‘Fast-fashion’ is defined as, ‘the ability of a retailer to capture the latest fashion trends and bring them to the public quickly and cheaply’ [1]. The fast-fashion phenomenon has transformed the clothing industry, changing attitudes towards apparel consumption and establishing a culture of impulse buying. It is associated with low-cost production, as materials are sourced from overseas industries, allowing for new styles of clothing to be available to consumers every week [2]. The global fast-fashion market has increased significantly over the past several years and is projected to continue to rise. As recently as the 1960s, the United States was making 95% of its clothing; today only 3% is produced in the United States, while the remaining 97% is outsourced to developing countries around the world [3]. This blog post discusses the negative implications associated with fast-fashion, regarding both labor exploitation and environmental destruction, and outlines behavioural theory to explain the source of the problem – the irresponsible consumption of fashion.

The garment industry is one of the largest, most globalized, and most relevant industries in the world [4]. The globalized production of garments has become a process by which developed nations outsource the making of textiles to low-cost economies, particularly where wages are low and where conditions for workers are poorly regulated [5]. Developing country governments have become reliant on the business of multinational retailers, and in order to offer competitive prices for textiles they hold down wages of workers, routinely avoiding enforcement of local labor laws. They also permit factory owners to continue pressuring workers to work in unsafe conditions. Because those at the top of the value chain, namely, the brands, do not officially own any of the factories they produce in or directly employ any of the workers, they are able to generate considerable profits while remaining ‘free of responsibility’ for the effects of poverty, low-wages, factory disasters, and the violent treatment of workers. Retailers are thus able to produce and promote cheap and readily disposable clothing to the detriment of the factory workers in these countries. In addition, the global fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries, largely contributing to environmental degradation through heavy use of water and chemicals during production (i.e., for growing cotton or dying textiles), as well as ecosystem pollution and textile waste generation [6]. Further, as a consequence of the increased consumption of cheap and disposable clothing, developed countries donate a substantial amount of clothes to charity, more than half of which are not needed. Instead these clothes are sold to textile recyclers, and these recyclers sell them to overseas entrepreneurs that offer cheap prices for consumers. This new market for clothing then threatens the development of local apparel sectors in these countries [7]. The remainder of the used clothing ends up in landfills and is often burned with subsequent negative environmental impacts [8].

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed due to careless construction, killing 1,100 and seriously injuring 2,500 factory workers. This was despite workers raising their concerns of the poor conditions and instability of the factory structure. The year following the disaster at Rana Plaza, was the fast-fashion industry’s most profitable of all time [9]. This paradox exposes the dependence of the fast-fashion industry on the continued division between consumers purchasing the products and workers exploited in the manufacturing of those products.

The current fast-fashion business model allows for little supervision of factories producing garments, as retailers have limited day-to-day contact with factory owners and often employ hundreds of factories at all different levels of the supply chain. Furthermore, when compared to other global industries, garment production is extremely mobile and is constantly moving production to cheaper economies. Thus, developed nation governments have highlighted the difficulty of monitoring and regulating the supply-chain of the fast-fashion industry and the negative economic implications for developing nations if retailers begin to withdraw their business [10]. Nevertheless, government officials have begun to recognize their role in ensuring fashion is ethically produced and environmentally responsible. Due to the challenge of regulating fast-fashion supply chains and the environmental consequences of overconsumption, there is an increased importance placed on altering apparel consumption behaviour, as markets reflect consumer demand. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the behavioural reasoning for why fast-fashion buyers continue to consume fashion in this way.

So why do people behave this way?

Consumers of fashion have a desire to create an individual identity through what they wear (social value). Black and Ekert (2009) identify a ‘fashion paradox’, where the social and economic value of the fast-fashion industry has protected it from critique of its characteristic unfairness and waste, thus, slowing an industry-wide movement towards ethical-fashion.

