Exposing fast Fashion– why we need to cancel an unethical and unsustainable industry
Confessions of a shop-a-holic continued.
There are almost too many reasons to list for why you should axe fast fashion from your lifestyle and seek sustainable and ethical alternatives. But they need to be said.
In my shopaholic hay-day, I knew my shopping came at a price greater than my own personal detriment. The cycle that I was caught up in, living from sale to sale, made it so I could always push my conscience to the back of my mind behind a haul of topshop bandeaus and new look sandals. Even the Rana Plaza catastrophe in April 2013, in which 1,138 garment workers were crushed in the wreckage of a factory that collapsed in 90 seconds, wasn’t enough to deter my interest in the very products factories like these churned out. I was appalled, naturally, but happy to accept the apologies and buy into the pledges companies made to ‘do better’. Most big brands have cultivated a general numbness in their consumers, keeping them far removed from the labour and production side of the industry with glittering advertising campaigns, PR coverups and promises of empowerment. I would be happy to pay lip service to those exploited by fast fashion but my increasingly frenzied shopping habits did not match up to how I felt about poverty, feminism, environmentalism, and equality.
That needed to change. There wasn’t one precise moment that caused me to implement the change in lifestyle. Nothing collapsed, I didn’t watch a documentary that opened my eyes to the corruption of fast fashion, I wasn’t haunted by the ghosts of fashion past, present, and future. I just finally began to prioritise the lives of others and the growing environmental crisis sustained by fast fashion over my need to take advantage of an extended student discount deal. Reservations I had over an industry that exists to maximise corporate profit by exploiting millions of people married my growing unease about how fast fashion was affecting my mental health. The two together were able to kick my addiction to the curb. Once I had made this decision, I was equipped to deal with the emotional realisation of what my place in fast fashion was helping prop up. Spoiler alert: it’s not a pretty reality.
Strip fast fashion of its sequin laden feminist slogan toting bodysuit and what are you left with? Exploitation, racism, and environmental Armageddon, to put it lightly. And I’m not catastrophising. The knock-on effects of fast fashion may seem invisible to those that sustain it, but social media and the digital era bring a greater transparency to these issues.
For those of you who haven’t yet had a slow fashion sustainable awakening, here is fast fashion stripped down to its ugly bare bones.
What does “fast” mean?
In fashion’s case, fast isn’t fast enough unless its rocket launching turbo mode. The rate at which new styles and trends are churned out on a regular basis is dizzying and unfathomable to most of us. Fast fashion has at least 52 “micro-seasons” every year, meaning new collections come out on a weekly basis. Some fast fashion brands have been quick to release copies of celebrity garments, with reproductions of designers’ work going to market faster than a Kardashian can say “cultural appropriation”. Boohoo actually brags on their “About” page that they drop over 500 new products every week. This tricks you into spending more money and is designed specifically so that you value quantity over quality. It may be cheap, but you buy more as you try to keep up with evolving trends. This rate of production has become the norm, and is rapidly spinning out of control. Here are a few of the impacts this industry has on a number of different areas, collated from a variety of sources, so you can appreciate the full extent of the issue:
• Garment workers have been found to work in dangerous environments and without basic human rights
• Reports suggest that the fast fashion industry produces 1 billion clothes annually. The factories that make these clothes or “sweatshops”, as they are rightly called, are operated mainly in developing countries and have over 40 million workers (the true numbers with informal sector workers are not counted.) Most (85 percent) of these workers are women. With over 3000 hazardous chemicals being used to manufacture fast fashion fabrics, it’s terrifying to imagine the impact on workers.
• A more recent incident than the Rana Plaza collapse took place in Tamil Nadu, India’s southern textile hub, in 2019. In order to increase workers’ production capacity, about 100 women working for a certain fast fashion company were given unlabelled drugs to make them work through period pains, endangering their health. The women were not informed about the side effects and many reported health issues like UTIs, miscarriages, fibroids, depression and anxiety. Most of these women cannot afford to let go of their jobs as they have a family to support and nowhere else to go.
• Child labour, prison labour (another form of slave labour), and violence against woman (sexual, verbal, physical) is normalised in the industry. If you haven’t seen it already, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix doc 13th is a harrowing but educational source on slave labour being perpetuated through the criminal system in America. You can also read more here.
• The fashion industry makes ginormous profits from the exploitation of black and brown women. Only an estimated 2% of fashion workers around the world are paid a living wage. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of colour.
• Some farmers who produce materials for the fashion industry may work with toxic chemicals that can have devastating impacts on their physical and mental health.
• Some designers allege that their designs have been illegally mass-produced by retailers. Big fashion rip offs happen all the time, with fast fashion retailers capitalising on the work and effort of independent designers. A quick google search reveals the extent of the issue, and you can read more about how this is impossible here and here.
• In the last 6 years in the UK HMRC has caught out 24 garment manufacturers for not being able to meet the minimum wage for their employees. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme discovered in 2017 that many fashion and textiles factory workers in Leicester, where 10,000 are employed in the profession, made only £3/3.50 an hour (bearing in mind the minimum wage for over 25s is £8.21) .
• The annual global emission by the textile industry is 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—10 percent of humanity’s carbon emission.
•Petrochemicals are very popular fabrics in fast fashion, and polyester is one of the most popular. These are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels that require an immense amount of energy and resources to produce. This contributes to global warming and a great amount of waste.
• Petrochemical textiles are preferred over textiles like cotton and other plant-based textiles because they are comparatively cheaper to manufacture, are stronger and can be modified microscopically.
• Fast fashion has increased the demand for petrochemical textiles by at least 30 percent in the last decade.
• The equivalent of 3 trillion plastic bottles is needed to produce plastic-based clothes every year .
