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In recent years the fashion industry has had a dramatic shift to a new model of industry known as fast fashion. With this recent shift we must ask ourselves, what is the true cost of this fast fashion industry? In a world with an increasing concern for environmentalism and social justice we must examine the industries that we interact with everyday, including the fashion industry. Fast fashion has negative impacts on both the environment and human rights calling for a reexamination of a flawed system.
However, the fashion industry did not always function with this model. As recently as the 1960’s, the United States was making 90% of our clothing. However, today we make only 3% of the clothing that we buy in the United States (The True Cost, 2015). This drastic decrease in the production of locally made clothing in the last few decades is due to a shift in the fashion industry. This shift is known as fast fashion. Fast fashion has taken an industry that once had 2 to 4 season to an industry that now has 52 seasons in a year. There has been an increase in the amount of products made. Big brands like Forever 21, H&M, Gap, Topshop, and Zara are all leading brands in the fast fashion industry.
The real question is what is this fast fashion industry leading to? Because of the exportation of work, the prices of making the clothing, and therefore, the prices of the clothing has dramatically decreased. This decrease in both the quality of materials, craftsmanship and price has led to several things including the consumer’s ability to
easily obtain a piece of clothing for a cheap cost. Due to the cost being so low the consumer is willing to give up the quality of the material and will buy a $5 shirt knowing that they will get only a few wears out of it. “Zara estimates that its clothes are worn no more than seven times and to meet this demand it creates two new lines every
week” (Taplin, 2014). This low cost clothing leads to poor materials that will ultimately rip. While Zara’s estimates are only seven wears, many other fashion brands openly estimate that their clothing will not last more than ten washes, meaning that after that time the material will fall apart due to the poor materials used. However, consumers are seemly content with this due to the current model of the fashion industry. They are encouraged to frequent clothing stores every ten to fourteen days, which is how often the turn around on clothing is (Taplin, 2014).
Due to the low cost and the poor materials used, many of these clothes are thrown out, usually within a year or two of purchasing them. This has led to a huge increase in the number of textiles in landfills. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste each year. More than 11 million tons of the textile waste in landfills is from the US alone. Most of these textiles are not biodegradable and will sit in landfills releasing harmful chemicals for hundreds of years (The True Cost, 2015).
Some people may think that donating clothing to charity or thrift stores could be a viable option rather than throwing clothing into landfills. While this is a good option, many thrift stores are overwhelmed with the amount of clothing donated, usually only 10% of the clothing donated to thrift stores is actually sold. The rest of the clothes are often shipped to other countries such as Haiti. Haiti once had a booming economy that was centralized in tailoring. Cheap clothing is now being shipped to Haiti, along with
other third world countries, and in some cases has virtually caused their economies to collapse. Haiti’s tailoring business, which was the main foundation of their income and economy, has become essentially obsolete. As a result of this, many people have become workers in factories to produce more cheap clothing (The True Cost, 2015). First world countries consumeristic habits ultimately have lasting and negative impacts on the third world countries that are left paying the true cost for our overconsumption.
To shift focus, the fast fashion industry is not only harmful to the environment in the amount that is sold and thrown away but it is also the second largest polluting industry in the world, next to the oil industry. Not to mention the harmful chemicals that are used to grow the cotton which is the material used in many articles of clothing.
The cotton used in many clothing is often sprayed with harmful pesticides. The application method is large spread and often farmers will just spray the whole field. This use of pesticides has a huge ecological effect which can contaminate the soil and local drinking waters. These fertilizers and pesticides are known as ecological narcotics, meaning the more you use them, the more you need them.
Monsanto is one of the biggest seed industries in the world. Monsanto genetically modifies the cotton seeds and will sell the seeds to farmers. These seeds have been redesigned to take more chemicals. This BT cotton has a gene inserted from bacteria which produces a toxin and is meant to control pests on its own, which is the huge selling point for Monsanto’s seeds. Monsanto has a monopoly on seeds and are able to sell these genetically modified seeds for high costs, as much as 17,000% more. Many farmers, however, will buy these seeds hoping that they will cut their costs in the use of pesticides. The seeds do not deliver on their promises to control pests though which leads to an increased use in pesticides. Interestingly enough, Monsanto also makes the pesticides used to treat the plants leading many people to believe that this system is corrupt. Monsanto also owns companies that develop medicines for the sick that are very expensive. Suspiciously enough there has been a correlation with the use of pesticides and illnesses (The True Cost, 2015).
Punjab is the largest user of pesticides in India and most cotton is grown in this area. Dr. Pritpal Singh has been studying the effects of pesticides on human health. In this area where pesticides are largely used there is an increase in the number of birth defects, cancers, and mental illness. Seventy to eighty children in every village have some form of mental retardation and physical handicap due to the toxicity of pesticides (The True Cost, 2015).
Due to poor farmers being put into more and more debt because they need to buy seeds every year from Monsanto at high prices and buy more and more pesticides, many farmers are resorting to suicide. In the last sixteen years there have been more than 250,000 recorded suicides in India due to debt from the fashion industry. That is one farmer every thirty minutes and is the largest recorded wave of suicide in history.
Shifting focus to the social justice concerns of the fast fashion industry, many companies export production to developing countries with poor labor laws leading to the wide spread use of sweatshops. Bangladesh has become the second largest apparel exporter after China mainly due to the fact that it is able to produce clothing cheaply. With this cheap clothing comes a large cost though, including low wages, factory disasters, and poor working conditions.
There are 40 million garment workers in work currently. 85% of these workers are women and many are paid less than $3 a day. These workers are some of the lowest paid people in the world, sometimes making only $10 a month. In a $3 trillion annual industry it is shocking and outraging that these workers make such low wages.
On top of the low wages that these workers deal with, many also deal with poor working conditions. The workers are often surrounded by harmful chemicals that they are forced to breathe in every day. They work long hours in building that can sometimes be unsound. These conditions often lead to factory disasters in the fashion industry.
On April 24, 2013 an 8 story clothing factory in Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,127 workers, mostly young women. This is one of the worst factory disasters in history. In the previous decade there have been over 800 deaths due to factories in Bangladesh alone. 100 of those deaths occurred in the year prior to the accident at Rana Plaza. With the cost minimization many corners are cut, including in safety. In an industry where factory owners must out bid each other to be able to make the clothing it is important to understand that the safety of the workers is too often compromised. 10% of seats in Parliament are taken by factory owners in Bangladesh. With this political linkage, it’s no wonder that so many corners are knowingly cut and that the government does not want to take responsibility and regulate the factories (Taplin, 2014).
The fact of the matter is unless we decrease the demand in the clothing that is being made the factories will continue to stretch their means, usually at the expense of the workers. “You can’t have the corporate social reasonability department saying that factory overtime hours have to be kept at reasonable levels and then the purchasing department demanding 10,000 pink blouses delivered in a week” (Taplin, 2014). In order
to ensure fair wages and working conditions the current model of the fashion industry must change to ensure that the workers are treated fairly.
Benjamin Powell argues, however, that sweatshops are a part of the process that raises living standards and will allow workers to acquire higher wages and better working conditions over time. Kate Ball Young, a former sourcing manager for Joe Fresh, argues that these workers could be doing a lot worse. The workers are choosing from a bad set of options. She argues that, “There is nothing intrinsically dangerous with sewing clothes” (The True Cost, 2015).
While these workers are in fact choosing from a bad set of options it is important to realize that we can give these workers a better option. As previously states there are 40 million garment workers in work today. We have the ability to give 40 million people a good option not just one bad option from many other bad options.
Others argue that if we do not export to these developing countries many people will be out of jobs and starve. So we’re doing them a favor by having them work in sweatshops, right? Wrong. The argument is not to necessarily stop exporting to developing countries, that would ruin their economy. The argument is to give fair working conditions to the people who make the clothes we wear every day. It is their basic human right and it is our job to ensure their human rights are not violated.
Which brings us to the question: Who’s fault is fast fashion? Now this is not necessarily to assign blame but more so to shine a light on the role we all play in the fashion industry. Some could say that the companies who are exporting to the developing countries are to blame but the fact is that many of the factories they sign with subcontract out to other non approved factories to make up for the demand. So it
could be the factory owners fault then, after all they are the ones who put the workers in these conditions. However, the factory owners are just trying to cope with the large orders that are being placed. The consumer is the one who is demanding these clothes. If we as consumers were more aware and realized where our clothes come from and the processes it goes through than may fast fashion wouldn’t have such an impact on the world environmentally and on people’s human rights (Taplin, 2014).
In one study done on young consumers in Hong Kong and Canada it was found that although these young people are often environmentally conscious, they do not associate sustainability with fashion (Annamma, 2012). What other options do consumers have? Luxury brands are a viable option because they often focus on the quality and craftsmanship of the product. However, many people are unable to afford this alternative. Another alternative is ethical fashion. The biggest draw back with ethical fashion is style, usually offering many basic T-shirts and jeans and not much else. To get consumers to buy ethically you must appeal to their desires. Another method is guilt politics which forces consumers to be viewed as responsible in their fashion purchases by their peers and society as a whole (Beard, 2008).
While having this information about fast fashion is vital, it is worth nothing if we do not do something to change it. So what can we do? The easiest thing we can do is to buy less. When we do buy things we need to be smarter shoppers and look for ethical fashion. We need to hold ourselves accountable and ask if the clothing we are buying is durable and if it will still be in style in a couple of months. This will ensure that the clothing we do buy we will wear for years to come. We must make sure that we only buy what we need and will wear. Even if we buy the most sustainable and ethical article of
clothing in the world, if we don’t wear it then those materials are still going to waste. Do not throw old clothing away. Try to figure out fun ways to reuse old clothing, like turning them into rags or deconstruction and reconstruction a new piece. Lastly, we can wash our clothes less. When we wash the clothing we have only as needed it helps the garment last longer. On top of that, 80% of the total energy consumption of a garment comes from washing the garment. When you do buy things, shop smarter and look for ethical fashion. Hold yourself accountable and ask yourself if it’s durable and will still be in style in a couple of months which will ensure you can wear it for years to come. Make sure what you buy you actually need and will wear. Even if it’s the most sustainable and ethical shirt in the world, if you don’t wear it then it’s going to waste. Don’t throw your old clothing away. Figure out fun ways to reuse your old clothing like turning them into rags or deconstructing and reconstructing a new piece. Lastly wash your clothing less. Washing your clothing only as needed helps the garment last longer and 80% of the total energy consumption of a garment comes from washing it (Andrews, 2016).
Fast fashion has taken over the fashion industry and has left long lasting environmental impacts along with social justice impacts. It is our job as consumers to stop this injustice. Consumers vote with their money. You have the power to make a change.
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