Fast Fashion: How Status Anxiety Fuels Exploitation
By Eilidh Evans
Over the past few years, consumers in Western countries have become increasingly more aware and outraged at the realities of exploited labour and the environmental impact of fast fashion. Several undercover investigations (including BBC Panorama) have exposed companies, such as H&M and Primark, all involved in the use of sweatshops in countries such as Bangladesh, India and China (to name but a few). These scandals have propelled the advocation for the purchase of second-hand clothing through thrifting, vintage stores or apps such as Depop. Recycling second-hand clothes not only reduces the need for sweatshops but it also contributes to the efforts to halt climate change. However, despite all of this information being public knowledge, and alternatives available, the fast fashion industry is growing more rapidly than ever before, especially during the pandemic with so many people impulse buying. The younger generations, who are supposedly the most ‘woke’, ‘ethically minded’ generations, are the biggest contributors to the industry’s success.
So, what is going wrong?
No one could deny the inhumane and immoral use of sweatshops. Large Western companies exploit the low labour standards in developing countries. They pay workers below a living wage, subject them to long hours, harsh working conditions and force approximately 168 million children between the ages of 5 to 14 to work. All of this is in aid of cutting the production cost of clothing, to keep up with the high level of demand for lots of stock, at lower prices, for Western customers and ultimately giving the company increased profit. Furthermore, the impact of fast fashion on the environment is shocking. 84% of clothing goes to waste a year in the USA through landfill, a figure exacerbated by the excessive purchasing of fashion encouraged by fast fashion. And the industry’s global greenhouse gas emissions in a year is equivalent to the aviation industry worldwide. Yet, this industry is still booming.
The psychology behind the irresistible pull of fast fashion, the very reason our younger generation is being sucked into this exploitative industry exposes a horrific reality of our society and the behaviour it grooms. Fast fashion offers a cheap, accessible way for the everyday person to encapsulate the desired, unreachable lifestyles of celebrities and models plastered all over our screens, from social media to films. The feeling of inferiority to those exponentially wealthier than we are, and the social status anxiety pushing us to compete and achieve affluence is what drives fast fashion supply chains. The prevailing success of fast fashion in spite of all of its disgraces only exemplifies how powerful social status anxiety can be. Not only is social status anxiety extremely effective but it also reflects, arguably, the biggest failure of modern Western capitalist societies, income inequality.
In a society obsessed with wealth and materialistic possessions, the high expectations for financial success and opulence is rarely fulfilled. Therefore, unsurprisingly, countries that consume high levels of fast fashion such as the UK and America have among the highest rates of inequality in the world. What this means is that the gap between the rich and the poor is painstakingly vast, those at the top flaunting their possessions and those at the bottom only able to look on and feel like they are missing out. Perhaps the most perfect example of this was Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday celebrations, plastered all over Instagram and Twitter. Kim explained that she had gotten coronavirus tests for all her guests, rented out a private island and partied to “pretend things were normal”. She received huge criticism for being vastly tone deaf and insensitive to the struggles and restrictions the majority of people have suffered due to coronavirus. The disparity in opportunities, resources and privilege experienced by those within a desperately unequal society are not to be underestimated; neither should be the hierarchy and anxiety such inequality creates.
The pressure to keep up with those far wealthier than themselves and the socially constructed drive to keep up with trends and outward displays of wealth and style is what drives the fashion industry to continue growing. Despite the poor working conditions and pay, despite the harm it causes to the environment and the alternatives available. People will continue to shop fast fashion as it can create, and mirror specific pieces worn and endorsed by those wealthier in society. Until Western countries can amend their levels of inequality, then exploitation of people and the planet will continue within the fashion industry and beyond.