The Human Cost of Fast Fashion

We all know the effects the fashion industry has on the environment, being one of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet, creating 8% of the global climate impact and 1.2 billion tons of CO2 annually and being the second largest water polluter in the world. One of the biggest contributors to this is fast fashion, with the constant need for garments to be produced cheaply to maximise profits for large companies. Whilst the environmental impacts are dire, the human costs are often overlooked. When a company sells a t-shirt for $10, how much are the workers who made the clothes getting paid? When you add in costs for fabrics and trims, shipping, packaging and then overheads like rent, electricity, water etc., there is little room left to pay the garment makers. Apart from poverty wages, workers are forced to work long hours with forced overtime, unsafe work conditions, they are subject to sexual/physical/verbal abuse and workers unions are prohibited. The industry is built on exploitation of people (80% women) in poorer countries with a lack of transparency that would allow holding brands accountable.

How bad is it?

The main countries producing clothing are China, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia and Indonesia. Brands reassure customers that their workers in these countries are paid minimum wages. This assuages a bit of guilt on the customer’s behalf, but in reality, the minimum wage is nowhere near the actual living wage in these countries. In fact it is half to a fifth of the living wage required for food, rent, healthcare and education. When garment workers are already working long hours to meet pitiful wages (14-16 hours a day), they work overtime to make that little extra money to survive. This is in the case they have the choice in working overtime (if you can call working just to cover your basic human needs a choice). Often during peak seasons, they will have no choice in working to 3am just to meet the demands of insatiable brands, churning out garment after garment.

Rana Plaza collapse

In terms of the actual conditions of factories, they are abysmal. Workers breathe in toxic substances with no ventilation, inhale in fibre dust in unsafe buildings where accidents, fires, injuries and disease are prevalent. This was brought to the world’s attention by the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. This building housed many factories manufacturing garments for fast fashion companies, mid range and luxury brands. The collapse resulted in the deaths of 1134 garment workers and injured thousands more, caused by unapproved construction and the use of the space as industrial rather than a commercial space. This prompted many brands to promise greater transparency and accountability. However this often accounts to very little as these brands are driven purely by profit so any expenditure will be limited. Also, they don’t own the factories, meaning it falls on local governments to police. With few inspectors available and the potential of corruption of officials, the standards are still shocking. If workers are to raise an issue, they are often face reprisals. Collectively, unions are not allowed in many areas due to government restrictions and for those who are members of a union, they are targeted and often physically assaulted or fired.

Another troubling aspect of the garment industry is the use of forced labour. In this day of age, it would be easy to think that it is a thing of the past. This is not the case. In China, interned Uygur people are forced to work in the cotton industry, helping produce textiles for many international brands. It also happens in Uzbekistan where the government forces over a million people to leave their jobs and go pick cotton. Child labour isn’t a thing of the past either. As the fashion industry is a low skilled industry, hundreds of thousands of young girls are worked in the textile industry for a small wage and lump sum to be used by their families as dowry in South India. This modern day slavery sees the girls living in horrific conditions and overworked.

Has Covid affected the industry?

The sad news is that the global pandemic has significantly impacted the fashion industry. With little consumer spending and retailers shut, fast fashion brands have cancelled orders with suppliers and refused to pay for completed orders. Brands have effectively pushed the costs of the pandemic on to suppliers which directly effects the garments workers. With no income, the suppliers face financial ruin with no means to pay workers during the shutdown and after reopening. The fact that the majority of garment workers are classified as temporary workers, they have no right to benefits. This has left millions facing unemployment, hunger and destitution.

For those lucky enough to be working during the pandemic, there has been little regard to the ongoing health and safety needs of the worker. Protective gear has been limited with little social distancing, putting the lives of garment workers at risk. Further, by paying workers per piece rather than an hourly/weekly rate, workers are abandoning precautions and health and safety measures designed to protect them, to speed up the production process. Sadly, these practices are not limited to well known garment manufacturing countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Cambodia and Indonesia. In Leicester in the UK, a factory producing garments for Boohoo has been found to be paying below minimum wage and not providing masks for its workers. In Los Angeles in the US, LA Apparel who switched from making fashion garments to masks for the government, was found to have inadequate social distancing, using cardboard as physical barriers between workers and not translating health precautions in to Spanish, the first language of the majority of its workers. This has resulted in 300 cases of Covid at the factories and 4 deaths.

The way the fashion industry (specifically the fast fashion industry) operates is unsustainable and inequitable to its worker. The mentality of consumerism and speed of consumption in fast fashion is flawed and unhealthy for everyone involved. Major changes are needed to the industry from the brands at the top, government, factories and customers. We must accept that we cannot buy cheap disposable items without thinking where it comes from, who made it and what conditions they are made. Fast fashion is bad for the environment and its workers. Yes more brands (including fast fashion brands) are becoming more accountable and transparent with their supply chains, but until you as a consumer are willing to pay more for your garment, the quality of life of garment workers will not improve.

How Can You Help

There are ways you can avoid the vicious fast fashion cycle whilst still supporting garment workers. Ask questions of your brands about manufacturing and their workers. Many brands do operate ethically within these well known manufacturing countries so there is no need to boycott clothes made overseas all together. Do not buy in to the fast fashion cycle (some brands have up to 52 cycles per year) and covet the latest trend. Your insatiable appetite just feeds in to the vicious cycle of fast production, putting pressure on workers. Invest in well made, timeless pieces that will not date and stand the test of time. A wardrobe of well made items will serve you much better than a collection of dated pieces not made for long term use.

Another option that has gained traction amongst fashionistas and celebrities recently is to recycle your clothing. Hold on to beautiful pieces and reuse them. Sure this requires a bit of hoarding but fashion is cyclical; everything comes in and out over the years. Look at it as creating the new vintage which you’ll use in the future. You’ll have a diverse, interesting and unique wardrobe, unlike anyone else. Vintage and consignment stores are also an ethical way to shop. They have little impact on the environment and no one has been subjected to poor working conditions to produce them (currently that is. Historically is unclear but the clothing and items at vintage and consignment stores tends to be better quality items made in better conditions, especially designer gear).

Finally, hiring clothes allows you to have access on trend items with a smaller effect on both the environment and without adverse effects on garment workers struggling to keep up with the demands of the fast fashion industry. At The Volte, you can hire everything from dresses, clothing, shoes, accessories and handbags, all well made designer pieces that fall outside the vicious fast fashion cycle that contributes to the poor quality of life of garment workers. Yes, some brands are manufactured overseas in well known manufacturing countries, but many of these brands have transparent supply chains with a commitment to ethical manufacturing. You can access the latest trends for a fraction of the retail price without the guilt in knowing that workers have been exploited. What’s not to love?



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