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Fast Fashion: How it Affects Laborers and the Environment

Montana Carlile

Hi! My name is Montana Carlile, and no I haven’t been to the state. I was actually named after my mom’s long time crush Joe Montana. I am going into my third year at Boise State, and thankfully the last! I will be graduating in the spring of 2022 with a bachelor of science in psychology, a minor in communication and a certificate in human rights. I have never really considered myself a writer before, so I wholeheartedly appreciate everyone who takes the time to read my paper!

Fast Fashion: How it Affects Laborers and the Environment

Up until the 1960’s the process of determining trends would look the same. There were only four seasons: fall, winter, spring and summer that fashion experts would plan ahead and attempt to predict what consumers would want for that season. The 1960s was the beginning of the switch from four seasons to more. It hit the “point of no return” stated by Audrey Stanton, a writer and content creator with an emphasis on sustainable fashion, in the early 2000s. With the use of social media picking up, it makes it easier for people to share trends across countries in live time. This has led to the creation of the fifty-two micro seasons movement in fashion. Instead of having just four seasons fashion experts would prepare for, now they are creating new collections every week. Due to the high demand for new articles of clothing: design, manufacturing, shipping, and stocking are all happening at incredible speeds. This leads to lower quality materials, utilization of cheap labor and in turn, hurts the environment.

Due to the constant high demand for cheap clothing items, places like Bangladesh, Mexico and China are being taken advantage of for their low socioeconomic and power holding status globally. Places like the United States and the United Kingdom continue to upkeep this power status by ignoring the practices needed to make the clothes and continuing to consume them at high rates. In Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, Ana Juarez talks about her time working in a clothing manufacturing company in Mexico. She talks about how her entire family is low class and how she had to work in order to help feed her family. She was making anywhere between $9-$33 USD a paycheck depending on the job she had at the time. This is not just common for her though, people in all of the countries mentioned before are working for well under livable wages too. They suffer through insane quotas and bad working conditions in order to eat that night. In 2013 an eight story building called Rana Plaza, holding multiple garment factories as well as a shopping center collapsed in Bangladesh killing more than 1,000 workers. Since the accident, sweatshops and unsafe working conditions have gained more social attention, yet the problem still exists. After Rana Plaza collapsed two coalitions; Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is comprised of mostly U.S brands such as Gap, Walmart and Target, and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was signed by over 200 European companies and trade unions, came together to make the factories safer (Epatko). Groups such as the World Fair Trade organization, Stop the Traffik, Natural Resources Defense Council, International Labor Organization and the Global Fashion Exchange have all made a pact in the Fashion Revolution to try and bring awareness to the environmental, and unethical issues fast fashion can bring as well.

In order for fast fashion to work there needs to be cheap materials and cheap labor to maximize profit. In a global market we have the ability to trade goods and services with people all over the world. It has also allowed for powerlessness and exploitation to occur throughout. Powerlessness can be defined as a “designation of a position in the division of labor and the concomitant social position that allows persons little opportunity to develop and exercise skills” (Young, 55). Ana Juarez, a garment working in Mexico, experiences powerlessness as she goes to look for another job with higher wages but finds that her skills as a manual laborer will only allow her to get jobs in a manual field. After the factory she was working at shut down she states “where am I going to work if I don’t know how to do other types of work?” (Goria, 50). On top of that, because her family was so poor she was unable to afford going to school making it even more difficult to develop skills outside of manual labor. She is not the only one. Many families in China, Bangladesh and Mexico, where production of textiles is high, experience poverty so great that their kids have to drop out of school and pick up low skilled jobs (sometimes illegally) in order to afford expenses such as food and rent (Globalization). This means that those who are too young to work legally can not get workers compensation if they get hurt, or other benefits that could come with the job. In the case of Juarez, her sisters who were too young to work legally were also paid less and would have to work more hours. This is a violation of Article 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states every person has the right to get equal pay for equal work, as well as the right to rest.

As defined by the same person who defined powerlessness, Iris Young states that exploitation is the “transfer of energies from one group to another to produce unequal distributions… of benefits” (Young, 38). The two groups here would be the consumers and the manufacturers. Without the manufacturers there would be no clothes to sell, but without the consumers there would be no reason to make the clothes. One country that produces a lot of clothes is Bangladesh. “With one of the lowest minimum wages in the world, the Bangladeshi government has been hesitant to raise wages or enforce too many regulations, out of fear that it will spur an exodus of fashion brands to move production elsewhere as part of the global race to the bottom” (Webzine). The ‘bottom’ mentioned in the last quote refers to the country with the lowest wages. As big clothing companies want to be able to get the largest profit from the products they are selling, they have to try and find the cheapest labor. Companies will outsource to countries like Bangladesh where the government doesn’t regulate minimum wages, safety protocols or maintain workers’ rights. If they were to go ahead and raise the minimum wage, companies would shut down factories and go to countries with less regulations so that they could continue making the same profit margins they did. This puts a lot of low income, textile exporting countries into a predicament where they can either work for little wages and in unsafe working conditions or no wages at all. The benefits that the consumers receive is trendy, up to date clothes at a reasonably cheap price and the benefits that the manual workers receive is factory fires, buildings collapsing and on average $64 USD a month to live off of (Webzine).

Fast fashion doesn’t just have unethical practices in regards to the manufacturing of the clothes, it also hurts the environment. In order for clothing to be produced and sold as quickly as it is, the quality of the clothing goes down. On top of that, consumers who have easy access to clothes will purchase and get rid of clothes quicker. “While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long” (McFall-Johnsen). On top of that, washing clothes sends “500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles…many of those fibers are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.” (McFall-Johnsen). As companies move from cotton to polyester, the environment’s oceans and atmosphere are being hurt in the process. Microplastics that won’t degrade are being sent to the ocean and higher rates of carbon are being released due to the production and maintenance of polyester. On a global scale fashion production is the second largest consumer of water, as well as the second highest contributor of water pollution in the world due to the dye used to dye clothes. “It is also responsible for 10% of humanities carbon emissions” (McFall-Johnsen). And when people go through their closets to get rid of old clothes and make room for some new ones, up to 85% of the textiles will make it in a landfill where they are burnt or left to (not) decompose.

