By Sage Lively | Hamilton College Intern
Let’s talk about Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion was introduced in the ‘80s as an approach to design, create, and market clothes to make them cheaper and quicker to keep up with changing trends. Since then clothing goes out of fashion faster, the prices get lower and lower, and the havoc to our environment has only increased.
Fast Fashion shows no sign of slowing down, with social platforms like TikTok and Instagram featuring new trends each month, accompanied by beautiful women opening their Shein or Zara ‘hauls,’ or showing their outfit of the day. Fast Fashion is incredibly damaging to our environment, and has some of the most horrific labor practices of any industry today.
The ecological damage attributed to Fast Fashion includes ocean pollution via wastewater and plastic microfibers, huge carbon emissions, and poisonous gasses, to name a few. According to Princeton, the production process of Fast Fashion contributes, “Approximately 20% of the wastewater worldwide.”
This exorbitant amount of waste is made possible by many clothing companies placing factories overseas, and choosing countries without strict environmental regulations. Conveniently, these countries also have surpluses of labor that the industry similarly takes advantage of, which will be discussed later.
In the name of saving money, these clothing producers use the cheapest possible materials, and dump their waste into the surrounding environment. “Synthetic materials are the primary culprits that cause plastic microfibers to enter our oceans. To be exact, approximately 35% of all microplastics are from these synthetic materials.” (Princeton).
These cheap materials, most commonly polyester, release far more carbon emissions than more natural materials like cotton, and contain microplastics that inevitably wind up in our oceans. This pollution is inescapable—even if the waste and scraps don’t go directly into the environment, the microplastics are released through machine washing.
Not only does this pollution lay waste to the marine ecosystem, but it can be directly harmful to people as well, they ultimately end up in our own food chain. When we’re done with the clothes, either because the cheap materials have given out, or to move onto a new trend, they either end up in a landfill or are incinerated. This leads to “toxic substances or large amounts of poisonous gasses being released as a result of burning landfill.” (Princeton).
This ecological damage shows no sign of slowing, as “According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.” (Earth.org).
Marine life are not the only ones who suffer in Fast Fashion production. Just as the companies select factory locations for their lax environmental protection laws, they also seek out countries without humane minimum wages. The low prices of clothes are reliant on dangerous, underpaid work that fall predominantly on the shoulders of women and children. According to non-profit Remake, “80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, and others.” (Earth.org).
According to George Washington Law, “The Fast Fashion industry employs approximately 75 million factory workers worldwide. Of those workers it is estimated that less than 2% of them make a living wage.”
The Fast Fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to the endurance of child labor, preying on desperate populations. According to the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and the India Committee of the Netherlands, recruiters in southern India entice impoverished families to allow their daughters to work in spinning mills with promises of generous pay, safe housing, nutritious meals, even educational opportunities, none of which are delivered. In actuality, these children are being recruited to modern day slavery, paid next to nothing to conduct dangerous work in horrid conditions.
“Many garment workers are working up to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week,” as reported by GW. “The textile industry also uses child labor particularly because it is often low-skilled, so children can be exploited at a younger age.” Throughout these backbreaking hours, the workers are exposed to carbon disulphide and other toxic chemicals,which can lead to lethal side effects, including, but not limited to, cancer.
If the workers manage to avoid these dangers, they may fall victim to the physical environment itself, as seen in the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse— “the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history” (GW). The eight-story factory collapse killed 1,134 workers and additionally injured over 2,500.
The incident inspired safety inspections in 1,106 Fast Fashion factories, where 80,000 safety issues were found, showing Rana Plaza was just one of many tragedies waiting to happen. This gross abuse of struggling families is incredibly dangerous, and prevents young women and children from any educational or advancement opportunities, further cementing the poverty cycle.
Now, the vile nature of Fast Fashion is no secret. In the hope of lessening the environmental impact and corrupt labor practices, many, especially the younger generation, have turned to thrifting. Thrifting, much like Fast Fashion, is on the up and up, with around 40 percent of Gen Z-ers buying second hand, compared to less than 30 percent in 2016, according to a report by resale service ThredUp.
Thrifting is complex for a number of reasons. True, any practices that keep goods on the market longer and slow consumption are good. However, with thrifting becoming a new trend for wealthier consumers, there are less resources available for those who really need it. Unlike buying retail, clothes found in the thrift store are often unique within the store, meaning if one well- meaning wealthier consumer buys a ‘haul,’ the store may very well be gutted of their size of choice.
Online second-hand shops, like Poshmark and Curtsy, are another valuable resource, but much of the content on the apps are reselling Shein or Zaful— last month’s Fast Fashion, an issue they share with in-person thrifting as well. This is only considering the clothes that actually end up being resold, as the over consumption of clothes is so overwhelming much of your donations end up in landfills.
As with most ecological issues, it’s time to talk about government responsibility. Governments should be making it as difficult as possible to abuse the lack of environmental and labor laws in vulnerable countries. Some countries have already begun to tackle the issue of Fast Fashion, as seen in France’s new unofficial fashion minister Brune Poirson, one of three secretaries of state within the ministry of “ecological and inclusive transition.” (Fast Company).
Not only would high taxes discourage environmentally irresponsible factories, that money could also then be put into clothing and footwear recycling, environmental protection, and other green initiatives. Our government regulates oil, agriculture—every industry of import. Why not fashion?
All of this is, to say, what? There is no ethical way to consume under Capitalism? Well yes and no. Mostly yes (as is an ongoing theme in this column), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. No one is perfect —in fact, perfect moral consumption is impossible under Capitalism.
Now, I can tell you to thrift, but as established, thrifting has its own issues. I can (and will) direct you to more ecologically responsible clothing companies, but not everyone has the monetary resources to invest in expensive brands. At the end of the day, the best advice available is simply to buy less. Chasing trends is environmentally dangerous, especially when it’s a losing, never-ending game. When you need to buy new, look for second hand or eco-conscious brands, but before you do, look to the back of your own closet.
See the site Good On You to find brands rated on ecological impact, humane practices, and price.
Visit earthday.org to join the petition “to enact legislation that will hold the fashion industry responsible for their actions: Show Your Support: The Fashion Industry Must Change (earthday.org).