that the rich and famous would wear and the clothes everyone else would wear. 

[00:02:12] Film stars and princesses wore dresses by fashion houses like Dior, everyone else wore, well, more plain, normal clothes. 

[00:02:22] But towards the end of the 20th century, and at the start of the 21st century, a strange phenomenon started happening.

[00:02:31] The gap between the types of clothes designed by fashion houses and the types of clothes that normal people would wear started to reduce. It became cheaper and cheaper to dress in a way that resembled your favourite star, it became cheaper and cheaper to buy any type of clothes you wanted.

[00:02:50] And as the cost reduced, people were able to buy more and more.

[00:02:56] Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century the average American spent between 12 and 14% of their income on clothes. 

[00:03:06] Now it’s more like 3%, but the average person buys much more than ever before. 

[00:03:14] Some estimates have this as people owning five times more clothes now than 100 years ago.

[00:03:22] This probably isn’t surprising to you. You may even remember clothes being a lot more expensive than they are today.

[00:03:30] Now, if you were to walk into a shop like Zara or H&M, you’d be able to find t-shirts for €5, and you probably wouldn’t pay much more for jumpers or jeans. 

[00:03:45] If you wanted a stylish dress, one that didn’t look all too different to one a movie star might have been wearing on the red carpet, you might be able to find one for as little as €10.

[00:03:58] Apps like SHEIN might even sell you a swimsuit for just a couple of euros.

[00:04:04] So, how did clothes get this cheap, and what is the effect of this?

[00:04:10] Well, to illustrate this, it’s useful to take the case of a shop that you may well know, Zara.

[00:04:18] Zara is a Spanish brand, founded in the city of La Coruña in northwest Spain. 

[00:04:24] It was founded in 1975, and went from a small clothing shop to the world’s largest clothing retailer, turning its founder, Amancio Ortega, into one of the richest people in the world. 

[00:04:39] Now, Zara is just one of many fast fashion companies, but it is one of the most prominent, and an understanding of how Zara works is helpful for an understanding of the fast fashion industry as a whole.

[00:04:54] Historically, clothes shops might have four different seasons, so the clothes on offer would change four times a year. Nobody wants to buy a woolly jumper in July, or a swimming costume in December.

[00:05:09] Zara, on the other hand, changes its collection on a rolling basis, replacing three quarters of its collection every month. 

[00:05:18] Put another way, Zara launches around 65,000 new items every year, whereas traditional manufacturers launch around 5,000.

[00:05:30] If you’re thinking, “why launch so many new items, wouldn’t it be better to launch fewer items and have them around for longer?”, well, that might seem like a sensible question, but it is the complete opposite of the philosophy and business model of fast fashion.

[00:05:47] Fast fashion, and the success of companies like Zara, revolves around the idea of very quickly adding and removing new collections, often based very closely on designs created by expensive fashion houses. 

[00:06:04] The result of this is that shoppers feel like they need to buy it now otherwise they won’t be able to buy it in the future.

[00:06:12] You could argue that this is nothing new, and that this sense of “FOMO”, this fear of missing out, is something that is as old as time.

[00:06:23] But even 50 years ago, even if there had been the consumer demand for it, fast fashion wouldn’t have existed because it simply wouldn’t have been possible to produce these new items as quickly as the fast fashion industry requires.

[00:06:39] It’s thought that now, a brand like Zara can go from having the idea for a particular item of clothing through to having that item of clothing for sale in a shop in as little as four weeks. 

[00:06:55] We’ll come to some of the consequences of this in a minute, but it is unprecedented. It’s incredibly fast, and means that these fast fashion retailers can produce new items of clothing faster than ever before.

[00:07:10] Now, at first glance this might seem like a welcome development. 

[00:07:15] If clothes are cheaper it means people have more money to spend on other things, and wearing clothes that make you feel great should be something that is accessible to everyone, not just people who are able to afford Versace or Yves Saint Laurent.

[00:07:32] It certainly has democratised fashion in a way never before, but the fast fashion industry is not without its critics.

[00:07:41] And the criticisms fall into two main categories: damage to the environment and exploitation of workers.

[00:07:50] To start with the environmental criticisms, we can also split these into three main categories: climate change, pollution, and water usage.

[00:08:01] On the first issue, of climate change, the fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for between 8-10% of global carbon emissions, about 4 or 5 times as bad for the environment as the airline industry. 

[00:08:17] Making and transporting clothes uses a lot of energy, especially when one considers that in many cases these cheap t-shirts or dresses will be being produced in countries using coal-powered electricity, then put on a ship and sent thousands of kilometres to their final destination.

