The research in this series of blogs has been taken from a research paper that I completed as part of my LLM in International Human Rights Law. This series will attempt to explain the relationship between fast fashion demand and the growth of the human trafficking and modern slavery industry, consider the situation that was exposed in Leicester, analyse the UK’s response to the problem and offer recommendations going forward. The first entry will consider the success of the fast fashion business model and the human cost of convenient clothes.
The increased demand for fast fashion that has been observed in the UK in recent years is extraordinary. Born out of the globalization of the fashion industry, fast fashion has become an essential part of daily life for many in contemporary society. This success of the fast fashion business model has been possible through the optimisation of supply chains, which has enabled brands to produce clothing at a faster rate and sell current trends at competitive prices. However, the rapid birth and growth of the industry has not been entirely positive and has created several ethical and environmental problems. One of the most pressing concerns is accountable to the lack of transparency in fast fashion supply chains, which has enabled big brands in the industry to continuously profit off the back of human exploitation.
With its ability to quickly replicate and produce catwalk designs, the fast fashion business model enables the fashion industry to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers, at a price they can afford. Before the globalization of the fashion industry and emergence of fast fashion, current fashion trends were only readily available to those in the upper classes of society. Fast fashion closed in on this social class separation by providing a ‘more affordable alternative to traditional haute couture’. To achieve this and meet the needs of a new type of consumer, the fast fashion business model prioritised fast production rates and low-price tags. While this has created a climate in which current trends are available at affordable prices, it has come at a great ethical and environmental cost.
A report by the Environmental Audit Committee revealed that many businesses in the industry have turned to offshore manufacturing to keep costs down, sourcing products and materials from ‘long, disjointed supply chains in the global south’. The main issue with such convoluted supply chains is their lack of transparency, which makes it difficult to ensure decent working conditions. Additionally, offshore manufacturing is met with several environmental concerns. The impact that offshoring has had on the global environment is considerable due to increased carbon emissions and other pollutants from developing countries and from long-distance transportation.
Further, for the fast fashion business model to fulfil its purpose and maintain fast production rates, poorly managed sweatshops replaced skilled labour. The number of which have increased in line with growing demand, made possible by the growing number of underground economies of immigrant communities in developed countries. This expansion to meet demand hints to the relationship between the success of the fast fashion business model and the growth of the human trafficking and modern slavery industry. This aspect will be further explored in the next blog in this series.
Ultimately, while convenient clothing is now both cheap to produce and purchase, it comes at a tremendous human and environmental cost. On account of these human and environmental costs becoming so central to the success of the fast fashion business model, there is a great challenge ahead in ensuring that sustainable and ethical standards are routinely met in this sector of the garment industry. In this regard, Ardea has created a series of legal compliance toolkits to help businesses implement environmental and social policies.
Victoria Ledezma, ‘Globalization and Fashion: Too Fast, Too Furious’ (2017) 4 Laurier Undergraduate Journal of the Arts 71, 78.
Environmental Audit Committee, Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability (HC 2017-19, 1952-XVI), para 54.