A Look Into the Reality of the Harm Caused by the New and Upcoming Fast Fashion World
It’s a perfectly sunny day, a light breeze is blowing against your skin as you sip on that iced vanilla latte. It’s an ideal day for a shopping trip. You wander from one shop to the next, checking out the latest arrivals because storefronts constantly change to keep up with new trends. You sift through the consistent new plethora of clothes to add to your wardrobe. It makes shopping more fun and it’s not hurting anything but your bank account, right? Wrong.
This cycle is known as fast fashion and it’s destroying our planet and harming the well being of those making the clothing in the first place. Starting in the 1960s, Americans began valuing cheaper products to keep up with trends which launched the speed of production. Fast forward to the early 2000s, where fast fashion really picked up. Lead by companies like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 it has become acceptable and chic to flaunt new styles and switch out old clothes for new clothes at a quick rate to keep up with fast moving trends. It’s satisfying to walk out of a store with bags full of clothing even if they are of lesser quality but cost the same as one well- made product.
We love this cycle, it makes us feel good, trendy, and stylish, but what we overlook is the trauma it’s causing our planet and our people.
Since the early 2000s, we have been consuming significantly higher amounts of clothing. According to a fact sheet published by Greenpeace, the average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long compared to 15 years ago. We don’t think about where our clothes are going once we deem them unstylish or unwearable.
To keep our clothing cheaper and moving faster, the majority of companies make their clothing overseas with a concentration in Southeast Asia. Little do we ponder our clothing’s journey from start to finish and its transportation across the pond. In reality, clothing is shipped on many of our worlds 9000 container ships. These ships are used to exchange and transport goods. Consequently, they are one of our planet’s biggest polluters, Just one out of the 9000 container ships produces as many pollutants as 50 million cars in just one year of travel. The fuel that powers these ships is 1000 times dirtier more destructive than the diesel used in transporting the clothes once they arrive in the states. Not only do new shipments of clothes arrive multiple times a month on these ships, but they hitch a ride back when we reuse and recycle them. When we donate our clothes to second hand stores, the clothes that don’t sell are shipped back overseas to be sold to other countries; and when they are worn out beyond repair, they finally become waste. As clothes are being made faster and faster to keep up with trends, they are made so cheaply that they won’t last very long, meaning that the back and forth journeys across the ocean have become much more frequent and the journeys alone are polluting our oceans to a great extent.
The second devastating effect of fast fashion is causing those who are making our clothing in the first place. Consumers are demanding new products at a cheaper cost and higher speed. To keep up, workers in factories across the world are forced to crank out a significantly higher amount of products than they used to. This is resulting in poor treatment and bad working conditions for those who are making the clothing. To keep clothing costs low, companies have resorted to moving overseas to areas where they can pay extremely low wages. According to The True Cost, 97% of clothing items imported into the US are made overseas, resulting in consumers feeling less and less connected to those who are making their clothes. A staggering 40 million people, 85% of them being women, are glanced over and not even given a thought even though their hands have touched the items we covet and spend our money on. Mistreatment of this large group of people runs anywhere from low wages, poor working conditions, long hours with unpaid overtime, and abuse. While examples of worker mistreatment ranges across the board, there are a number of extreme examples, one of them being the Rana Plaza building collapse.
On April 24th, 2013, factory workers arrived to work in Bangladesh to see large cracks in the buildings walls. They did not want to go into work but were told they would be withheld one month’s salary if they refused. Later that day, the building collapsed, tragically killing over 1,120 people and injuring approximately 2,500. The building crumbled and collapsed for a number of reasons. The building had been built without authorization, on a pond with the intent for office buildings and shops but was soon converted for factory usage. Additionally, four extra floors were built on top of the building with no permit. Many believe that the reason managers forced their workers to go back into the building was because of the high demand to churn out orders of clothes to send back to retailers, which brings us back to the problem with such a quick turnaround of clothes.
Fast fashion retailers used to put out new clothes in two or four seasons, giving ample time for the clothing to go from design, to production, to display. Because companies have been fast tracking the system, clothes can now go from design to production to storefront in as little as two weeks.
The fast fashion system is still young and developing. There is still time for change and reform, but companies and consumers have chosen to look the other way and ignore what it is doing to our planet and the people involved.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Sydney Borel, who has worked with organizations fighting for sweatshop workers around the world, Parker Clay, The Freedom Story, United Students Against Sweatshops, and has spent her life dedicated to understanding the issues of human trafficking and what can be done to reach positive change. She spoke greatly about the disaster that is fast fashion and how it pains her heart when she sees the reality of the harm it’s causing. Although it feels like there is no hope and the problem is too big, Sydney encouraged me by showing me ways that I can personally support change and influence the companies contributing to it. Sydney reminded me that we cannot simply throw up our hands because the problem seems to big.
“I believe that even though the producer should be responsible for their actions the customer is responsible as well. We can’t just buy clothes and not care where they came from. A human being made our products the clothes that we are wearing, what we are talking about, and the styles we love. We have a responsibility to care about the human behind our product.”
Even though It feels like any purchase made is wrong and causing harm, I was encouraged knowing that there are alternatives. There are still ways to love clothing and consume it well while making positive change.
“Inform yourself. Do some research. Take it upon yourself to think about the person behind your product. If you have a favorite company research them. You may find that they’re involved in some shady business or you may find that they have a new initiative to fix themselves, and applaud them for that.”
There is hope in this broken system and there are ways to consume products while doing good. Stay tuned for part two of this article where we’ll dive deeper into tangible ways to make purchases considering the environmental impact and the person behind your product.