[00:08:38] In terms of water usage, again we might not necessarily look at our t-shirt and think that much water has been used to produce it, but the fashion industry is responsible for almost 20% of all wastewater produced worldwide.

[00:08:56] If you’re wearing a cotton t-shirt, which I am actually at the moment, it takes around 3,000 litres of water to produce the raw materials that went into making that t-shirt. 

[00:09:08] And to put that another way, if you take a five minute shower every day, the amount of water that goes into making the cotton in your t-shirt is comparable to two months worth of showers.

[00:09:21] Or in terms of drinking water, the amount of water that goes into making your t-shirt, is similar to what the average person drinks in about two and a half years. 

[00:09:34] Now, on the pollution side of things, the fast fashion industry stands accused of using toxic and polluting chemicals both in the cloth itself and in the dyes used to create different colours.

[00:09:48] Because the emphasis is on reducing the cost as much as possible, the factories producing these goods have little incentive to spend money on more environmentally friendly raw materials or on disposing of waste products, and this ends up in rivers and polluting nearby environments.

[00:10:08] And there are countless stories and investigations into cases of villages in countries like India or Bangladesh where the residents have suffered because of waste pollution coming from garment factories.

[00:10:22] What’s more, with clothes made with synthetic materials, these often contain microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic which are washed away when the clothes are washed. 

[00:10:34] These microplastics end up getting washed out into the sea, polluting the oceans, being eaten by fish, contaminating water and food supplies.

[00:10:44] Now, moving onto our second category of complaints about the fast fashion industry, this revolves around the maltreatment, the exploitation, of workers.

[00:10:54] And for many people, it wasn’t until 2013 that the reality of how cheap clothing was made was finally made blindingly obvious. 

[00:11:05] On April 24th of 2013, in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, a building called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing at least 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. 

[00:11:20] The factories inside made clothes for a number of well-known Western manufacturers, such as Primark, Walmart and El Corte Ingles, as well as some expensive fashion houses such as Prada and Gucci.

[00:11:36] In the aftermath of the tragedy, it became clear that the building was entirely unsafe and the owners had ignored safety concerns for months. 

[00:11:47] Previously conveniently hidden from view, the grim reality of life inside these garment factories was now shown to the world. 

[00:11:55] Low-pay, long hours, and potentially fatal working conditions were simply a reality for someone working in one of these factories.

[00:12:05] And while the perhaps stereotypical, or cliche, idea of the exploited fast fashion worker is someone in a factory in India or Bangladesh, it’s come to light that exploited workers are often based far closer to the end consumer. 

[00:12:22] Indeed, there have been investigative reports that have shown that Leicester, a city in central England, has become a hub for garment production, with workers often earning as little as £3 an hour and employed on unstable, temporary contracts.

[00:12:41] To give you some perspective here, £3 is about €3.50, and it’s less than a third of the government “living wage”, which is £9.50.

[00:12:52] Interestingly enough, the reason that these fast fashion companies are working with garment factories in England, and specifically in Leicester, in the centre of the country, is because the goods can be delivered very quickly to anywhere in the UK.

[00:13:09] Factories in India and Vietnam and Bangladesh might be able to offer lower prices per item of clothing, but they can’t deliver as fast, so in a strange twist of fate, this type of exploitative manufacturing has returned to the UK. 

[00:13:27] Of course, exploitation of workers is exploitation of workers, whether that’s in Leicester or in Dhaka, but an interesting development that not everyone is aware of is that these factories are sometimes a lot closer to home than people think.

[00:13:44] So, where does this leave the fast fashion industry? 

[00:13:47] Well, bigger than ever, and showing no signs of slowing down.

[00:13:52] It’s estimated that by the year 2050 global fashion sales could triple, while the global population is only estimated to be just under 10 billion, up from just under 8 billion today. 

[00:14:06] So there will be 25% more people, but we will be buying three times more clothes.

[00:14:13] Clothing has become, and will become for many more people, an increasingly disposable item, something that you buy and wear a few times before it’s never worn again.

[00:14:24] And this is by design.

[00:14:26] The nature of these cheap clothes, produced in a fast and often unsustainable way, is that they don’t last very long.

[00:14:35] No doubt you don’t need me to tell you this, and if you’ve bought a t-shirt from H&M or Zara and then found that after a month or so it’s all out of shape and needs to be thrown away, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

[00:14:50] Because the quality of these clothes is often so low, it’s not easy for them to be re-sold, to be bought and worn again by someone else.

