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How did the clothing industry get to the point of being able to produce fast & cheap? The fast-fashion impact goes far beyond profits… discover what’s the real deal of the world’s second-largest polluter.
Fashion goes fast. 50 years ago women had only two dresses. Today there is no more such as 4 seasons. In the western world, there are 52 seasons in fashion; one season for each week of the year.
But have we ever thought about the real impact of the fashion industry? Who produces them and how? How connected are we really to other humans in regards to clothing?
Fashion brands want consumers to buy as much clothing as quickly as possible. The reality is that you go shopping one week and the following one you are already out of date, as there will be something new in the shops again. From the consumers’ perspective, we can easily have a wardrobe full of clothes and still feel like you have anything to wear.
So what is fashion? It is the concept that you should throw clothes away not when they are no longer usable, but when no longer has the social value or is no longer fashionable.
Brands can offer cheap clothing, which allows us to throw away clothes without thinking about the consequences. As well, the fast fashion industry makes us believe we are wealthy or rich because we can buy a lot, by getting a $5 t-shirt or a $20 pair of jeans.
How is the clothing industry able to produce fast and cheap fashion?
The first reason is that we no longer produce our clothing in Europe or the United States. While in the 60’s the US was still making 95% of the clothes, today the number has dropped to only 3%. The remaining 97% of outsourcing is going to developing countries around the world. (Source: True Cost Documentary)
Multinational companies arrive in countries such as India, China or Cambodia, where the workforce is already very cheap. Then, they ask local businesses and factories to get even cheaper production so they can offer more competent prices.
Here’s an example: Brand X sells their T-shirts for $5, but the brand Y sells them for $4; so, brand X will come next and say “Hey, brand Y is selling them for $4, we need them cheaper”. The business owners in underdeveloped countries are always finding themselves in the situation of squeezing their prices.
If the country doesn’t accept these terms, they are risking the industry to leave and be poorer. Underdeveloped countries want the business so badly there’s no other option.
The disasters of the Fast Fashion industry
Also, local businesses have to cut corners in management and safety to reach the requested threshold, which has lead disasters such as the one happened in 2013 in Rana Plaza (Bangladesh, India).
Over 1,129 people died. A long time before this disaster occurred, some workers had pointed out to their managers that there were cracks in the building. Yet they were still were forced to go back inside to work. This is without a doubt the worst garment industry disaster ever.
However, there’s been few more such as Ali Enterprises, with 289 dead. Or Tazreem Fashion factory, where 112 more people died. It seems that working under these conditions has become something accepted and common in underdeveloped countries.
The reaction of the fashion multinationals?
Fashion industries and entrepreneurs defend this situation with arguments such as: “sewing is not a dangerous job,” or “at least they have a job”, or “the jobs Americans and Europeans are offering to people in underdeveloped countries are a much better option than the alternatives available in their own country.”
So the factory disasters, low wages, children, and worker exploitation… These are ok to forgive, just because of the jobs multinationals create for people with no other options than sewing the clothes. Again, those who are the most vulnerable are also the worse paid.
Fashion, a $1.7 Trillion industry
“One of the biggest and most profitable industries in the world, why is it that it’s not able to guarantee their safety, which is an essential human right?” Lucy Siegle, The True Cost
Fast fashion wants to produce fast, so the garment worker has to do it quicker and cheaper; their job is vital for this industry to exist. But the employee is the only point of the supplying chain where brands squeeze their margins.
The city of Phom Denh in Cambodia sadly became famous because of the protests occurred in 2014. While they were claiming a minimum wage of 160$/month (Cambodians considering this to live with dignity!), multiple police attacks happened to stop them and converting the place in a battleground for days: 5 killed worker, 24 people arrested, and over 40 injured.
The Government and the population are desperate for the work that multinational retailers bring. Because of the constant threat from the large corporations of taking all the production to other low-cost countries, the Governments hold down the wages consistently (which will ultimately avoid the enforcement of local labor laws).
Who is making the laws in the underdeveloped countries?
Barbara Briggs, director of the Institute for Labour Rights, explains during her interview in The True Cost documentary:
“If you contact any of those companies they will send you their code of conduct. And it is beautiful: it says “oh yes, we take responsibility for the conditions under which our product is made. The product that you buy, all the factories where we produce, we require them to respect the minimum wage laws, to respect women, to not hire children, no forced labour, no excessive overtime hours”.
“But when a few years ago we submitted a proposal to Congress named The descent working conditions and fair competition act, the companies responded in one voice: “Oh, no! That would be an impediment to fair trade; we can’t have these rules”. They have fought (and WON) for the law that allows them to keep everything in voluntary codes of conduct, which only protects companies’ interests.”
