The Clothes On Our Backs And Their Impact

Picture Princes Street on a sunny, crisp Edinburgh morning, lined from one end to another with your favourite stores: Topshop, Primark, H&M, Zara, Urban Outfitters, TK Maxx. You stroll up and down the packed street, shopping bags in hand, pause in front of Zara. Something on the mannequin catches your eye, something you swore you saw on the runway two weeks prior, and you step inside.

You’re looking for a new jumper, or at least that was your pretext for coming to Edinburgh on a Saturday morning; your shopping bags are already filled with a myriad of other clothing items, but no jumper just yet. You browse the store and spot a few pieces you like, drape them over your arm, and shuffle to the changing room. You’ve chosen a blazer to go with the perfect jumper you’ve just found: plaid, on-trend, not exactly tailor-made, but well-fitting enough. You smooth the blazer down with your hands (it’s a bit wrinkled) and instinctively put your hands into the pockets. Your fingers graze a piece of paper, and upon pulling it out, you discover

a note that reads: ‘I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.’

In 2017, shoppers at Zara reportedly found unusual notes in their clothing, messages from Turkish workers asking shoppers to pressure the fashion retailer to pay them the wages they are owed. Though a comparatively odd incident, this alleged note-finding offers consumers a more unsettling look into the world of trendy fashion. It confronts our society with the uncomfortable questions of: Who made your clothing? and What impact does cheap clothing have?

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk and turns them into garments in a very short period of time. It is meant to ratchet up consumer demand through quick production, staying consistently on-trend, offering a cheap alternative to luxury brands. It is the commercial backbone of some of our favourite brands: Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Topshop.

Though affordable fashion is appealing for both consumer and producer, the clothes we see in stores are more than just convenient trends. They are often the very physical products of environmental ruin, pollution, dangerous working conditions, human rights abuses, and  infringements of intellectual property. Fast fashion encourages a wasteful mindset, breeds poor workmanship, and allows for corporate opaqueness. All for the convenient price of a few pounds.

The Aral Sea: the environmental impact of cheap clothing

Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea was once a ground for prospering wildlife, home to 24 species of fish, surrounded by lush forests and wetlands. The rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya flowed into the lake, feeding it freshwater and allowing for rich aquatic life to survive within the body of water. In the last 50 years, water levels have shrunk considerably, and according to National Geographic, the eastern basin of the lake is dry for the first time in 600 years.

The diminishing water levels of the Aral Sea can be linked directly with the fashion industry: cotton production caused Uzbekistani leaders to divert the two rivers away from the sea and towards irrigation. The sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides. The exposure of the bottom of the lake released toxins into the atmosphere. The sea slowly began to dry up.

Even if we may be tempted to think of the Aral Sea’s destruction as a far-off, unrelated, and unimportant event in our everyday lives, this incident is likely to be replicated elsewhere. This event is not justthe product of unfortunate, isolated events: the widespread use of cotton in the fashion industry has also produced water shortages in places such as China and India. The drying up of the Aral Sea acts as a gateway to analyse the environmental ruin of the fashion industry, a ruin that stems from (1) the materials used in production (2) improper disposal of chemicals, and (3) the sheer amount of waste production.

To produce clothing quickly and at a relatively low cost, fast fashion relies on unsustainable materials such as cotton, polyester, and nylon. Cotton, though a natural fibre, is harmful to the environment: it requires massive amounts of water for refinement (2700 litres to make one t-shirt) and is one of the most chemically-dependent crops in the world (consuming 10% of all agricultural products and 25% of insecticides). As evidenced in the case of the Aral Sea, this over-reliance on high volumes of water and pesticides is extremely detrimental: it produces the risk of drought, water shortages, and release of toxic chemicals into the environment. Polyester and nylon, on the hand, are syntheticfabrics and require petrochemicals in their production. It is estimated that nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make these synthetic fibres, contributing significantly to global carbon emissions and fossil fuel pollution. The environmental impact of these materials does not stop with their production: with every wash, plastic micro-fibres shed from our clothing into the water supply, and these materials take over 200 years to decompose when thrown out.

