Is fast fashion evil? Think again

By Walter Block*

One industry which has recently come under attack from critics of the free enterprise system is fast fashion. what is it? These are the companies that keep churning out cheap new styles of clothing.

What is against these businesses? There are several allegations.

First, they entice consumers to keep buying their ever-changing products. They are useless. Shoes, socks and shirts, hats, coats and underwear should have a longer life so that less material is wasted in keeping closets and offices crammed with excess goods.

According to the World Economic Forum: “As consumers around the world buy more clothes, the market for cheap goods and new styles is growing…People bought 60% more clothes on average in 2014 than in 2000.”

But who can say what is the optimal turn in matters of this kind? And on what coherent basis? If consumers want to keep up with the Joneses or the Kardashians, who’s to say no?

There is nothing special about a business based on constant change either. Other industries do it too without any backs from market critics: cars, computers, even mice (Walt Disney came up with a new and improved Mickey Mouse more than 30 times). Movies, books, newspapers, magazines, singers, computers are changing their offerings forever. This is called innovation in some circles, and there is no arbitrary reason to mock the phenomenon (by denigrating it as “fast fashion”) when it comes to clothing styles.

Does anything good come of it at all? Is there no silver? What about people in the economically backward world having more (used) clothing available which will tend to depress its prices? It is true that these items are now out of fashion, but still…

“You weren’t paying attention, you fool of the capitalist system,” one might reply. “No, the clothes are lying in the ditches and ruining their already shaky economy,” and that represents the second element of the case against the industry.

Where do all these unnecessary and useless frills (anything that is now obsolete) end up? Their final resting place clogs the beaches, roads and waterways of third world countries. Yes, we unscrupulous marmots are dumping these no longer needed products (that should not have been created in the first place) on poor unsuspecting people in the world’s poorest countries. We should be ashamed.

Bloomberg refers to a “land with mountains of rubbish”. It states that “less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new clothing, leaving countries like Ghana inundated with waste.”

“It takes two to tango” when it comes to this mess. There is also a willing importer for every export. What the importer does with the clothes he buys from abroad is hardly the exporter’s fault. The third world is hardly a bastion of private property rights, which is a much better explanation for the problem than “fast fashion” and our lack of consideration for others.

The third case against fast fashioners is that they use too many resources. The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion has stated that “the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water and is responsible for 2-8 percent of global carbon emissions”.

But every penny spent by companies in this industry is readily accepted by sellers. How do they even get those pennies? From willing sellers. It is rather arbitrary to complain that others buy too much when the ability to do so comes from this source. This means they are of course authorized to purchase H2O. They have the right to do so based on the dollar votes at their disposal, which in turn depend on consumer sovereignty. In a similar way, successful companies like Microsoft, Toyota, McDonalds, Walmart have the right to buy virtually anything they want to buy, including real estate, raw materials, food and, yes, water. Economists call these purchases “derived demand.” They are made possible primarily by the support of their own customers.

The fourth accusation is that fast fashioners pollute. Here is the rating Business Insider: “The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and shipping combined.” According to Professor Gamini Herath of Monash University, writing in the International Journal of Social Economics, there are “adverse effects of agrochemicals on the environment” from this source. The World Economic Forum claims that “fashion production accounts for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water resources and pollutes rivers and streams”.

If this unproven claim is true, it is the fault of the polluters, not the manufacturers. Car tires also accumulate in unpleasant places. Firestone and Goodyear are hardly responsible for what their customers do with this product after they are done with it. Same for clothes.

Plus, we’re now in the midst of a bitter cold spell. Will this stop the global warming Chicken Littles who are using the fear of warming as a stick to beat capitalism with? Of course not. But it’s hard to see why we should blame haberdashery for rising temperatures in the midst of storms that rain ice and snow high and high. If fast fashion really does contribute to global warming (no evidence has been offered), perhaps they should be thanked for their efforts, not condemned.