[00:15:00] The destination for these clothes is, more often than not, the landfill, the rubbish tip, with an estimated 85% of all clothes in the United States going either to the landfill or being incinerated, being burned.

[00:15:16] Even for the clothes that are given to clothing banks, where clothes are either recycled or given to charities to distribute, it’s estimated that less than 1% of all clothes are ever recycled.

[00:15:31] So, what is being done, and what is to be done?

[00:15:36] Commentators point at three major areas: government legislation, the fast fashion retailers themselves, and us, the consumers. 

[00:15:45] On the government and fast fashion retailer side, there is the argument that there should be more government regulation that requires fast fashion retailers to have a more transparent supply chain, to make sure they are paying fair wages and using sustainable partners. 

[00:16:02] Ultimately, we cannot rely on the fast fashion retailers to do this themselves as they will continue to maximise their profits for as long as they can. 

[00:16:12] So this is where governmental legislation is required. 

[00:16:16] But this is only one half of the question. 

[00:16:19] The other side of the coin is the demand side, the consumer side, the person scrolling through Instagram and buying a dress or t-shirt on a whim, because perhaps they might wear it someday.

[00:16:33] The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had some advice on what people should do, and it’s a simple message: “buy less, choose well, make it last.”

[00:16:46] In short, buy better clothes that you know you’ll wear, and buy less of them.

[00:16:51] It sounds good, in theory, but it’s somewhat at odds, it’s contrary to, what has become the norm for behaviour, especially among certain age groups. 

[00:17:03] Fast fashion has reduced the cost of clothing so much that, for many, clothes have become a disposable item, something to wear once, perhaps twice at a push, but then to throw away or keep in a cupboard, never to be worn again. 

[00:17:20] It’s so cheap and easy to always wear different things, and there is so much pressure to always be doing something new and different, that it will take a cultural shift to escape the claws of fast fashion.

[00:17:35] There are some signs, though, that, at least in some sections of society, there is a rising understanding of the impact of fast fashion, and a movement towards buying less, choosing well, and making it last.

[00:17:49] Companies like North Face and Patagonia, which make high-quality and durable clothing, encourage customers to buy refurbished or recycled products, or even not to buy their products at all.

[00:18:03] There are other companies that offer the ability to rent pieces of clothing. There’s one quite interesting one called Mud Jeans, which allows you to rent a high quality pair of jeans for under €10 a month.

[00:18:18] And even one of the original fast fashion companies, H&M, seems to be paying more attention to the sustainability of its supply chain, and has promised that raw materials for its products will consist of a minimum of 30% recycled materials by 2025.

[00:18:38] Now, there are plenty of people who have accused companies like H&M of what’s called “greenwashing”, of pretending to be environmentally friendly in order to hide what it is really up to.

[00:18:51] That might be the case, but if these fast fashion companies believe that they can be more successful and appeal more to consumers if they are more sustainable, surely that must be a positive development.

[00:19:05] So it is ultimately the shopper, it is me and you, who will decide how the fast fashion industry develops.

[00:19:13] The temptation to buy just one more €10 t-shirt or pair of jeans is hard to resist, and the price is so low that to many it might feel too good to miss out on, but this is entirely the point. 

[00:19:27] The fast fashion industry has been created around the idea of allowing normal people, me and you, to participate in the fashion industry at a fraction of the cost that it might have cost our parents or grandparents.

[00:19:42] On one level, yes this is a wonderful thing, but on another level, it’s important to remember that the true cost of that cheap pair of jeans is hidden deep beneath the surface.

[00:19:57] OK then, that is it for today's episode on fast fashion, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on fashion.

[00:20:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:20:12] Can you ever see a world where we return to a slightly slower fashion industry, of buying fewer but better quality clothes that last for longer?

[00:20:22] What are some of the other impacts of fashion becoming a disposable item?

[00:20:27] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:20:31] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Fast Fashion.

[00:00:28] This is part three of this three-part series on fashion. 

[00:00:33] In part one we talked about some of the historical curiosities of fashion, and how different fashions have come and gone due to socio-political events.

[00:00:44] Then in part two we looked at some of the great fashion houses: Chanel, Gucci, Dior, and Versace.

[00:00:52] And in today’s episode, part three, it is the modern phenomenon of fast fashion, of the mass production of cheap items of clothing.

[00:01:01] We’ll look at the development of fast fashion, how it actually works, the criticisms of fast fashion from a sustainability point of view, and ask ourselves whether “fast” fashion is simply the fashion of the future, or it too is another passing fad, a fashion that will come and go.

