The Impact of Fast Fashion, and the Importance of Sustainability: Introducing the Cost-per-Wear Formula
Written by: Hannah Kuipers
In 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In just ninety seconds, over 1000 people died, and more than 2,500 were injured. This building was a centre for clothing manufacturing and was used by many big companies such as Walmart, The Children’s Place, and Primark. The people working in this factory were mostly women, and they were forced to support their families for under $50 per month. Besides that, the conditions these people worked in were inhumane, and the reason behind all these deaths was shocking.
The day before the Rana Plaza collapse, workers expressed their concern about seeing cracks in the building, but the owner promised that it was structurally sound. The next day some people refused to enter the building, but they were met with threats of being let go and withholding their pay. That morning, the plaza collapsed. This event acted as a wake-up call for the fashion industry because it showed the life-threatening conditions workers were put in to produce a high quantity of goods; which were sold to major corporations at an extremely low cost.
The aftermath of this started a revolution in the fashion industry, which called for safer practices for workers and accountability, not just for factory owners but for the companies that invest in these factories. For example, in May of 2013, an Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which called for mandatory safety training and safety precautions, was implemented in these factories. Businesses such as Hugo Boss, Esprit, and American Eagle Outfitters signed this accord to promote safer working factories and reduce the need for cheap and low-quality goods.
Other than that, many global actions have been formed to better these conditions and minimize big brands outsourcing their production. Many non-profit organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, were created to ensure workers’ rights were protected. While this is a big step in the right direction, unfortunately, many places out there still abuse their workers just so the Western world has access to cheap clothing. A big example of this is the online clothing website, Shein. This company had a massive boom through the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the point where it overtook Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the United States. This eCommerce store became so popular because it had cheap and trendy clothing that took a short time to make. First of all, people had nothing better to do during the quarantine phase of the pandemic, plus many people were tight on money. Shein, however, is a prime example of the fast fashion industry, which includes numerous negative side effects. Workers’ rights and unsafe working conditions are some of the biggest issues that Shein faces. It is reported that employees are on site from eight in the morning until ten at night. This includes breaks they are legally required to take, which is how employers can technically get away with making people work up to 75 hours per week. This is possible because many third-world countries do not have strict labour laws as we do in North America.
Besides these absurd working conditions, Shein has major effects on our environment, as all fast fashion industries have. Firstly, fast fashion uses an excessive amount of water. This is because it takes approximately ten thousand litres of water to make one kilogram of cotton, and with the amounts of clothing Shein sends out each day, millions of litres of water are wasted. Besides this, Shein indulges in textile dyeing practices, leading to toxic water entering our oceans. Furthermore, to achieve the lowest price possible, companies like Shein turn to cheap plastic microfibers to make garments that release more carbon emissions than their substitutes. Plastic also takes a long time to degrade, creating heaps of waste in the already overflowing landfills. When plastic finally breaks down, it releases a toxic substance that hurts marine ecosystems and eventually comes back into the human food chain, causing health effects for us as well.
So, we know what fast fashion is and how it impacts both people and the environment, but it can be hard to choose more sustainable shopping practices when these conditions do not directly affect us. Especially as university students, where most of us live on tight budgets, it is easier to buy cheaper clothing items versus more expensive ones. However, in most cases, buying more sustainable and high-end garments is actually more cost-effective in the long run. This is where the cost-per-wear formula comes in. Now, this is not an exact science, but it allows us to look at clothing as an investment rather than an impulse buy. It states that the value of an item is measured by how much we use it, not by how much it actually costs. For example, if you buy something trendy from a cheap website, it might be inexpensive at that moment, but if it tears or fades after a few wears, it is not worth it. Also, companies such as Shein like to market the most trending things at the time to attract lots of customers. Many people buy things they see others wear, even though they might not necessarily wear it themselves. If you buy something cheap but never wear it, you waste more money than if you had spent it on something more expensive but would actually use it on a regular basis. Let’s say you invest in a good pair of leggings; this can seem costly at the moment, but it will probably last you multiple years. The CPW formula states that the more times you use a clothing item, the higher the value of it will be, and thus the cheaper it becomes.
I know that sometimes it seems like the things we do as individuals do not matter in the big picture, but if everyone thinks like this, we do not get any closer to social change. Even simply choosing to shop sustainably, and encouraging others to do so, helps fight the fight against fast fashion. Ultimately, I hope this article encourages you to look further into this topic, and you choose to make the little changes because they have huge effects on others.
The Bangladesh accord on fire and building safety. (n.d.). The Bangladesh Accord. https://bangladeshaccord.org/about
Goodwin, J. (2021, December 14). The rana Plaza collapse: What happened & what it means for fashion. Grow Ensemble. https://growensemble.com/rana-plaza/
(n.d.). Human Rights Watch | Defending Human Rights Worldwide. https://www.hrw.org/
Kollbrunner, T., & Eye, P. (2021, November 19). Toiling away for Shein. Die neusten Public Eye Reportagen. https://stories.publiceye.ch/en/shein/
Le, N. (2020, July 20). The impact of fast fashion on the environment — PSCI. PSCI. https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/7/20/the-impact-of-fast-fashion-on-the-environment
Shuck, D. (2020, August 5). Understanding cost per wear – The only metric that matters. Heddels. https://www.heddels.com/2018/04/understanding-cost-per-wear-the-only-metric-that-matters/