The Chaotic Truth of the Fashion Industry

Culture

The average person buys 60% more clothing than back in 2000.

97% of the clothing is made overseas.

3781 liters of water are needed to make a pair of jeans.

10% of carbon emissions are from the fashion industry.

Albeit shocking, these facts have not been enough to shock the world into realisation that the fashion industry has always been very toxic for the planet. In fact, fashion has only increased in demand as the phrase 'fast fashion' is currently dominating the business, offering trendy clothing at an accelerated rate. Is there more to this trillion-dollar industry than consumers are led to believe?

What is Fast Fashion?

This phrase describes the production of fast and cheap clothing- emphasis on fast and cheap- in order to meet the demand of consumers who are inclined to purchase more as a result of soaring manufacturing rates. 'Previously set at four times a year, new seasons now arrive every week as a reminder than couture is progressive and must be kept up with- or one risks the embarrassment of a lack of style. The phrase is now at the disposal of retailers who take advantage of low-cost labour and young shoppers, susceptible to the sly charms of advertisement.

A Brief History

Urbanisation in the late 19th-century triggered the transformation of markets into stores; so early on, industrialisation had built the path the fashion industry would take as spinning shifted towards garment making in factories.

20th-century Imperialism sought to magnify the success of high street shops, herding increasing wealth, luxuries, and goods from colonies into Britain. The end of World War II observed an expansion of mass-production, coinciding with the foundation of several popular fashion brands such as H&M and River Island, all focused on the availability of stylish, inexpensive, and affordable clothing.

Let's go back to the early 1990s: Zara opens its first branch in New York, accompanied by an article from the New York Times coining the phrase 'fast fashion' express the company's overwhelmingly rapid 2-week process- design, manufacture, deliver and sell. Other brands quickly followed suit, eager to satisfy the amplified interest in fashion by replicating the unaffordable upper-class style with cheaper materials.

The Downside to Fast Fashion

Dwindling prices were met with dwindling standards. With a potent focus on quantity, lack of quality and durability became a societal acceptance with consumers led to believe that the guarantee of more clothes meant a top that lost its colour after one wash could be overlooked. Now, as long as it arrives on your doorstep within the week, shoppers are unlikely to see fault in paying $6 for an article of clothing with loose buttons and threads.

However concerning the exploitation of consumers may be, there are other matters at hand that must be addressed.

  • Environmental Impact

Even by combining the carbon footprint of all international flights and all shipping, the annual emissions from textile production dominate with 1.2 billion tons of CO2. The industry's emissions are equal to almost the entirety of Europe and on track to monopolise over a quarter of the global carbon budget.

In 2016, WRAP estimated a 'water footprint of clothes used in just the UK was 8 billion cubic metres', dwarfed by the global footprint of 80 billion. While fibre production requires the greatest quantity of water, it is also necessary for dyeing, finishing, and washing clothes; the Ellen MacArthur Foundation noting that they dyeing of textiles contributes 20% of the global industrial water pollution. While a renewable resource, water is not unlimited; as a result of cataclysmic water consumption, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has been completely dried up, now referred to as the Aralkum Desert.

  • Exploitative Labour

Fast fashion is produced overseas with 80% of the workforce being women. The industry takes advantage of the patriarchal society developing countries, like Bangladesh, where women are considered inferior to men and thus, easier to control in large factories as they lack the means and support to join trade unions since they have domestic expectations which they must also meet outside of work.

Catastrophic poverty prompts millions of women to walk in the callous textile industry, coupled with the prejudices faced in other industries where women are unlikely to be hired. In Bangladesh, the legal minimum wage is $95, however, exploitative management pays sewing operators around $42 a month for over 13-hour working days- far too little to support an entire family.

Many factories closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving employees without pay for months and no way to feed their families or pay rent. Employers failed to notify workers they had lost their job when the factories reopened, causing unemployment to surge during the summer of 2020.

  • Health Hazards

Beyond the terrible financial incentives, the treatment of workers in these factories is appalling; the daily disregard for female employee's rights so horrendous that women workers face difficulties in speaking out about abuse in the workplace, despite 50% of Vietnamese factory workers having experienced some form of violence or maltreatment. It is likely the actual rate is significantly higher as women fear their complaints being discovered by their employers. Is it honorable to excuse the negligence of billion-dollar companies who place increased focus in the rate of production rather than employee well-being?

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 saw 1,134 lives lost along with thousands of casualties. Harrowing tales of survival were covered by the media, yet the action that ought to have taken place following the tragedy was not sufficient, almost 7 years later, many remain unaware of this incident and the dangers workers face in the fashion industry. Just one day before the accident, many lower floor shops closed to avoid the imminent destruction as large, structural cracks had been identified in the building. Although conscious of the risk, the upper-floor owners of the garment factory refrained from warning employees who were called in to work the following day. As the building collapsed, many were subjected to hours of entrapment under the rubble and machinery, waiting for rescue.

These events are not a rarity. The media hesitates at covering such stories as often as necessary because of the tremendous economic success that fast fashion delivers. In December of 2019, 43 people died in a fire that occurred at a factory in Delhi, India- the building was illegally used as a sweatshop factory and operated without a fire license. Since the dawn of fast fashion, these episodes have been overlooked, furthering the laxity of companies.

Change in the Face of Adversity

  • Consumer Responsibility

In response, young people have taken their own steps by purchasing second-hand clothing from thrift stores or online markets, such as Depop. Depop is an online fashion marketplace where shoppers of all ages can buy and sell new and used clothing for cheaper than in-store prices. Interest in 'vintage' clothing has spiked, causing many to turn to second-hand clothing while also refraining from purchasing fast fashion. In addition, a more resourceful method that has regained popularity is the refashioning or 'upcycling' of discarded textiles into new pieces, saving money as well as materials.

  • Garment Schemes

Outrage at the fast fashion industry has pushed brands into taking responsibility for the impact; a number of garment recovery initiatives have been created to encourage recycling with the provision of recycling baskets available in stores. In 2013, H&M introduces its own scheme, collecting almost 20,000 tonnes of textiles, by offering financial incentives for every bag of clothes donated. Zara, MAC, and Adidas are among many names who have also attempted to correct appease fast fashion critics.

  • Sustainable Fashion

Some have decided to take an alternate route, entirely dedicated to the eradication of fast fashion. While fast fashion describes cheaply-made, short-term clothing, sustainable fashion takes into account every aspect of the product, from production to durability and wear. Brands such as Reformation and Veja are looking to cut back on their water and chemical consumption, creating new designs that are longer-lasting and produced under conditions that meet the national Human Rights requirements. While some criticise the relatively high cost of sustainable fashion, the consumer is also paying for higher quality as well as assisting in environmental maintenance.

Levi's is one of the biggest names in denim; in 2011, the brand established the 'Water<Less' campaign, where they create jeans of the same quality yet astounding less water usage. Their website educated consumers regarding the campaign as well as how they can support the cause through simple ways- even how they should wash their denim.

  • Human Rights Campaigns

Many campaigns have been organised in support of vulnerable international workers in the fast fashion industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign is a global initiative dedicated to the improvement of working conditions for the 40 million garment workers. The campaign works to educate consumers as well as unite with trade unions and NGOs to cover important issues such as poverty and women's rights.

The website encourages people to take action by raising awareness and demanding brands listen to the pressing issues of the cause. There are opportunities to tweet brands to take the Transparency Pledge, a pledge which ensures companies will release the relevant information on all factories in the 'manufacturing phase', hence the word 'transparent'.

What Can I Do?

  • Think Outside the Box

Not everyone is prepared to redirect all of their expenditure on the financially straining 'sustainable fashion' route, but companies such as Depop, Vinted, and Asos MarketPlace are great places to start decreasing your affiliation with the fast fashion industry. These websites sell secondhand clothing from different styles to different decades and have even more variety than high street stores. Thrift stores also allow you to unleash creativity by exploring different styles which are high value and quality but at acceptable prices.

  • Less Is More

Rather than buying a new wardrobe at every collection release, attempt to increase the number of wears in an item of clothing- this saves money and also ensures you make the most of money you have already spent. According to WRAP’s Valuing Our Clothes report, a 9-month extension of the life of 50% of UK clothing saves 10% water and 8% carbon.

  • Research, Research, Research

Educate yourself about the impact of fast fashion; campaign websites will include information about their goals as well as how you may support them in achieving success and raising awareness. The Levi's website details exactly how they are trying to reduce water consumption and their future targets, in addition to ways you can save energy by controlling washing machine temperatures and how to increase wearability.

Society has become accustomed to settling for the minimum. That what doesn't affect you personally is not worth the time or concern. But there are families in Bangladesh and Vietnam starving in order to pay off debts, pay rent, and feed their families; meanwhile, consumers are pumping millions, billions, trillions into an undeserving industry. You cannot wait for someone to make change on your behalf- you must get up and make a change yourself.

You are not required to change the world, but at least attempt to understand how it works.

WRAP UK- Our Vision

LEVI'S LET'S MAKE THINGS BETTER

SUSTAINABLE FASHION BRANDS

CLEAN CLOTHES CAMPAIGN

GREENPEACE INTERNATIONAL

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Reem Hassan

If one is to be anything, then why not be great? If not that, then at least achieve something that embodies a distinct amount of greatness.


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