[00:01:22] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:26] The subjects we heard about in part two of this mini-series, Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Versace, are all luxury fashion houses. 

[00:01:36] These designers, to different degrees, wanted to create beautiful garments, wonderful clothes that would make whoever wore them look absolutely stunning.

[00:01:47] These clothes would use the finest of materials, no expense would be spared, which evidently resulted in very expensive clothes that only the richest in society could afford.

[00:01:59] For the majority of the 20th century, there was this gap, this gulf, between the clothes that the rich and famous would wear and the clothes everyone else would wear. 

[00:02:12] Film stars and princesses wore dresses by fashion houses like Dior, everyone else wore, well, more plain, normal clothes. 

[00:02:22] But towards the end of the 20th century, and at the start of the 21st century, a strange phenomenon started happening.

[00:02:31] The gap between the types of clothes designed by fashion houses and the types of clothes that normal people would wear started to reduce. It became cheaper and cheaper to dress in a way that resembled your favourite star, it became cheaper and cheaper to buy any type of clothes you wanted.

[00:02:50] And as the cost reduced, people were able to buy more and more.

[00:02:56] Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century the average American spent between 12 and 14% of their income on clothes. 

[00:03:06] Now it’s more like 3%, but the average person buys much more than ever before. 

[00:03:14] Some estimates have this as people owning five times more clothes now than 100 years ago.

[00:03:22] This probably isn’t surprising to you. You may even remember clothes being a lot more expensive than they are today.

[00:03:30] Now, if you were to walk into a shop like Zara or H&M, you’d be able to find t-shirts for €5, and you probably wouldn’t pay much more for jumpers or jeans. 

[00:03:45] If you wanted a stylish dress, one that didn’t look all too different to one a movie star might have been wearing on the red carpet, you might be able to find one for as little as €10.

[00:03:58] Apps like SHEIN might even sell you a swimsuit for just a couple of euros.

[00:04:04] So, how did clothes get this cheap, and what is the effect of this?

[00:04:10] Well, to illustrate this, it’s useful to take the case of a shop that you may well know, Zara.

[00:04:18] Zara is a Spanish brand, founded in the city of La Coruña in northwest Spain. 

[00:04:24] It was founded in 1975, and went from a small clothing shop to the world’s largest clothing retailer, turning its founder, Amancio Ortega, into one of the richest people in the world. 

[00:04:39] Now, Zara is just one of many fast fashion companies, but it is one of the most prominent, and an understanding of how Zara works is helpful for an understanding of the fast fashion industry as a whole.

[00:04:54] Historically, clothes shops might have four different seasons, so the clothes on offer would change four times a year. Nobody wants to buy a woolly jumper in July, or a swimming costume in December.

[00:05:09] Zara, on the other hand, changes its collection on a rolling basis, replacing three quarters of its collection every month. 

[00:05:18] Put another way, Zara launches around 65,000 new items every year, whereas traditional manufacturers launch around 5,000.

[00:05:30] If you’re thinking, “why launch so many new items, wouldn’t it be better to launch fewer items and have them around for longer?”, well, that might seem like a sensible question, but it is the complete opposite of the philosophy and business model of fast fashion.

[00:05:47] Fast fashion, and the success of companies like Zara, revolves around the idea of very quickly adding and removing new collections, often based very closely on designs created by expensive fashion houses. 

[00:06:04] The result of this is that shoppers feel like they need to buy it now otherwise they won’t be able to buy it in the future.

[00:06:12] You could argue that this is nothing new, and that this sense of “FOMO”, this fear of missing out, is something that is as old as time.

[00:06:23] But even 50 years ago, even if there had been the consumer demand for it, fast fashion wouldn’t have existed because it simply wouldn’t have been possible to produce these new items as quickly as the fast fashion industry requires.

[00:06:39] It’s thought that now, a brand like Zara can go from having the idea for a particular item of clothing through to having that item of clothing for sale in a shop in as little as four weeks. 

[00:06:55] We’ll come to some of the consequences of this in a minute, but it is unprecedented. It’s incredibly fast, and means that these fast fashion retailers can produce new items of clothing faster than ever before.

[00:07:10] Now, at first glance this might seem like a welcome development. 

[00:07:15] If clothes are cheaper it means people have more money to spend on other things, and wearing clothes that make you feel great should be something that is accessible to everyone, not just people who are able to afford Versace or Yves Saint Laurent.

[00:07:32] It certainly has democratised fashion in a way never before, but the fast fashion industry is not without its critics.

[00:07:41] And the criticisms fall into two main categories: damage to the environment and exploitation of workers.

[00:07:50] To start with the environmental criticisms, we can also split these into three main categories: climate change, pollution, and water usage.

[00:08:01] On the first issue, of climate change, the fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for between 8-10% of global carbon emissions, about 4 or 5 times as bad for the environment as the airline industry. 

[00:08:17] Making and transporting clothes uses a lot of energy, especially when one considers that in many cases these cheap t-shirts or dresses will be being produced in countries using coal-powered electricity, then put on a ship and sent thousands of kilometres to their final destination.

[00:08:38] In terms of water usage, again we might not necessarily look at our t-shirt and think that much water has been used to produce it, but the fashion industry is responsible for almost 20% of all wastewater produced worldwide.

[00:08:56] If you’re wearing a cotton t-shirt, which I am actually at the moment, it takes around 3,000 litres of water to produce the raw materials that went into making that t-shirt. 

[00:09:08] And to put that another way, if you take a five minute shower every day, the amount of water that goes into making the cotton in your t-shirt is comparable to two months worth of showers.

[00:09:21] Or in terms of drinking water, the amount of water that goes into making your t-shirt, is similar to what the average person drinks in about two and a half years. 

[00:09:34] Now, on the pollution side of things, the fast fashion industry stands accused of using toxic and polluting chemicals both in the cloth itself and in the dyes used to create different colours.

[00:09:48] Because the emphasis is on reducing the cost as much as possible, the factories producing these goods have little incentive to spend money on more environmentally friendly raw materials or on disposing of waste products, and this ends up in rivers and polluting nearby environments.

[00:10:08] And there are countless stories and investigations into cases of villages in countries like India or Bangladesh where the residents have suffered because of waste pollution coming from garment factories.

[00:10:22] What’s more, with clothes made with synthetic materials, these often contain microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic which are washed away when the clothes are washed. 

[00:10:34] These microplastics end up getting washed out into the sea, polluting the oceans, being eaten by fish, contaminating water and food supplies.

[00:10:44] Now, moving onto our second category of complaints about the fast fashion industry, this revolves around the maltreatment, the exploitation, of workers.

[00:10:54] And for many people, it wasn’t until 2013 that the reality of how cheap clothing was made was finally made blindingly obvious. 

[00:11:05] On April 24th of 2013, in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, a building called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing at least 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. 

[00:11:20] The factories inside made clothes for a number of well-known Western manufacturers, such as Primark, Walmart and El Corte Ingles, as well as some expensive fashion houses such as Prada and Gucci.

[00:11:36] In the aftermath of the tragedy, it became clear that the building was entirely unsafe and the owners had ignored safety concerns for months. 

[00:11:47] Previously conveniently hidden from view, the grim reality of life inside these garment factories was now shown to the world. 

[00:11:55] Low-pay, long hours, and potentially fatal working conditions were simply a reality for someone working in one of these factories.

[00:12:05] And while the perhaps stereotypical, or cliche, idea of the exploited fast fashion worker is someone in a factory in India or Bangladesh, it’s come to light that exploited workers are often based far closer to the end consumer. 

[00:12:22] Indeed, there have been investigative reports that have shown that Leicester, a city in central England, has become a hub for garment production, with workers often earning as little as £3 an hour and employed on unstable, temporary contracts.

[00:12:41] To give you some perspective here, £3 is about €3.50, and it’s less than a third of the government “living wage”, which is £9.50.

[00:12:52] Interestingly enough, the reason that these fast fashion companies are working with garment factories in England, and specifically in Leicester, in the centre of the country, is because the goods can be delivered very quickly to anywhere in the UK.

[00:13:09] Factories in India and Vietnam and Bangladesh might be able to offer lower prices per item of clothing, but they can’t deliver as fast, so in a strange twist of fate, this type of exploitative manufacturing has returned to the UK. 

[00:13:27] Of course, exploitation of workers is exploitation of workers, whether that’s in Leicester or in Dhaka, but an interesting development that not everyone is aware of is that these factories are sometimes a lot closer to home than people think.

[00:13:44] So, where does this leave the fast fashion industry? 

[00:13:47] Well, bigger than ever, and showing no signs of slowing down.

[00:13:52] It’s estimated that by the year 2050 global fashion sales could triple, while the global population is only estimated to be just under 10 billion, up from just under 8 billion today. 

[00:14:06] So there will be 25% more people, but we will be buying three times more clothes.

[00:14:13] Clothing has become, and will become for many more people, an increasingly disposable item, something that you buy and wear a few times before it’s never worn again.

[00:14:24] And this is by design.

[00:14:26] The nature of these cheap clothes, produced in a fast and often unsustainable way, is that they don’t last very long.

[00:14:35] No doubt you don’t need me to tell you this, and if you’ve bought a t-shirt from H&M or Zara and then found that after a month or so it’s all out of shape and needs to be thrown away, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

[00:14:50] Because the quality of these clothes is often so low, it’s not easy for them to be re-sold, to be bought and worn again by someone else.

[00:15:00] The destination for these clothes is, more often than not, the landfill, the rubbish tip, with an estimated 85% of all clothes in the United States going either to the landfill or being incinerated, being burned.

[00:15:16] Even for the clothes that are given to clothing banks, where clothes are either recycled or given to charities to distribute, it’s estimated that less than 1% of all clothes are ever recycled.

[00:15:31] So, what is being done, and what is to be done?

[00:15:36] Commentators point at three major areas: government legislation, the fast fashion retailers themselves, and us, the consumers. 

[00:15:45] On the government and fast fashion retailer side, there is the argument that there should be more government regulation that requires fast fashion retailers to have a more transparent supply chain, to make sure they are paying fair wages and using sustainable partners. 

[00:16:02] Ultimately, we cannot rely on the fast fashion retailers to do this themselves as they will continue to maximise their profits for as long as they can. 

[00:16:12] So this is where governmental legislation is required. 

[00:16:16] But this is only one half of the question. 

[00:16:19] The other side of the coin is the demand side, the consumer side, the person scrolling through Instagram and buying a dress or t-shirt on a whim, because perhaps they might wear it someday.

[00:16:33] The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had some advice on what people should do, and it’s a simple message: “buy less, choose well, make it last.”

[00:16:46] In short, buy better clothes that you know you’ll wear, and buy less of them.

[00:16:51] It sounds good, in theory, but it’s somewhat at odds, it’s contrary to, what has become the norm for behaviour, especially among certain age groups. 

[00:17:03] Fast fashion has reduced the cost of clothing so much that, for many, clothes have become a disposable item, something to wear once, perhaps twice at a push, but then to throw away or keep in a cupboard, never to be worn again. 

[00:17:20] It’s so cheap and easy to always wear different things, and there is so much pressure to always be doing something new and different, that it will take a cultural shift to escape the claws of fast fashion.

[00:17:35] There are some signs, though, that, at least in some sections of society, there is a rising understanding of the impact of fast fashion, and a movement towards buying less, choosing well, and making it last.

[00:17:49] Companies like North Face and Patagonia, which make high-quality and durable clothing, encourage customers to buy refurbished or recycled products, or even not to buy their products at all.

[00:18:03] There are other companies that offer the ability to rent pieces of clothing. There’s one quite interesting one called Mud Jeans, which allows you to rent a high quality pair of jeans for under €10 a month.

[00:18:18] And even one of the original fast fashion companies, H&M, seems to be paying more attention to the sustainability of its supply chain, and has promised that raw materials for its products will consist of a minimum of 30% recycled materials by 2025.

[00:18:38] Now, there are plenty of people who have accused companies like H&M of what’s called “greenwashing”, of pretending to be environmentally friendly in order to hide what it is really up to.

[00:18:51] That might be the case, but if these fast fashion companies believe that they can be more successful and appeal more to consumers if they are more sustainable, surely that must be a positive development.

[00:19:05] So it is ultimately the shopper, it is me and you, who will decide how the fast fashion industry develops.

[00:19:13] The temptation to buy just one more €10 t-shirt or pair of jeans is hard to resist, and the price is so low that to many it might feel too good to miss out on, but this is entirely the point. 

[00:19:27] The fast fashion industry has been created around the idea of allowing normal people, me and you, to participate in the fashion industry at a fraction of the cost that it might have cost our parents or grandparents.

[00:19:42] On one level, yes this is a wonderful thing, but on another level, it’s important to remember that the true cost of that cheap pair of jeans is hidden deep beneath the surface.

[00:19:57] OK then, that is it for today's episode on fast fashion, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on fashion.

[00:20:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:20:12] Can you ever see a world where we return to a slightly slower fashion industry, of buying fewer but better quality clothes that last for longer?

[00:20:22] What are some of the other impacts of fashion becoming a disposable item?

[00:20:27] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:20:31] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]