By Natalee Long

Fast fashion has quickly become the standard in the fashion industry. With styles and seasons changing almost weekly, clothing companies are in need of fast production at low cost to fill their racks with products and their pockets with money. This, however, has major implications for the men and women who are in the factories producing the clothing, the environment, and for the quality of the clothing sold to consumers. 

Within the fast fashion industry the life cycle of a piece of clothing is often: “product design, fiber production, fabric manufacturing, cutting and tailoring (including finishing), transport, storage and sales, to use and reuse by consumers, and finally to either textile recycling, or waste generation and subsequent landfill or incineration” according to “The Life of Our Clothes” published by Green Strategy. But what are the risks involved with the production of clothing that will inevitably become a part of this cycle?

Many major companies are only able to produce products at such a fast pace by relying on outsourcing to less developed nations around the world. According to Pankaj Tuteja, author of “The Top 4 Garment Manufacturing Countries” published on Linkedin.com, the top four manufacturers of clothing for exporting are: Bangladesh, India, China, and Vietnam. 

In these countries, the workers are often underpaid, working in harsh and dangerous conditions, and face mistreatment and sexual assault by their bosses as a form of intimidation. Workers in Bangladesh made an average of $96 a month as of 2018, according to an article by The Fashion Law. Yet, the workers, mostly women, according to the World Resource Institute, have little choice but to continue to work in the factories. Many of the women have few options for other work to support their families. Due to the poverty that plagues many of these nations, those living in the overpopulated impoverished neighborhoods are often forced to drop out of school during childhood to help support their families. Some parents are even forced to take their children to work with them because of a lack of child care or places for education. 

For children exposed to the production of textiles, the health risks of being near the chemicals used can be serious. According to Sarah Boseley in the article “Child labourers exposed to toxic chemicals dying before 50, WHO says” published for The Guardian, workers in textile factories are exposed to chemicals like formaldehyde and sulphuric acid and many more that can cause medical conditions like chronic lung and skin diseases. Further, Boseley shared that the clinics operating in the area of the factories are often only open a few days a week during the same time that employees of the factories are expected to be at work; thus, they are unable to get the medical treatment that would help them battle the diseases and other injuries caused by their work. Moreover, exposure to these chemicals is not limited to the workers in the factories. The surrounding areas are affected through air and water pollution from the use of these dangerous chemicals, as well.  

Fast Fashion also has major effects on our environment. From the fields in which the cotton and other natural textile materials are grown to the massive amount of clothing that is sent to landfills each day, the fashion industry is leaving a large footprint across the globe. 

According to “How Your T-Shirt Can Make a Difference,” published by National Geographic, it takes nearly 2,700 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make one cotton T-Shirt. This is equivalent to the amount of water that the average person drinks over almost two and a half years. Water has become a precious resource to those in developing nations in a way that those of us living in countries like the U.S., Canada, and European countries are not faced with. National Geographic stated in the video that 97% of the water on Earth is salt water, almost two percent is frozen in ice and snow, and 70% of the one percent that we have access to is used to grow crops. This leaves only 0.3% of the Earth’s water supply accessible for our uses. This water is not just for drinking either; 40 gallons of water are used per one average sized load of laundry. 

Further, our environment is constantly being bombarded with discarded clothing items that are transferred to landfills or incinerated. The project Close the Loop, launched by the Flanders DC For Fashion organization, estimates that it takes up to 200 years for non-biodegradable textiles to breakdown in our landfills. Meaning it would take up to a total of 525,000 years for each article in one garbage truck load to degrade. 

Despite the long life of the non-biodegradable clothing, the quality of the clothing produced and sold has declined since the fast fashion trend began. Clothing has begun to be made from less sustainable materials and with less care since the companies from which they are sold need their products as quickly as possible. For consumers, this means they will be buying new clothing not just to continue to be trendy but to replace garments that quickly show wear and tear. Even before the clothing leaves the store, there are often holes marring the product. According to Jennifer Back in the study “Sustainable and Ethical Practices for the Fast Fashion Industry,” :“Participants stated that the mannequins and displays were changed every few weeks and that their company was trying to branch out to men’s and plus size sections. Clothing quality was observed as being so poor that when people tried on items, the items would often be found with tears in the dressing room because the material ‘never felt like it was built to last.’”

With all of these issues stacked against the fast fashion industry, why it is that the vast majority of people continue to shop in stores that carry brands who support this type of unethical clothing production? Despite many calls for reform from companies that are major offenders of unethical practices, little has changed within the bigger picture. With low prices, easy accessibility, and numerous options, these companies continue to draw in consumers. However, we can all do our part by shopping more ethically, whether it be by buying all clothing or just a few key garments, every little bit helps. 

If you don’t know where to start, here are a few popular ethical clothing brands:

  1. Everlane
  2. IKKIVI
  3. Thread 4 Thought

2 Comments

  1. I really appreciate Natalee’s topic and article. I do question her source of the National Geographic article water required to grow cotton for a t-shirt quoted from National Geographic being 2700 liters (approximately 713 gallons). If you look at another trusted source, the CA Cotton Ginners & Growers Associative, their experience has shown that It only requires about 257 gallons (approximately 971 liters) of water to grow enough cotton for a t-shirt. This is about 2/3 less than the NG quoted amount. Historically, I have found that citing only NG in a paper as a trusted source does not provide a balanced picture of the topic about which I am writing. But this in no way diminishes the importance of this topic, and that it is fantastic that you are bringing this conversation into the light for discussion and awareness. Great job!
    https://ccgga.org/cotton-information/cotton-facts/

  2. I like to buy classic style that are basic for many occasions and many years. Generally shop at high dollar stores, but they last forever, fit right, look appropriate all the time. Don’t have to shop very often–a couple new things for summer, a few new things for winter to fill in the preceeding year’s clothes. It’s an option.

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