Fast fashion has been growing rapidly in many countries, especially Asian countries. We all have checked our clothes tags and seen ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Bangladesh’. While lots of people may not see the harm in fast fashion, it has many negative consequences. Asian countries dominate fast fashion. China, for example, is the most common country for garment production and globally is the largest producer of cotton. India follows. Some of the major apparel exporters in the world also include Bangladesh and Vietnam. But what exactly is fast fashion? Fast fashion is a term to describe clothes that are cheap, disposable, and made to meet new trends instantly. As demand for clothing has and continues to increase, it must be made rapidly to meet consumer needs. According to the University of Queensland, 80 billion new pieces of clothing are consumed every year. As trends change, clothes are not worn for as long, and more must be made. Most fast fashion brands set up factories in underdeveloped countries that have cheap labour regulations and less strict environmental laws.
Now, what are the issues with fast fashion?
Firstly, fast fashion has been shown to negatively degrade the environment. Like mentioned, factories are usually set up in areas that do not have environmental legislation to prevent the negative impacts of clothing production. During textile production, toxic chemicals from factories pollute nearby rivers, aquifers, and communities. This directly affects the health and lives of those who are producing clothes and live near said factories. Water may contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. These are extremely harmful to aquatic life and the health of the millions of people who rely on the water sources. The industry is also a main producer of carbon emissions. Currently, the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon emissions. An example of the environmental harm can be seen through the River Ganga which flows from Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal in Northern India. It provides water to nearly half a billion people, more than any other river in the world. However, it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Many of this pollution comes from tanneries, which are factories where leather is processed and dyed. Kanpur, one of the cities surrounded by the river, is a major tanning city with over 400 tanneries. Toxic dyes are abundantly released into the river, which impacts wildlife and drinking water.
There are many societal consequences of fast fashion as well. Many people working in these factories suffer from deplorable working conditions and struggle to make a livable wage. Most workers working in the industry work in what is called the “informal economy”, which is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government. Therefore, many workers face difficulties in making a living. Garment workers, primarily women, in Bangladesh make about $96 per month. The government’s wage board suggested that a garment worker needs 3.5 times that amount to live a “decent life with basic facilities.” As the workers are protected by no legal frameworks, workers are also vulnerable to human rights violations. Many young children are forced to work to support their families. According to the non-profit Remake, 75 million people are making our clothes today, and 80 percent of apparel is made by young women ages 18 to 24. Unsanitary and unsafe working conditions can lead to fatal consequences. For instance, the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. The day before the collapse of the clothing factory, large structural cracks were found. Yet, the concerns were ignored and the workers were required to return to work the next day. Unfortunately, the accident killed 1,134 people.
What is being done to create a more sustainable garment industry?
New textile innovations are being made which can help reduce toxic waste during production. Fast fashion brands such as H&M and Walmart are taking notice and have started programs that are helping to change the textile industry for the better. Some fabric is beginning to be made to be biodegradable by using algae, crop waste, and fungi. Companies including Levi’s and The North Face have also begun “Take Back” programs where customers can give back their unwanted products to be resold or to be recycled into new material. Some stores may even offer a store discount or promotion for take backs.
On the consumer level, we as customers can do our part to help this issue. Buying less and wearing more, we can support influential change in the industry. By extending the life of our clothing, we can decrease the demand for fast fashion. Doing this will also save more carbon, water, and waste. Additionally, we can figure out where our clothing comes from. We can look at the tags of our clothing and determine what they are made of and where their factories are located. This way we can ensure our clothing was made up to our environmental, social, and ethical standards. If possible, buy from “slow fashion” brands; slow fashion is simply the opposite of fast fashion and advocates for manufacturing considering people, the environment, and animals.
Some slow fashion brands you may be interested in:
Reformation: Feminine pieces like blouses, sandals, etc, made of renewable plant fibres. The brand also focuses on repurposing vintage clothes and maintaining green business-certified retail stores and warehouses.
PACT: Soft, comfy clothing, pyjamas, underwear. All cotton garments from this brand are certified organic. They are also Fair Trade Certified, which ensures ethical factors like proper wages and working conditions are met.
Although the switch to sustainable fashion will not be easy, it is a change that must be made.
Edited by Jack Hillis