Image Courtesy of Tareq Salahuddin via Wikimedia Images, © 2011, some rights reserved

In addition to synthetic micro-fibres, a major contributor to water pollution are chemicals used to dyeour clothing. These dyes, along with being toxic, are often improperly disposed of: the Citarum River in Indonesia is one of the most polluted riversin the world due to hundreds of textile factories disposing dyes into its waters. Such disposal renders drinking water, soil, and produce unusable, and causes not only environmental ruin, but a myriad of health problems for people in surrounding areas.

Along with production, the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry is also tied to the sheer amount of waste that consumers produce. Because such clothing is made for convenience, it is more likely to fall apart and be replaced with a new item (rather than repaired). In the last year, around 235 million items of clothing were sent to the landfill in the UK, with roughly 26.7kg consumption of new clothing per head. Considering the widespread use of non-degradable fabrics and that only about 10% of donated clothes are resold, the waste production tied to the fashion industry astronomically contributes to pollution.

A structural crack: collapse of Rana Plaza and human rights abuses within the garment industry

In April 2013, the fashion industry was met with one of its deadliest workplace accidents when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh suddenly collapsed. With a death toll upwards of 1000, this tragedy was largely the result of building code violations and unsafe working conditions. The four upper floors of the factory were constructed without permits, haphazard building created structural faults, and workers were ordered to report to work despite discovery of cracks in the building’s structure.

Like the Aral Sea incident, the collapse of the Rana Plaza is more than just an isolated incident: it reveals the broader issues present within the fashion industry. Though this tragedy is exceptional in that it had an extremely high death toll, the poor treatment of workers is unfortunately a universal experience.

Many Western brands have chosen to outsource their production to countries with lax labour laws, including Bangladesh. Production costs in these countries are notoriously low and provide an ideal market for fast fashion companies. Despite this producer benefit, low costs reinforce low wages and discourage necessary workplace safety precautions. As a result, many workers are forced to work 14-16 hours 7 days a week in hazardous conditions, often not making more than £25 a month. These workers are systematically barred from access to the ‘just and favourable conditions of work’ outlined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition to such poor working conditions, forced child labour, modern slavery, sexual harassment, and criminalisation of speaking out against harsh working conditions are also rampant in sweatshops.

What Can You Do?

As consumers, we are ultimately the drivers of the industry: our money and our demands fuel production cycles, the very clothes we see in stores, the policies of companies. When we decide to spend our money elsewhere, we inadvertently send a message with our choice, and have the potential to disrupt the cycle.

Though there is little you can do to directly reduce carbon emissions, or human rights abuses, or infringement of intellectual property by big brands, your consumer choices can still contribute in minor ways. Any kilogram of clothing you decide not to buy is a kilogram that is not thrown into landfills, any sustainable fabric you purchase diminishes the level of pollution created. As a consumer, here are a few things you can do to disrupt the fast fashion cycle:

  1. Educate yourself:Checking the sustainability policy of companies before you buy their clothing ensures that you aren’t supporting companies that rely on cheap labour and production. Websites such as Good On You help critically outline sustainability policies and even go so far as to include sustainable material guides.
  2. Buy Sustainable Brands: These include companies such as Patagonia, Reformation, Eileen Fisher, Alternative Apparel. Though they tend to be expensive, their clothing is well-made and crafted to last much longer.
  3. Buy Second-Hand:Charity shops are a much more affordable option and don’t require the production of any new clothing.
  4. Make Your Clothing Last: When considering your wardrobe, be mindful of the waste you are producing. Rather than immediately throwing away clothing, think of reusing it, styling it differently, or simply donating it.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of War on Want via Flickr © 2009, some rights reserved