Bauman and Fast Fashion

By: Claire Francombe, BA Sociology student

In today’s society, a great amount of value is placed on products. Many theorists argue that we even value those around us differently based on what products they do or don’t have or how highly they view certain products compared to ourselves. However, in a society of consumption, mass production inevitably results in mass disposal which disproportionately targets certain groups in society. As well as this, it has detrimental effects on the environment. This is the danger of fast fashion and consumerism.

Debt Society

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explains that, during industrialism, we were once a society of producers where the goal of production was to make something that lasted and worked well. Now however we have moved into late modernity and become a society of consumption. According to Bauman, this consumption defines our personality and our status within society. This is what drives people to buy in excess; because of perceived trends, such as seasons of clothes or generations of technology, that people are convinced they must keep up with. (Bauman 2007) This drive to keep up with everyone else leaves many people in debt and this is what Bauman argues keeps consumerism going. Companies such as Klarna, which offers a ‘buy now, pay later’ loan scheme further perpetuate this by allowing people to buy things they cannot afford. It particularly targets younger people who are presumably less aware of the severity of being stuck in debt and so more likely to carry on consuming. (Bell 2019) Banks, and by extension the government, benefit from this because people are left to take out more loans to pay back debts and are left in a vicious, seemingly never-ending, cycle of debt, all in hopes of attaining the latest trends to keep up with society. Bauman (2007) calls these people ‘the repressed’, those in society who cannot effectively keep up to the consumer standard set by ‘the seduced’, those who can. This cycle is very damaging for people’s mental health, as Bauman explains that we get addicted to consuming and begin to neglect and push away anything that does not give us the instant gratification that consuming does. This then leads to loneliness and desperation which people believe they can fill with products; another of consumerism’s vicious cycles. However, ‘the repressed’ are not the only victims of consumerism.

The Impact of Fast Fashion

Production of fast fashion garments is gruelling and dangerous, not only for the workers but also for the environment. America reigns as the number one consumer worldwide, however 90% of clothing sold there is made of polyester or cotton (Bick et al. 2018). Cotton requires a large amount of water to produce and polyester is an artificial fabric made from petroleum which requires large amounts of oil. Not only does this release dangerous emissions that can cause respiratory disease, it also releases solvents and toxic waste into the wastewater systems. This can have detrimental effects on nearby residents which are often disadvantaged communities of colour (Claudio 2007). This means that, in their plight to attain the latest trend, ‘the seduced’ disregard the safety of disadvantaged communities and abuse their privilege by dumping waste out of sight. In particular, companies use factories in countries such as China or Bangladesh, in order to produce items under cheaper wages as these countries do not have the same minimum wage laws as in America or Europe. As well as this, there as far fewer health and safety regulations which mean companies can save money by not having to repair machinery or refurbishing factories. In 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed killing a total of 1127 people, mainly young women (Taplin 2014) which shows the kinds of conditions these people must work under and for a fraction of what will be profited from the items they produce. Although laws have been put into place, many manufacturers still underpay workers and there are an estimated 7 million child workers in Bangladesh despite it be against the law (Taplin 2014). It can be clearly seen that there is a large disregard in society for people who are deemed ‘disposable’ such as the workers in the Rana Plaza disaster. 

Many people unknowingly contribute to the environmental impact of fast fashion by buying clothes online and returning them, believing that they will be repackaged and resold. This is not the case. Once people have bought the latest trend and gained social status by owning it, if they then return the item, most companies choose to dispose of these products rather than go through the expense of sorting and shipping them to wholesalers where the company makes very little profit. Although it seems like more hassle than its even worth, allowing customers to return items increases sales and customers likelihood to shop at the same site again. In other words, disposing of return waste is outweighed by more sales (Busby 2019). What can be done then to protect the communities and the planet which are being destroyed by the fast fashion industry?

Bauman says that the greatest source of contemporary fear is the lack of control we have over our lives. Therefore, we can gain control by removing ourselves from the illusion cast by fast fashion and instead support independent brands or by buying clothes second hand to prevent them being sent to landfill. If we can relearn that clothes are for every season and don’t need to be valued by their brand, we ourselves can save the money wasted buying the newest trends to support companies that pay their workers fair wages and dispose of their waste legally and sustainably. Research the companies you buy from and expose their mistreatment of their workers or their unfair working conditions. If enough noise can be made about this issue, the industry will listen and the right changes will be made, even if it is only for the sake of pleasing their customers.

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