• Natural or plant-based fabrics also use a huge amount of energy and water in their production. Cotton, for example, takes around 10,000 litres of water per kilogram of fabric.
• The production of 1kg of cotton garments uses up 3kg of chemicals as it also requires enormous quantities of pesticides used in developing countries.
• The amount of water used places a huge stress on water basins, leads to competitions between large companies and local communities. This also leads to risks of drought.
• Textiles productions (including cotton farming) uses almost 100 billion cubic metres of water annually, representing 4% of global water withdrawal.
• Most cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified to be resistant to the bollworm pest, thereby improving yield and reducing pesticide use. But this can also lead to problems further down the line, such as the emergence of “superweeds” which are resistant to standard pesticides. They often need to be treated with more toxic pesticides that are harmful to livestock and humans.
• The overall use of organic cotton represents less than 1 per cent of the world’s total annual cotton crop.
• It’s not just the fabrics that cause problems, but the dyes too - the use of cheap, toxic textile dyes makes the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water after agriculture.
• More than 500 million kilos of unwanted clothing end up in landfill every year. In fact, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. One source cites this as over 38 million-tonnes of textile waste being sent to landfill or incinerated per year.
• Industrial estimates state that humans consume anywhere between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastics every year. The microscopic nature of these chemicals means that they can have a detrimental impact on both humans and the environment. Since human skin is porous, these chemicals are able to easily seep into the skin and cause dire health conditions. They are also highly polluting and toxic to the environment.
• Out of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that ends up in our oceans every year, about 1.5 million tonnes are microplastics. According to a 2017 study by IUCN, around 35 percent of these microplastics originate from petrochemical textiles.
• Textile waste is estimated to rise by 60 percent by 2030.
• The speed at which fast fashion is produced is completely unsustainable. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000.
• As well as the devastating environmental impacts affecting biodiversity and ecosystems, new research from global animal protection organisation FOUR PAWS found that the fashion industry comes up short between what they say and what is delivered, with only 21% of brands tracing even a portion of the animal-derived materials for animal welfare.
• Over two billion animals are used in the global fashion industry every year in the wool, fur, and leather industries alone, many of which suffer poor living conditions, brutal physical mutilation practices, and chronic stress.
Current Issues have been exacerbated by Coronavirus.
• Large retailers have cancelled or suspended existing orders of £2.4 billion (Including $1.3 billion in orders which were completed or in mid production) in Bangladesh. This has affected over 4 million garment workers, leaving them without a livelihood overnight in Bangladesh alone.
• According to the Dhaka Tribune, 88% of the extreme urban poor of Dhaka and Chittagong are now without any income. A survey revealed that 94% of respondents are being forced to skip meals due to lack of income. With over 2 million job losses from factories, female heads of households have found themselves in a particularly difficult situation.
• The recent coronavirus surge in Leicester has been widely regarded to be a result of the city’s garment industry. By 22 April, even before the lockdown on businesses reopening was lifted, factories were reportedly operating at 100 per cent capacity for fast fashion clothing brands like Boohoo according to Labour Behind the Label.
• Factory workers employed by leading clothing brands had been forced to work for less than the minimum wage at the height of the coronavirus outbreak, and claims some have been continuing to work in “unsafe” conditions while the city wrestles with a coronavirus flare-up. The allegations of industry malpractice increased since the beginning of the outbreak, with employees forced to work during lockdown and factories claiming furlough pay. This has rightly drawn recent outrage and accusations of modern slave labour, and Boohoo’s shares have since crashed by a third in just two days. Fast fashion can be held to account, but let’s not have one standard for what occurs on our home turf and another for what happens abroad.
If you made it this far, bravo. But keep in mind this list is not exhaustive. These are just some of the reasons fashion, and our own relationship to shopping, seriously needs an overhaul. Like, now. It may feel like an indulgent impulse buy to lift spirits in hard times won’t make a difference, but this mindset is a slippery slope that lets large retailers get away with the damage they continue to inflict on our world and its people. The Boohoo group showed sales up 44 per cent to £1.23billion and pre-tax profits up 54 per cent to £92.2million this year, even with the global crisis, and it has taken the recent investigations into actual slave labour to change that. Need I mention that similar findings came out in 2017 and Boohoo was still able to thrive thereafter? Fashion relies on customers who wilfully ignore their collective conscience when it comes to who manufactures their clothes. Millions are still upholding the fashion status quo. Changing our habits is one step towards calling for accountability and forcing crucial change through.
For those who are able to completely cut out this toxic industry, the outcomes are more rewarding than you may think. Since boycotting fast fashion, I’ve found pleasure in tailoring my style using alternative sources and paring back. Local independent businesses that share a sustainable ethos contribute original and gorgeous pieces to my wardrobe. Vintage shops and depop satisfy my cravings to find something beautiful, something uniquely ‘me’, something that is great value for money that I’ll wear time and again. I’m getting more wear out of old and new items, upcycling and fixing broken or outdated styles, and am actually happier about myself and my relationship to fashion in the process.
A growing fashion revolution has allowed me to match actions with sentiments of justice and fairness for all. The following businesses and social media accounts are informative, beautiful, and entertaining sponsors for a fast fashion addict recovery path:
Good On You - @goodonyou_app Fashion Revolution - @fash_rev IG
Loststock - @loststock_ IG Remake - @remakeourworld IG
@knowtheorigin @melaninass IG
@shop.thoughtful IG @tickover IG
@dietprada IG @labourbehindthelabel
Follow them and find the encouragement you need to supplement fast fashion with sustainable, ethical, and honestly more exciting alternatives. And keep an eye out for my next post, in which I will outline as many tips and tricks as possible to help avoid fast fashion, whatever your budget!
Sources and educational articles: