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Self-Interest & Fast Fashion

Ms. Shamsa Belgrave is a sophomore at Swarthmore College with a growing awareness that America’s current form of capitalism is damaging to so many because we’ve collectively allowed it to be overcome by damaging ethics. She’s exploring the potential that America’s form of capitalism can be reformed if not transformed to a more equitable system by returning to the original ethics of Adam Smith. Here, we are honored that she provides her observation with the example of fast fashion.

The Scottish Philosopher Adam Smith is highly regarded as the father of capitalism. As such his ideas are often misunderstood and, in many cases, the principles of morality that he stood by are often disregarded completely in today's modern capitalism. A core theory introduced by Smith is self-interest and, in this blog post, I point to my observation of how self-interest appears to be misunderstood and misapplied within the fast fashion industry.

The term ‘fast fashion’ was originally coined in the 1990s to describe a phenomenon amongst upcoming fashion brands who would produce runway items instantly while lacking the quality and durability of the original pieces. They were sold at incredibly low prices to provide consumers with trending styles without them investing much in items that would soon be out of fashion.

Targeting primarily high school and college students, fast fashion has always been a gateway to indulge in popular clothing items without the stress of finances. Years ago, many wouldn’t have thought about the implications of the industry; however, as society moves to be more intentional and conscious of everyday decisions, many businesses have faced criticism for the mass production of cheap quality clothing.

According to Emma Ross, a George Washington University Law School student, fast fashion brands such as Shein or H&M appear to want little control over the production of their pieces in hopes of avoiding the legal ramifications of unregulated and unethical production of cheap clothing. There are over 50 million workers employed through the fast fashion industry and, as stated by Ms. Ross, less than 2% of them make a living wage alongside hazardous conditions to work under.

Along with that, many of the items purchased through fast fashion brands are disregarded as quickly as they are purchased. They are often made with fragile and cheap materials which lack durability and, when discarded, pollute our environment with plastic and other harmful chemicals. And so, not only are workers being exploited for the short-term profit of fast fashion businesses but their products are often disregarded in short periods of time, further damaging the environment.

Now that we have an introduction for what fast fashion is and how it’s harmful, how does this relate or contrast with the idea of self-interest? Adam Smith illustrated that, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it…” (Theory, Chp. 1).

In simpler terms, Smith is saying that self-interest intrinsically benefits consumers and he further insists that morality is something that we naturally have. Whether we’re working for fame or fortune, there is always an underlying sense of empathy in the way we interact with the world around us; and thus there’s a natural balance between morality and self-interest that maintains fairness and equality both within the free market and in our personal lives.

In practice, the fast fashion industry is the complete opposite of what Adam Smith intended with the principle of self-interest in that the industry prioritizes profit over the conditions of their workers, the longevity of their products, and the effects of their production on the environment itself. The only temporal benefit for consumers are the low prices while the downsides are the subject of many studies. As thoughtful consumers how do we help change that and ensure that our industries are always conscious in balancing self-interest with empathy especially beyond the borders of the United States?

If the fast fashion industry were to align itself with the original ideas of Adam Smith, there’d be numerous changes enacted to establish a safe and profitable industry for all. Instead of thinking solely how cheap labor benefits their company, each industry player would consider the individual lives of their workers and provide them with living wages. Instead of producing clothes rapidly with cheap materials, they’d consider using more sustainable materials which would eliminate the abuse of natural resources and produce quality items that wouldn’t be disregarded after a few wears. Also, we as consumer can do a few things differently for our self-interest.

These are only a few ideas which I feel are more closely aligned with the balance that Adam Smith illustrated between self-interest and the interest of others. There’s much to be done within each industry to enable it to return to including empathy in its pursuit over individual profit.

Adam Smith’s concept of self-interest is an insightful behavioral economics view of how individual desire benefits the economy; however, in regards to fast fashion, businesses completely disregarded the balance of empathy and morality in navigating the market. Fast fashion companies appear to uniformly prioritize short-term profit over long term ethical and sustainable practices. But they don’t have to continue in this way. As the industry is solely focused on their own personal profit, moving forward, it's necessary to lead with empathy and an intentional approach to reinstate the balance that Smith described.

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