Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, there has been a steady incline in the efficiency of clothing manufacturing, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that clothing companies began to really produce garments with intense speed. Fashion became easily accessible to the public for consumption at lower costs than ever before; the allure of having trendy and fashionable pieces in one’s closet catalyzed more demand for these cheap and fast clothes. Fast forward to 2019, and clothing brands such as H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Charlotte Russe, and TOPSHOP are everywhere and dominate the closets of children and adults alike. Who wouldn’t pass up a $3.90 pair of leggings or a $4 dress? This cycle of the production of “fast-wearing” clothes and even faster consumerism has paved the way for detrimental consequences for the producer, the environment, and the consumer.
Cheap labor is the euphemism, in this case, for sweatshop workers who unfortunately do not make enough money to surpass the poverty line–the workers who live heavily-clustered in slums without the basic necessities and resources needed to have a decent quality of life. In the 1990s, the textile industry began moving overseas at an extremely high rate–fewer labor laws overseas would lead to the opportunity to rapidly amass products and cheaply sell them without having to worry about workers’ wages and rights. The sweatshops aren’t safe; “accidental mass killings” aren’t just a tragedy of the early 20th century. They still happen even in the most technologically advanced generation we’ve seen thus far. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing at least 1,138 workers making clothes. In response to this incident, a European-led coalition of unions and allied NGOs (non-governmental organizations) teamed up to work with Bangladeshi labor groups to create a worker safety initiative focused on empowering workers themselves, adopted largely by European firms and led by H&M but also adopted by several major U.S. brands. Even with such a development, the initiative has had some trouble staying afloat, and there is still more that needs to be done. How can we support the abuse and complete disregard of the very people that give us the things we crave most? Textile factories have also been found to be ripe with the foul stench of human trafficking, found even in the United States. Girls and women promised jobs and opportunity come only to be bound to a cycle of abuse and servitude; real people in terrible situations are grossly underpaid, mistreated, taken advantage of, subjected to devastating health problems, and even dying- to make disposable clothing for the “lucky” us, the consumers.
This radical mass production creates pollution, and the mass waste caused by consumers carelessly tossing old garments contributes to utter environmental chaos. During the farming process for cotton, the pesticides that are used are being linked to cancer and birth defects in farmers’ children in the Punjab region of India, as well as contributing to the development of a brain tumor in the case of one Texan farmer. The production of cotton, though only making up “2.4 percent of the world’s crops… is responsible for 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of global pesticide sales,” as well as the immense consumption of freshwater–one t-shirt can take up to 2,700 liters of water to make–and the facts don’t stop there. American clothing waste, nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, ends up in landfills, which amounts to nearly 80 pounds of textile per American citizen–which seems practically unimaginable. In addition, over 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased each year, mostly by Americans, even though the clothing was made in outsourced low-income countries such as China and Bangladesh. The factory workers’ subjection to environmentally unstable working and living situations is appalling, yet Americans can’t seem to decrease their demand for trendy and cheap clothing. Textile waste begets the production of methane during decomposition and the dyes and chemicals used to color and create the textiles could sink into the soil; whole communities and agricultural systems are crumbling due to mass production of fast fashion.
As a modern consumer, there seems to be something extremely satisfying about inserting a card into a chip reader and walking out of a store with a new purchase. With fast-fashion retailers churning out new trends and styles many more times a year than in the high-fashion realm–either as a continuous release or around 12 seasons for fast-fashion retailers versus 2 seasons for typical high fashion–buyers are armed with the caveat that they must shop then and there in order to stay up-to-date with the most current style. Having this feeling of staying on top of “the game” tends to bring an immense feeling of instant gratification when compulsory shopping, a feeling that is catalyzed with each swipe or chip read, and to keep feeling that instant gratification, we buy. This cycle can very easily turn into an addiction with us giving immense support and money to the factories and fast-fashion companies.
As the public eyes turn more towards to atrocities associated with fast fashion production and retail, hopefully, change will come. Remove fast fashion from your spending habits, buy second-hand clothes, boycott the fast fashion industry, or even just learn about and advocate for sustainable clothing.
Ross, Robert J.S. “The High Toll of Fast Fashion.” Dissent Magazine, http://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/the-true-cost-review-fast-fashion-rana-plaza-accord.
Morgan, Andrew, director. The True Cost. 2015.
Bailey, Carolyn. “Slow Down: Fast Fashion Has Harmful Effects.” Trusted Clothes, 10 Sept. 2016, http://www.trustedclothes.com/blog/2016/02/09/slow-down-fast-fashion-has-harmful-effects/.
“The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, 16 Jan. 2013, http://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirt.
Bick, Rachel, et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion.” Environmental Health, vol. 17, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7.
To learn more, watch The True Cost on Netflix.
By: Aly Sickles