To make it easy to understand, the brands don’t officially employ the workers neither, and they neither own any of the factories in which they produce. The outcome for these companies is that they can profit hugely, all while remaining free of responsibility and the consequences of poverty wages, factory disasters and the on-going violent treatment of co-workers.
The Fast Fashion Impact
The Fast Fashion impact is HUGE. Around 40 million people are working at the garment factory, from which 4 million people are located in Bangladesh. Here, more than 5,000 factories produce for western brands.
Also, over 85% are women, with a minimum wage of $3/day (the lowest paid garment workers in the world). One every six people in the world today work in the global fashion industry making it the most labor-dependant industry on Earth.
Workers should be rewarded instead of exploited
Without human capital, cheap labor, cheap female labor, the fashion industry would be far off generating such large profits.
Tansy Hoskins – author of “Stitched-up,” reckons that:
“Fashion retailers don’t go to Bangladesh for any other reason than pushing wages down and getting the cheapest labour as possible. In Bangladesh, there’s no such as collective rights, no trade union, very low minimum wage, no maternity benefits, no pensions. That’s why the Fashion Industry is in Bangladesh.”
What’s the true cost of fast fashion on the Earth?
We purchase over 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year.
We buy a 400% more than two decades ago.
Only Americans throw the rubbish 82 pounds of textile waste each year. Massive amount regarding that 11 million each year of textile waste is from the U.S.A only.
Most of this waste is non-biodegradable sitting in the landfill for 200 years or more, releasing harmful gases into the air.
But to what other consequences is the fast fashion industry-leading? Are we accounting for the costs clothes have in the use of resources such as water, land, chemicals, or gas emissions?
Now we move to Texas, in the USA. Here there are fields of over 3,6 million acres, forming the most significant cotton patch in the world. In the past 10 years, 80% have turned out to be GMO (Genetically Modified) cotton.
As well, the farms instead of spot spraying the weed occasionally, or hiring laborers to walk the field and eliminate the weeds, they are now spraying the whole fields. There’s no natural growth of the plant, but the land becomes a factory: treating all the acres the same, putting a dose of chemicals on it all.
This is an intensification of agriculture, and what kind of impact is that having on our soil? What kind of impact is that having on our people, in our communities?
Fertilizers or pesticides are equal to ecological narcotics. The more fertilizers you use, the more you need to use them. This is equal to soil contamination.
And the effects of these chemicals on humans’ health?
Dr Priptal Sing, director Faridkot Center India, mentions in the True Cost Documentary that studies show there’s a dramatic rise in congenital disabilities, cancers and mental illness.
“Between 70 to 80 kids in every village, such as Punjab, they found severe mental retardation and physical handicaps. And mothers and families are patiently waiting for their children to die, as they cannot afford a treatment either”.
The fertilizers and pesticide companies are utterly refusing this being a consequence of the use of their products. In fact, the businesses that are doing GMO seeds are the same one that is doing the chemicals, as well as the medicines they are now patenting.
“So you get cancer, there are more profits. For them it’s a win win win win…” Vandana Shiva, Environmental Activist.
People of the towns, farmers and poor people just loose. Then it comes the day where they cannot afford the debts for purchasing the expensive GMO seeds, and the company goes to the farmer and claims the land in exchange. “That day the farmer will go into his field, drink a bottle of pesticide and end his life,” tells Vandana Shiva.
In the past 16 years, there have been recorded over 250,000 farmer suicides in India. That’s about 1 farmer every 30 minutes, the most extensive record of suicides in history.
But there’s more. Other consequences are the contamination of rivers. In Kanpur, India (the most prominent export capital), the river Ganga (the holiest river, important for 800 million Hindus) is contaminated with Chromium, a component that attacks the liver directly, making the water not drinkable.
But the vegetables are produced with contaminated water. We need to step back and think about it.
Donating clothes to charity doesn’t solve excess of fashion. It turns out that only 10% of donated clothes get sold. If the charity cannot sell them, they pack and ship them to third countries. Most of them end up in Haiti, which has caused their clothing industry to disappear.
We cannot afford to keep ignoring others’ peoples’ lives, social injustices and environmental destruction. Shall we share the benefits of the industry globally?
A positive fact is that there is a considerable amount of brands emerging to work towards sustainable and ethical fashion, which hopefully will lead to creating the change the world needs.
If you want to learn more about this, we highly recommend you to watch the True Cost movie available on Netflix, which has inspired us to take action to inform all the consumers about the reality behind the fast fashion industry.
Also, there are heaps of alternatives on more sustainable fashion brands find them all here.
What positive changes are you making to be more sustainable in fashion?
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