The implications of fast fashion are seen throughout the world. Whether it is seen through the unethical practices in production or it is seen in our environment, fast fashion harms a great deal of people. Especially those in countries where clothing production is high. Their water supplies are tainted with clothing dye, factories don’t follow safety protocols, and the workers are underpaid for their labor. On a global scale, organizations have already started to take the initiative to bring awareness and try to make changes to the system. One of those being the Clean Clothes Campaign who brings together organizations and trade unions to identify specific problems and formulate solutions specific to those locations. They put pressure on companies and governments to take responsibility to ensure workers rights are being upheld and respected and they raise awareness and bring about mobility to the issue. As mentioned earlier, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh were two specific groups that came around right after the Rana Plaza collapsed. All of the companies that joined the alliances paid dues that were given to the big factories to update all of their buildings to meet safety standards. They reported that since the collapse over 85% of the safety problems have been fixed. The groups have also set up a 24 hour helpline that workers can call to report any “inappropriate practices” (Epatko). Though these advancements are made for the safety of the workers, they still haven’t tackled the bigger issue. The exploitation of labor, the unmerciful consumerism of first world countries and the greed from the companies.

There are two different types of solutions we can generate ideas for, the macroscale and the microscale. In other words, global solutions and individual solutions to this problem. Starting with the global solutions, one idea would be to follow what is already being done by the coalitions named before (the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh), but to extend their services to incorporate workers rights as well. There is power in numbers here, they were able to identify over 130,000 safety problems and fix over 85% of them within 5 years (Epatko).  For those who refused to cooperate in fixing their safety problems their contracts with the clothing companies were terminated until they complied. If they extended their conditions to include workers rights, like fair wage and time off, I think we would see a very quick change in factory dynamic. I also think if we put more of an emphasis on clothes made from the country we live in we could cut down on some of the profits made by outsourcing. Another idea is to try and change what society’s trend of clothes are. This idea is a bit far fetched but if the trend setters on social media and the people who are in charge of fashion exhibits pushed the belief that old, good quality or second hand clothes were ‘in’ that season there could be an increase of americans buying these types of clothes to stay on trend. However this could backfire as clothing companies could just make clothes that fit the trend, eliminating nothing.

Arguably the thing that promotes fast fashion the most is greed. Companies want the highest profit they can get, which means that they are spending less money on the products and manufacturing needed to make the clothes they sell. They aren’t easily willing to give up their profit margins unless something is forcing them to. Hence why the alliances formed after the Rana Plaza didn’t include workers rights and wages into their conditions. One way to change that is for other companies who have already taken the initiative to make fashion more sustainably and ethically made to bring awareness to the companies that don’t. A way to be more sustainable and help the environment would be to make the articles of clothing last longer. “It was estimated that extending the average lifespan of clothes by just nine months could reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint by 20-30%” (Forests). By extending the lifespan of the clothing, we could keep clothes in circulation longer and help eliminate the speed at which we throw them away.

Even though the biggest effects will happen if companies took the responsibility of making fast fashion’s effects less harmful, there are ways that the individual can help. These include shopping at second hand stores, donating clothes instead of throwing them away, washing your clothes less often, and researching companies before buying from them. Patagonia has been recycling soda bottles and turning them into fibers that make their clothing items since 1993 (Claudio). Another great way is to educate yourself and others on the issue. Living so far away from the people that this issue tends to affect most can create ignorance and apathy to the problem. It can be hard as a person living in America to have an encounter which enables them to want to bring change. As Bobbie Harro says in The Cycle of Liberation the waking up stage is usually caused by a critical incident that creates cognitive dissonance (Harro, 629).  As an American living in today’s society, I believe we have become numb to the bad news we see on our phones, and by living so far away from the problem can make it hard to create an incident great enough to cause the cognitive dissonance needed in order to start the cycle of liberation. One way to try and bring some empathy back to the issue is to remember what Rushworth M. Kidder calls the “Golden Rule: Do to others what you would like them to do to you” (Kidder, 8). Trying to put yourself in the shoes of an 11 year old Banladeshi child who is working forty-five plus hours a week, working to sew almost 500 pairs of pants for about a dollar a day (Worstall).

Overall, fast fashion is the product of heavy consumerism; which in turn has led to companies producing clothing as quick and cheap as possible in order to account for the growing necessity of clothes that are on trend. This has led to unethical practices by outsourcing labor to the cheapest countries (which are cheap because all of the workers are severely underpaid). It has also led to damages in the environment: including the ocean, atmosphere and other water sources near the factories that are contaminated with dyes. Some ways to combat this are to bring awareness to the issue, call out companies who don’t use sustainable and ethical practices, and to donate clothes and buy clothes from second hand stores. In order to combat the problems that come from fast fashion it takes both the micro and macro levels. On the micro level we have to stop throwing away good clothes, research companies before buying from them, and practice washing them less. On the macro level we need to make sure workers rights are being respected by creating global organizations and we need to find better ways to make the clothes last longer with fibers that are able to decompose. It’s important not to forget the people on the other side of the world just because they are far from us. “When a diverse group of people have…created critical transformation together, we teach the lesson of hope and peace…we become more human, more whole, more authentic, more integrated, and by living this way, we increase the likelihood that the human species will survive” (Harro Liberation 633).






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