Intuitively, it makes sense why consumers of fast-fashion overlook the environmental and humanitarian implications of their purchase. Not only is there a large geographical divide between those purchasing products and those making them – there is also a social and cultural divide further perpetuating this boundary. In addition, Oliver (2013) highlights a paradox where human beings are more receptive to assisting single individuals above taking appropriate measures to prevent mass genocide or natural disaster. He conjectured that this occurs, in part, because as numbers get larger, we become desensitized. Therefore, in the Rana Plaza factory disaster, the death of 1,100 people did not motivate consumers to boycott the implicated companies. Furthermore, perceived helplessness or ‘perceived consumer effectiveness’ are also drivers of inaction. Wesley et al. (2012) highlight that intention and behaviour is a function of an individual’s belief that ‘stopping’ an event is dependent on their actions. If single consumers doubt their ability to advance fast-fashion towards more ethical practices, then they will continue to purchase apparel in the current market. Finally, the affordability of fast-fashion influences consumer choices – the low cost and thrill associated with the purchase of new clothing leads people to ignore the ethical and environmental implications of their purchases.

Kahneman (2011) argues that consumer decisions are determined by two modes of thinking: System 1 and System 2. System 1 thinking is intuitive, and is characterized by fast, effortless and automatic responses. The majority of our everyday choices are governed by System 1 thinking as they are reached without much effort and deliberation [11]. Alternatively, System 2 thinking is rational and calculated, and is responsible for slower and controlled operations as it relies on rules acquired through culture or formal learning. Humans inherently have limited capacity for System 2 thinking, often referred to as ‘bounded rationality’ (constraints on information processing for decision-making due to limits in information, available time, and computational capacities) [12]. Research in consumer decision making has found that physical and social cues in retail environments can often affect behaviour non-consciously, bypassing System 2 processes and directly activating goals or behaviours. For example, a 1999 study was conducted where German or French music was played in a retail environment. Researchers found that hearing French music led consumers to purchase more French wines and the opposite when German music was played [13].

Because fast-fashion relies on impulsive purchasing, it is largely driven by System 1 processes; consumers can purchase apparel at little cost, as minor economic and psychological investment is required. System 1 relies on mental short-cuts and biases that are often present in the ‘choice architecture’ (i.e., the context or the environment) of retail environments – both online and in-store. Additionally, Thaler & Sunstein (2008) outline the influence of status quo biases on consumer decisions. Consumer reference points are often associated with the present circumstances; therefore, they consider any deviation from the status-quo a loss. As a result, because consumers of fast-fashion are accustomed to low prices, the increased cost often associated with ethical suppliers may be seen as a loss. Finally, retail environments can propagate endowment effects (predisposition to value and pay more for an item already in one’s possession than an item one does not own [14]), as research has shown that merely trying on a product can increase its worth. Thus, mirrors and dressing rooms in fashion environments can urge purchases.

Some closing thoughts

The fast-fashion industry has been recently criticized for unethical workplace practices and extreme environmental degradation – yet consumers continue to purchase fast-fashion at increasing rates. In order to address this paradox, it is important to understand the behavioural attributes and barriers associated with the irresponsible consumption of fashion. There are a number of obstacles that hinder the development of positive attitudes towards ethical and eco-conscious consumption, including a lack of consumer knowledge, availability, economic resources, retail environments and societal norms. In order to redress these issues, policy makers should consider behavioural public policies that target the demand-side of the fast-fashion industry. These policies must primarily alter the consumption decisions made by individuals and motivate a movement away from self-interested, consumer-orientated values, and towards a prosocial value orientation that encourages less consumption in the interest of environmental sustainability and ethical production.

Hanadi Al-Saidi is a second-year Master of Public Administration student at the LSE. She graduated in Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2014, and worked in social work and counselling within multiple agencies in Calgary, Canada. Currently, she is working with the OECD Social Policy Department to publish an LGBTI Policies Inclusivity Report. 

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