Then there’s that old standby explanation, useful on all occasions: labor exploitation. This is about handrails. Yes, these people are accused of exploiting helpless workers. Alison Morse tells us “The Truth About Fast Fashion Working Conditions”. It is this: “The fast fashion industry continues to break the law when it comes to labor rights. Human rights abuses and factory-like working conditions affect millions of textile and clothing workers [sic]. Cases of child labor and modern slavery are still reported, especially in Asian developing countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Many factory workers are paid below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in dangerous environments, and have no access to health care or paid vacations.”

David Weil, head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division from 2014 to 2017, said in New York Times that Fashion Nova, one of the important companies in this disgusting industry, was guilty of using a “manufactory system”.

Forbes piles on and hits on “The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Costs of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Factories in Our Own Backyard.”

There is more wrong with these criticisms than you can shake a stick at. The haberdashers and millers are no more guilty of trying to improve their economic position than anyone else. When, dear reader, was the last time you chose a lower-paying job (or investment) when you had a better, otherwise identical one available? When was the last time you paid a plumber, carpenter, electrician more when you could have paid less for the same job? When you paid more than you needed for a house or car? I thought not.

Another problem with this fee is that firms in this industry are not making the huge profits that they would be expected to make if they were really radically bribing many employees. One insider said: “How profitable is the fashion industry? A clothing brand is not a very profitable business. Most people think you’ll make a kajillion dollars and be well on your way to overnight fame. But the reality is that profit margins on clothing are notoriously low. According to industry analysts, you’re looking at 4-13% profit margins.”

Wages tend to reflect marginal revenue productivity, in economics jargon, or plain old productivity for non-economists. LeBron James earns a high salary because he can increase the income of his employers by a large amount. You and I, gentle reader, are less productive and earn middle-class rewards. People pushing brooms or asking if you want fries with that have an ever-lower ability to add to their employer’s bottom line. Take these so-called factory workers. Critics say they are being exploited. For example, their productivity is really $10 an hour and they only get paid $4 an hour. There are two things wrong with this scenario. First, firms that do this will tend to make large profits, and this is simply not the case for the clothing industry. Second, if this were actually true, then profits would be $6 an hour and other firms would compete with their current employers by raising wages. So this is an unstable or unbalanced situation.

Consider other charges. This malevolent behavior had particularly deleterious effects on people in the Third World.

Sarah Bibbey is the co-founder and acting director of Make Fashion Clean, a non-profit organization working to make denim consumption more sustainable worldwide. In her opinion, “Any country […] A formerly colonized country or a country that is not a global superpower will generally be more vulnerable to clothing dumping…” Dumping? Nobody throws bundles of clothes at innocent people. When the Japanese export cars to us, they don’t “dump” them on us. Rather, we are willing buyers! The same phenomenon prevails in the current situation.

Bibbey continued, “Our landfills (in the U.S.) are equipped in such a way that they can handle the chemicals and can sort of contain them, whereas other countries, including Ghana, don’t have the same level of infrastructure around the landfill. And whose fault is it? Obviously, importers, not exporters. If we were so stupid as to buy cars from abroad that wouldn’t work on our roads, it would be our fault, not the sellers of those vehicles.

What are the manifestations of these ailments? There are several of them. For one thing, members of the industry are trying to get people to buy more of their goods. How will he become involved in this nefarious pursuit? They keep changing styles. Through their advertising, usually implicitly but all too often explicitly, they push the message that woe betide those who wear clothes from years past (sometimes from last month).

Last but not least, protectionism rears its ugly head.

According to NewsDay“Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa of Zimbabwe has banned the importation of used clothing, a trade he says is responsible for the collapse of the local textile industry.” Here we come to a better explanation for this resistance to free trade in this industry: the desire to avoid competition from outsiders. But this is primarily one of the reasons for poverty in these countries: the reluctance to participate in international specialization and division of labor.

Is fast fashion an example of runaway capitalism? No, despite the current hissing.

*Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the JA Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans.

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