The Human Thread

October 10, 2016

Author: Frank Sherman

Category: Learn

Fast Fashion and the Chase to the Bottom


As I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Fast-Fashion Tricks Are on Display at Department-Store Chains, I became more concerned – not for Macy’s, Kohl’s and the Gap as they try to respond to fast-fashion rivals like Inditex SA’s Zara and Hennes & Mauritz AB’s H&M, but rather for their garment workers in China, Bangladesh and other developing countries. These brothers and sisters are already working 60-80 hours a week to earn a fraction of a living wage. How will this trend impact them?

Department-store chains are speeding up its supply chain to better catch popular fashion trends. The traditional model requires 15 months from design conception until goods arrive in stores, and nine months to reorder items that sell out. Fast fashion brands have dropped this turnaround time to as little as 3 months.

“The current model of loading up on inventory, and marking it down when it doesn’t sell is broken,” says Robert D’Loren, Xcel’s chief executive. “It’s a race to the bottom on pricing.”

How can H&M sell a dress for $15? A suit for $75? One way is volume. The per capita demand for clothing in the U.S. has increased by 400% since 1980! Where are all these clothes going after we move to the next fashion? Although many of us try to give them to charities, 85% end up in landfills. But there is also a human cost of this race to the bottom.

There is some pressure to improve wages. In June, Cambodia agreed to increase monthly wages from $128 to $140. Vietnam is discussing an increase of its minimum wage by 7.3% in 2017. South African cotton workers have seen an 8.25% increase in their wages. There are talks that the ASEAN region may try to introduce a regional minimum wage. But the workers’ voice is weak….and the fast fashion trend is much louder.

On the rare occasions that I go clothes shopping, I find it difficult to get the voice of HBO’s host John Oliver of Last Week Tonight out of my head: “You know why they are so cheap. You can no longer plead ignorance.”

Frank Sherman, Associate Director
Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment