Why I Ditched Fast-Fashion and How You Can Too
To be frank, a part of me always knew fast-fashion had a downside but I never put in the time to really learn about it so it was easy to tell myself “it can’t be that bad...” I don’t know if that’s because this was all happening on a subconscious level or maybe I was afraid to give up the convenience of shopping at places like H&M, Zara, or Forever 21 once I knew the truth about the fast-fashion industry.
It’s cheap and disposable. Two words that justified my frequent shopping habit and treating my clothes like they were just that; cheap and disposable. Because guess what? I could replace that sweater just as quickly as I ruined it in the wash cycle and I wouldn’t batt an eye at spending another $20 on something BRAND NEW!
But those two words are the same two that now haunt me! They encapsulate everything that is wrong with the fashion industry.
Fast fashion is mass-produced clothing, made cheaply and inexpensively, to stay on top of current trends. The problem is with the rise of fast-fashion trends are changing more rapidly than ever!
Where there was once four seasons a year, there are now as many as 52. Every week new trends are released, each one meant to make you feel like you are falling behind the ‘fashion game’ if you don’t participate. But of course, the only way you could possibly stay on top of these trends is if they’re accessible ($$). And to make the latest fashions accessible manufacturers have cheapened the quality of clothing to make it inexpensive and pump it out quickly.
The crazy thing is, we didn’t wake up one day thinking I need to go on a shopping spree to buy new outfits for the week. This idea was introduced to us by the fashion industry that sold us the ideal that we are better with more. Advertisers have been incredibly successful at tying our happiness to ‘stuff’ by making us believe we are less-than or not good enough without product X, Y, or Z.
This system has lead to a shocking myriad of ethical and environmental issues.
The Human Impact
The problem at it’s core is that the current system puts profit above everything else. From low-wages and worker safety to people beyond the factory lines fashion is literally killing.
Let’s start by understanding how this came to be using a story from earlier this year as an example. In June, a fast-fashion company called Missguided made headlines this year because they launched a £1 bikini. You read that right. That’s $1.64 CAD. That’s less than a basic coffee. You might be wondering “how is this possible?” Good question considering the material cost, shipping cost, labour cost, etc…
Essentially, the ‘western’ corporation sets the price they want to sell an item at. Since all these fast-fashion companies are all in competition with each other, and their business model is based off low cost, they each need to fight for the lowest price per garment. We obviously aren’t shopping their because our values align. So let’s paint this picture with the £1 bikini. Company A has a bikini they sell for £5 but company B wants their customers. Company B approaches the factory they outsource to and says “we want this bikini, but we want to sell it for £1.” The factory has to decide do they squeeze their prices even more or do they say no. If they say no, Company B will take their business to another garment factory that will meet their price demand and the factory will lose big business they cannot afford to lose. If they say yes, they have to find areas they can cut costs. In many cases the only financially viable option for the factory to stay afloat is to comply with the cost demand of Company B and cut corners in other areas.
What are those areas?
Worker safety. In 2013, an 8-story garment factory in Dhaka, India collapsed killing 1100 people and injuring hundreds more. Nearly half of the survivors remain out of employment because physical and mental injuries and trauma sustained. In the months, weeks, and days leading up to this disaster workers pointed out structural issues with the building including large foundation cracks in the walls. Nothing was done. No evacuations for inspections. No preventative action. This is not a unique incident, there have been several factory accidents including a garment factory fire in Karachi city, Pakistan killing 250 workers.
While huge accidents like this garner a lot of media attention there are other safety hazards that are not commonly reported on. For example, those ripped jeans you love are often created by a technique called sandblasting. Hundreds of sand particles are blasted on the jeans with a strong jet of air causing lung damage when proper safety gear is not worn. I don’t want to blanket statement say that this is the only way to achieve that look, there are obviously many other ways. However, this is one of the techniques used in fast-fashion garment factories because it’s efficient.
Low wages. I think that term is putting it generously. It’s more like ‘unliveable wages’. It’s easy for companies employing garment workers living in poverty-stricken populations to say “at least we give them jobs.” But that doesn’t not mean they aren’t exploiting these workers who have no choice but to work for any salary possible. In many manufacturing countries like China and Bangladesh, workers are being paid minimum wage. In western culture, minimum wage is the cost as which an individual can cover their basic needs such as food and housing. In manufacturing countries, minimum wage is less than half of their ‘living wage,’ meaning these garment workers aren’t even being paid 50% of what it takes to cover their (and their families) basic needs.
Clean Clothes Campaign released a report stating “no major clothing brand is able to show that workers making their clothing in Asia, Africa, Central America or Eastern Europe are paid enough to escape the poverty trap.” They surveyed 20 companies and all but one received the lowest possible grade in the report. Some of the companies in the report included: Adidas, Amazon, GAP, Fruit of the Loom, H&M, Hugo Boss, Levis, Nike, Puma, and Under Armour. The reality for factory workers with children is that they can’t afford to send their children to school. As a result, their children often begin working in the factory as well, from a very young age. Alternatively, if they have the option, some workers send their children to live with relatives elsewhere and see them only once or twice a year.
Modern Slavery. The fashion industry employs about 60 million people. The Global Slavery index reported that an estimated “40 million people are living in modern slavery today.” Of these 40 million, many are “working in the supply chains of western clothing brands.”
These workers often work 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, without overtime pay. If they don’t meet their unrealistic quotas they can face threats, and sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. Managers monitoring the workers prevent them from taking breaks, drinking water and using the toilet. Women are regularly denied maternity leave. There is usually little to no ventilation in these unsafe buildings, meaning they are breathing in toxins and fibre dust all day, every day. For workers that live on site at the factories, their movement is restricted. Women, in particular, are often held captive without the ability to move freely in and out of the factory.
The Global Slavery Index found that Canada is one of 12 G20 countries that is not taking any action against modern slavery.
The fashion industry is a $406 billion industry. So next time you find yourself questioning why a t-shirt costs $50, instead wonder why that other t-shirt costs $5 and ask yourself #WhoMadeMyClothes?
The Environmental Impact
Microplastics, textile waste, and pollution are three of the biggest environmental factors at play in the fashion industry.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in length, that shed from our synthetic clothing such as polyester. Polyester is the most used fibre in today’s clothing production, resulting in half a million tonnes of microplastic being released from our clothes each year. When we wash our synthetic clothing these tiny fibres end up in our waterways, pollute our rivers, lakes, and oceans, and inevitably end up back on our plate through the stomachs of fish and seafood.
Pollution from the fashion industry happens in a variety of ways. One of the most notable streams of pollution is dye wastewater that gets dumped into rivers, polluting the groundwater rendering it undrinkable and ruining nearby farmland. In Kanpur, India more than 400 tanneries dump their toxic waste into the water which was found to turn up in cow’s milk and other agricultural products. In China, River Blue Documentary said “it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry.” The communities resting on these waterways rely on rivers as their source of drinking water, food, and bathing. Meanwhile, the contaminated water is causing serious illnesses like liver cancer, gastric and skin issues, and loss of sense of smell.
The emissions from textile production is another huge polluter, emitting 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Textile waste is more prominent now than ever. Around the world, 80 billion new pieces of clothing are consumed annually. That is a 400% increase over our textile consumption just 20 years ago. Instead of keeping the items we buy, these pieces now face a turnaround time of under a year from being purchased to ending up in landfill. Around the globe, every second, one truckload of clothing is disposed of.
So What’s the alternative to fast-fashion?
To change our addiction to fast-fashion we need to first re-orient our thinking. We need to take ourselves off consumer auto-pilot and take responsibility for our purchasing habits. We need to demand transparency and ask questions like #WhoMadeMyClothes?
We need to challenge the system and not buy into the ever-changing trends. We need to invest in quality over quantity. We need to pay attention to the materials our clothes are made of and choose natural fibres like organic cotton, linen, modal, bamboo, hemp, wool, alpaca, and silk. And we need to avoid synthetic (plastic) materials like nylon, poly-cotton, polyester, and rayon. We need to use what we have, repair what’s broken, borrow and swap before buying new, and shop second-hand or support sustainable brands.
Three questions to ask yourself when you’re about to buy new clothing…
Do I need this? If you do, is it something you can borrow, trade, make, or purchase second hand?
Is it a screaming yes? Sometimes it’s not always about what you need but what you want and that’s okay too!
Can I make at least five outfits from it?
For tips on how to participate and celebrate #SlowFashionOctober click here.