By Roxana Quinonez Quispe
It is Sunday afternoon, and you are probably walking around one of the main streets of a new city. It could be the main shopping area of your European hometown for the semester. You are on a shopping hunt: a new apartment requires new furniture and appliances; a breath of fresh air is a plus. You are walking around the street, looking for the right store, when an appealing brand name grabs your attention: ZARA. You were not looking for something Zara could sell but you entered the store just to check up on the new clothes. Your choice is completely understandable, Zara is fashionable, affordable and you are just looking. However, by the time you leave the store, there is Zara’s bag in your left hand. You bought something you did not presume to buy. There was no intention to purchase any new clothing when you left your home, but here you are with a brand-new garment. The small happiness coming from having something new, something you did not need, is called consumerism and our society’s sales have been built upon it.
But what is the connection between consumerism and Zara?
Zara is one of the leading brands of European fast fashion, together with Bershka, Boohoo, H&M, and Pull&Bear, just to mention some of them. Most of these brands are under INDITEX, the major multinational clothing company owned by one single man, Amancio Ortega, with a net worth of 62.9 billion dollars. Some say Ortega is the mind behind fast fashion, the man that created the business model, for sure the richest. Fast fashion is the climax of consumerism. As the coined term suggests, it is based on how quickly clothes can be designed, sold and thrown away. The concept behind their creation and manufacture is to deliver a piece of clothing that is supposed to be worn once or never. To make that possible, cheap materials and a cheap labour force must be used. Withal, the low quality of the products does not come from a will to maintain clothes affordably, but it is more an intention to produce items that are not durable. Making disposable clothing means frequent buyers purchasing massive amounts of clothes every year.
Who are these frequent buyers?
Practically, us. The cruel reality is that we are the target. It is our consumer behaviour that dictates the success of this business model. Fast fashion is not designed for the elites; it is supposed to sell to the broad population the fantasy of having access to designer clothes that used to be available only to the richest. Many former employees of INDITEX revealed the copy-paste technique fast fashion requires. Zara’s designers are not expected to create something new but to copy the designs of competitors and change some details, just what is enough to not be reported for plagiarism. Most of the “stolen designs” are from high fashion and luxury brands (see Rains lawsuit battle). A consumer from the middle or lower class could never afford to buy the original design, so INDITEX sells out the same idea for a small price. The reason why we are so obsessed with clothes and fashion is not only to buy our place in a specific class. For many years, clothes have been a statement of richness, symbols of the elite, signs of power and prestige. We love fashion because we love beauty. From the very ancient ages, the idea of beauty has been pursued by humanity. We love what is pretty, and the concept of art is the creation of beauty. Well, fashion is an expression of art; what a designer creates is a piece of art someone can wear. Whether we are very susceptible to this form of art or not, fashion is still part of our daily life, a requirement to be part of our society.
So why is fast fashion so bad?
Before the fast fashion era, the price of clothing was high; it was not common to buy a new garment. The reason behind the high prices makes sense: the price of the materials and labour was too high to sell cheaply something that required so much work. Therefore, according to current prices, the cost of fabrics and labour should be cheaper to justify such a price drop, but instead, the price of production has increased. What this business model did was to change materials and move the factories to other countries, countries with low economies and poor labour laws. Zara’s production is 10 times higher than traditional manufacturers and to maintain this rapidity, fast fashion relies on exploitation and unsustainable materials. Zara’s 65.000 new products every year are made of synthetic material; the most common ones are nylon and polyester. Those materials come from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable. Given that Zara changes 3\4 of its collection every month, it generates a colossal amount of not biodegradable fabrics. In recent years, INDITEX has incorporated the option to give back the clothes not used with the promise of recycling the material and cutting waste. In reality, the majority of those clothes cannot be recycled. This is one of the perks of synthetic material, which is too expensive and time-consuming to recycle. However, the impact of fast fashion on the environment is not the primary reason to avoid it, at least for me.
What is behind fast fashion?
Before being consumers, before being citizens, before being students, we are people; behind fast fashion, there are people. I would like to write about the fantasy fast fashion wants to promote, but there is no fantasy. INDITEX is not giving an opportunity to third-world countries to grow; it is using them to get richer and richer. Countries like China, Turkey and Bangladesh are not gaining any benefit from these agreements. Workers are not risking their lives because they like to work for that company. All the people behind fast fashion have no choice, which is ironic since we have plenty of options regarding what we want to purchase. Behind the affordable prices, there are multinationals demanding factories to “squeeze their prices” to be competitive with the other hundreds of small producers trying to get into the business. Under pressure, those factories can only make awful decisions; they need the deal, and thus they find ways to “cut the corners”. The lack of control and labour law in their countries allows factories to cut safety measures and to use exploitation and child labour. In Bangladesh, indeed, many factory buildings have collapsed, causing the death of thousands of people. One of the most shocking cases happened in Rana Plaza in 2013, where 1129 workers died, including children. Before the tragedy, the workers tried to expose the structural damages to the executives, but they were silenced all the time. On the internet, you can find footage of people being pulled out of the rubble by family members or passers-by. The most disturbing fact about Rana Plaza is that the following year was the most profitable year for fast fashion. Actually, 2013 has been the year of many factory disasters; hundreds of workers died manufacturing clothes that would be sold and worn shortly after. Somewhere in Bangladesh, a 14 years old girl was going to work to earn 2 dollars a day; somewhere in Dhaka district, she died because her life was worth 2 dollars. Somewhere in Europe, a 23-year-old bought the shirt she made before dying; somewhere in the EU, someone owns a piece of clothing worth a human life. Behind fast fashion, there are people, not only workers but also us, the consumers: the people who give money to this business.
Yet, what can I do?
It would have been so simple to just say stop buying fast fashion; I know it is not that easy. Practically every store in the mall, in the centre of the city, is fast fashion. I agree; they sell amazing pieces to look so pretty and put together. A piece of clothing is not just to cover our body; it is to empower us, to make us confident. You should not stop buying fast fashion because you are a good human being; or because whoever does it should feel ashamed for feeding multinationals. There is no moral superiority. I understand all the good motivations that are coming up to your mind. I mean, I have bought from INDITEX two times in the last three years. Time passed and I forgot what was behind each item. The first time, I bought a white crochet top because it was almost free for such a small price, and after spending all my summer looking for a piece like that, it was too appealing to not buy it. I also love fashion, I have my own style, and I like to be trendy. I understand; Zara sells the must-have for the season for a price you can afford. To be honest, the second time I bought a satin red dress viral on Tik Tok. So yes, I can be easily influenced by social media, and my desire for consumerism is as strong as everyone else’s. All these sentiments should not make us guilty but human. Therefore, what I suppose did not work on social media, the reason why Shein raised and established its kingdom on Tik-Tok and Instagram, is that the primary vehicle for the promotion of ethical shopping has been guilty triggers. Making people feel guilty for their non-ethical choices is not the right path to creating a better society; pushing guilt over people is one of the main reasons woke culture receives so many critics. What I would like Euroculture students to understand is not how bad you should feel for buying a piece of clothing coming from child exploitation but how much you can do by simply choosing something different. In a globalized world with an infinite number of choices, we have the power to actually make a difference. The concept of consumer consciousness is not really mainstream, but as consumers, with our purchasing decisions, we can have a positive impact. Ethical consumerism is indeed possible. Small changes in our buying practices, research, and education can lead to a gradual change. The biggest lie multinationals, such as INDITEX, want us to believe is that we are powerless. Every company and every business model relies on demand; consumers dictate where they want to spend their money. Maybe it is true, money rules the world, but at least it is our money, and we should rule the world towards improvement.
Regardless, fashion trends are cyclical; what was trendy once will be trendy again. So it is not such a bad idea to say yes to the adventure of going thrifting. Many rare gems are inside our mothers’ closets, and high-quality fabrics are in second-hand stores. You can be broke, fashionable and ethical all at once. From a fellow fashion lover, there is no comparison between the small happiness fast fashion gives you for a dress made in a crumbling factory and the proud feeling of finding a 20-year-old dress carefully tended. As you will experience, all Euroculture cities have a variety of second-hand stores and markets. If you would like to know more about it, read the article on sustainable shopping in Strasbourg.
Picture Credit: Rio Lecatompessy