If you have gone to the mall and purchased clothing in the past 20 years, this article is you – and it’s time for us to talk. Specifically, we need to talk about the relationship between an item you purchased on sale from Forever 21, the growing masses of landfills that contaminate the water supply in East African countries, and the low life expectancies of grossly underpaid workers in Asian sweatshops sewing shirts together for less than $1 a day.
We need to acknowledge the ways in which our clothes act as silent killers of the environment and contribute to the suffering of impoverished people in the Global South. There are cruelties and crimes occurring around the world because of clothing, and fast fashion is to blame – but in this situation, you and I are both the victims and the perpetrators.
First, let’s go over some vocab! What is “fast fashion?” It refers to the current modus operandi of the fashion industry: cheap clothing sold by massive market retailers to model the latest runway fashion trends. Basically, when you hear the words fast fashion, visualize the red lettering and bright lights of H&M, the black-and-metallic color scheme and atmosphere of Spanish-owned Zara, and the aforementioned, internationally recognized Forever 21. These stores slide new pieces on to their racks two to four times a week; the result is a minute-by-minute record of every twitch that happens in fashion. What was in last week is old this week– a tactic used by product manufacturers called built-in obsolescence – and you will likely buy both items anyway, because they are both cheap. This constant replacement of old styles with the new, and stocking the next season’s clothing a month in advance, is reflective of a larger scheme in the fashion industry – large companies replacing instead of replenishing.
The limited time frame in which items are available encourages more frequent visits and purchases, so retailers can avoid marking items down. But what becomes of the clothes that don’t sell, or that go out of fashion by the time they hit the clearance bin? What happens to the clothing that a former wearer kindly dropped in the local Goodwill or Salvation Army that is unable to find a second home?
There are two potential routes. Route One: the garments make the swift transition from unwanted items to international commodities. They are sold to a middle-man company, like Trans-Americas Trading Co. based in New Jersey; combed through for resalable gems (e.g. vintage items); and then shipped around the world – specifically East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Eastern Africa (Newsweek). Once the item hits the Global South, it will likely be sold once more–maybe by a street vendor in Kenya, as featured in the CBC News documentary on fast fashion, or other East African countries.
The cheap prices of these clothes are hard to beat, and dominate the national brands and textile manufactures. Member nations of the East African Community, like Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, began an initiative to bar second-hand clothing from the marketplace by 2019 (BBC News). The quality of these items is generally low as well, and what isn’t bought at this final destination is thrown away – into a landfill, now as textile waste.
The Institute of Sustainable Communication reports that the fashion industry is one of the top three water pollutants in the world. Environmentally destructive and health-harming substances are emitted in the creation of fast fashion-produced garment, like NO2, a greenhouse gas (contributing to global warming) which Forbes reports is “200 time for damaging than CO2”; lead makes it way into water when it is used to dye synthetic fabrics and dropped in a landfill. In other words – we hurt ourselves with the clothes we wear.
In Asian countries, leather tanneries dispose the substances used in the tanning process (treatment of animal hides) into the water sources and soil outside the tannery. This practice is even more grievous when you learn that a child may have been the one tanning the item, exposed to a cancer-causing chemical like formaldehyde. In addition, the water and soil being polluted are frequently low-income, impoverished communities, as many large companies outsource their labor.
Many people around the world not only face health risks from the byproducts from garment-making, but are even more directly threatened by the act of garment making itself. Factory workers in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia work 10+ hours a day, only to earn $100 to $200 per month ($3 to $7 a week), while being constantly exposed to dangerous materials, in factories that do not meet legal facility standards. Some employees are children, but a majority are women, “single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources” (UAB Institute for Human Rights). Even in the industry, The 2012 tragedy at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh pushed the human effects of fast fashion to the forefront, when 1,129 workers making garments for Walmart and Children’s Place were killed when the building collapsed. The collapse was not unexpected; workers reported signs of decay and instability of the factory to the factory owners. But the owners of the facility are not the sole ones at fault – Walmart and Children’s Place, alongside Adidas and Nike, two companies have been critiqued for the neglect of underpaid workers in their global factories, and countless other chain stores are just as culpable as the factory owners they engage in business (Reuters).
So what can we do, at KO and beyond, to mitigate this crisis?
We as consumers need to commit to sustainable and ethical fashion. Sustainable fashion addresses the environmental consequences: what chemicals and dyes the clothing is made of, what could end up in the water and soil if the item ends up in a landfill, how biodegradable is the fabric? Ethical shopping addresses the human offenses of fast fashion: how is the person making this item being treated? In what working conditions are they laboring, for what pay, exposed to what chemicals, receiving what care, protected by what laws?
The first step in heeding the call to be a more conscientious shopper is to do some serious research; you’ll find yourself crossing more and more stores off your list of mall stops when you look into the information published about their ethical and sustainability practices (or lack thereof – looking at you, BooHoo!)
Second step: identify to what extent sustainable and ethical shopping can exist in your closet given your current finances, because the price of humanely-made and green-conscious clothing is on the high side. Though your wallet may be sore, you can rest assured knowing the clothiers are being paid a livable wage and laboring in reasonable conditions – so check out Everlane and LA Bloom.
If regularly buying or working towards affording more pricey pieces isn’t in the cards for you, there are several other avenues you can go down to support the cause. The easiest way, requiring the least effort (but the most discipline) – buy less! The less you buy, the less likely you are to toss an item away, the less you contribute to global landfills and pollution, plain and simple.
Otherwise, continue to shop, but do so with intention; break the staring contest you have with the fashion industry and purchase items that will have long closet life. Better yet, take the things you don’t like in your closet, give them to your friends, and take some of theirs! Thrift shopping and clothing exchanges are two prime examples of ways to extend the life of your clothes and prolong their journey to a landfill.