In recent years, a new trend has emerged. Capitalizing on the meteoric success of high fashion and the rise to notoriety of brands like GUcci, Louis Vuitton, and Balenciaga, fast fashion emerged. The term ‘fast fashion’ is used to describe the business model of brands such as Zara, H&M, and Topshop. They are characterized by the rapid release of clothing, often times blatantly plagiarizing high fashion brands. The goal is to deliver a luxury fashion experience without the luxury price, and it has had massive success. Globally, an estimated 106 billion garments are bought each year, (Common Objective), up 60% from 2000(McFall-Johnsen), and brands have made massive profits. (Media) This raises the question, how are brands like Zara and H&M able to deliver a new collection of clothes every week at such a low cost?
The answer is clear: lowering the cost of production. An analysis of wages in textile factories reveals a disturbing pattern. A factory owned by Ali Enterprises paid their 1500 workers anywhere between $52-$104 per month, while Ali Enterprises profited upwards of $50 million. Those who work in the garment industry are paid a starving wage and have virtually no upward mobility, trapping them in poverty, while those in positions of power profit immensely. The only way for fast fashion brands to sustain their business model is to lower production cost, and the means through which they have pushed down the production cost have resulted in egregious human rights abuses. According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 170 million children are engaged in a form of child labour, 6 million of them being forced into said labour. In India, 60% of workers at mills were under 18. (Moulds, labs.guardian) Conditions in the United Kingdom have been described by the National Crime Agency as “modern day slavery” and “truly appalling” (Busby 2020). The industry wide need for expediency has prioritized profit to the extent that even maintenance of the factory has been neglected. In September 2012, two factories caught on fire on the same day in Pakistan, killing 300 people. (Hobson 2013) In Bangladesh in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed and killed 1,100, and injured thousands more (Thomas 2018). Conditions in the Rana Plaza factory are deplorable. The minimum wage is 32 cents per hour.
The fashion industry also poses an immense threat to the health of our environment. The industry is responsible for 10% of all global carbon emissions (Mcfall-Johnsen), and is notorious for a harmful textile production process. According to a study done through the Manchester Metropolitan University, 40% of dyes used in the clothing manufacturing process contain carcinogens. In addition, heavy metals common in factory wastewater are known to accumulate in the body and in the area surrounding the textile factory. The sum of these pollutants has been found to damage respiration, osmoregulation, and reproduction. (Kahn et al.) The damage starts even before the textile production, however. To increase crop yield, cotton farmers often have to use toxic pesticides, which seep into water supplies, and subsequently have been linked to birth defects and brain tumors (Perry 2018)
In addition, the fast fashion industry has created a massive waste management issue. Clothes are typically either thrown away or donated to second-hand stores or thrift stores. 85% of the clothing purchased in America, and a massive portion of the 80 billion garments purchased each year, end up in landfills, where they decay and leech toxic components into the soil, or breakdown into microplastics that end up in the ocean. Clothing donated to second-hand stores is either sold in its country of origin, or exported to low and middle income countries (LMICs). 500,000 tonnes of used clothing is exported to LMICs, where it is either sold, or becomes solid waste, which clogs rivers and wreaks environmental havoc.(Bick 2017)
There are many ways, however, to not support these practices. Simply buying second-hand items will keep those fabrics out of landfills for as long as possible, and will give you the opportunity to wear new clothes without by proxy supporting slavery. Another way to mitigate these impacts is through the purchase of new clothing from sustainable brands. These include brands like Everlane, Patagonia, Sheep Inc., etc. The most crucial way that these impacts can be minimized is simply through wearing your clothes longer.
Fashion has always been an integral part of forming a personal identity, but the economic peril and the use of downright slavery associated with the industry has created an ethical dilemma. As the profit motive strengthens, the drive to manufacture clothing cheaply and quickly grows. The present business model poses a threat to our environment through the use of damaging chemicals, and the use of coerced or forced labor presents an infinite regress of contingency, trapping people in a form of modern day slavery.
Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17, 92 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
Busby, Andrew. “With Allegations Of Slavery And Unsafe Working Conditions, Is Boohoo The Unacceptable Face Of Fast Fashion?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 July 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/andrewbusby/2020/07/05/with-allegations-of-slavery-and-unsafe-working-conditions-is-boohoo-the-unacceptable-face-of-fast-fashion/.
“Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/.
Common Objective. “Volume and Consumption: How Much Does The World Buy?” Common Objective, Common Objective, 14 May 2018, www.commonobjective.co/article/volume-and-consumption-how-much-does-the-world-buy.
Hobson, John. “To Die for? The Health and Safety of Fast Fashion.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 2 July 2013, academic.oup.com/occmed/article/63/5/317/1451439.
Khan, Sana & Malik, Abdul. (2013). Environmental and Health Effects of Textile Industry Wastewater. Environmental Deterioration and Human Health: Natural and Anthropogenic Determinants. 55-71. 10.1007/978-94-007-7890-0_4.
McFall-Johnsen, Morgan. “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here Are the Biggest Ways It Impacts the Planet.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 Oct. 2019, www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10.
Perry, Patsy. “The Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion.” Phys.org, Phys.org, 3 Jan. 2018, phys.org/news/2018-01-environmental-fast-fashion.html.
Thomas, Dana. “Why Won't We Learn from the Survivors of the Rana Plaza Disaster?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/style/survivors-of-rana-plaza-disaster.html.