“Less than 10% of what we’re wearing… was made in factories where people were paid a living wage and working in safe and legal conditions.” – Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed:The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion
In the same way that most people are unaware of what’s in their beauty and personal care products, consumers know very little about where their clothing comes from, and that’s no accident. The glossified global fashion brands do everything in their power to prevent consumers from thinking about the exploitation of resources and people and how consumer dollars directly support these awful practices. This post is titled “quit fast fashion” for a reason – it’s a bit like dropping a toxic habit that, as Western consumers, has been ingrained in us, especially millennials bombarded with messages of consumption EVERY.WHERE.WE.TURN.
There’s a great Norwegian webseries where three very entitled fashion bloggers are sent to live as textile workers in Cambodia. Even though there are some very #1stworldproblem moments, it’s really genuine so at least watch this one episode. It does a great job of revealing how Westerners have the luxury of never thinking about where their possessions come from. And if they are considered, the people who make them are “others”, happy to have an income and a job. Documentaries like this help to dispel that myth.
In my twenties, my closet consisted of a few nice, classic pieces, but mostly cheaply manufactured, trendy crap from fast fashion stores like Forever21, Urban Outfitters, and H&M because I thought it was all I could afford. When I started to look beyond the damage it was doing to my wallet, but also at the undeniable link between the fashion industry and climate change, I made a conscious effort to purchase clothing that is sustainably-manufactured with social equity in mind, and generally buy less of everything. Yes, I now pay more for my clothing, but in the end, I consider my purchases that much more thoroughly.
What made me reconsider my habits?
I now understand that each time I pay less for my clothing, people and environment were exploited. And when I give the company my money, it’s like I have just proclaimed, “yes, I want these practices to continue.”
We’re coming up on the two year anniversary of the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. 1,138 people died and another 2,400 were injured. I remember being horrified after reading the news coverage of this completely preventable disaster that happened on the other side of the world, but I also felt strangely close to it: I was partially responsible because of my (over)consumption. And here’s the worst fact which, I believe, was lost in the media’s fixation on the death-toll goriness:
The day before the collapse, the building was classified as dangerous and owners were advised to shut down operations until repairs could be made. Instead, workers were directed/threatened to return to work in the partially-collapsed building.
Fulfilling the orders for Western corporations’ cheap merchandise was considered more important than preventing harm and loss of life. It makes me sick to realize that this is the consumerism and greed-driven climate that I’ve supported, or at least idly stood by. Again, this tragedy was 100% preventable. There were 28 Western brands identified as having production orders placed at the factory. Almost two years later, some companies have yet to pay their share of settlements to the survivors and those injured in the disaster. Adding even more insult to a grim situation is that the funds are owed by some of the world’s richest companies.
The manufacturing process is outsourced to a complex supply chain of sometimes hundreds, even thousands of factories. It’s a murky system where merchandise for just one apparel brand can touch a multitude of factories and is incredibly challenging to enforce regulations. However, this often works in favor to companies because they can claim ignorance about violations of labor and/or environmental regulations. Corporations “manage” a broken system with a few audits here and there and require that factories agree to a labor code of conduct, but it’s obviously not in companies’ best interest to completely overhaul a system based on what is modern-day slave labor. Consumers also assume that because they pay more for a garment, that ensures ethical practices. Wrong. Most luxe brands just have a ridiculously high mark-up and source from the same farmers, textile and cut and sew factories as fast-fashion retailers.
That $20 dress exists because a lot of women were exploited
It’s probably not surprising that 80% of garment workers are women. Apparel manufacturing hubs are located in (surprise, surprise) regions where women lack basic human rights which makes them even more vulnerable. Many women are migrant workers and countries like China, Bangladesh and Thailand do not extend basic labor rights to temporary workers. Women work overtime without pay, are sexually harassed, discriminatory practices against pregnant women take place, and suffer from fertility problems because of exposure to high concentrations of chemicals. Any efforts to unionize are quickly squashed/threatened away by factory supervisors and owners. Essentially, corruption reigns in this industry, worker protections are a joke, and often times, workers who do speak up for better conditions are fired. These are not one-off incidents – these are widely-accepted and well-hidden practices which occur across the world in facilities that have met corporate labor standards. The current state of business’ supply-chain management is very reactionary; putting out fires (sometimes, quite literally), rather than taking measures to prevent harm from happening in the first place.
The apparel industry uses chemicals and your body
Retailers like Mod-Cloth, Forever21 and Zara receive new styles every day. Where there were once two fashion seasons, Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, there are now ‘micro seasons‘, where brands churn out trends, making consumers feel out-of-style after one week. To churn out styles so quickly, it means more production, which means more industrial factories in places like India, China and Mexico where environmental regulations are lax, at best. The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution comes from textile dyes and treatment. Around 25% of all chemical compounds made are used in the textile industry. These industry hubs are in countries with little-to-no environmental regulations (that are actually enforced) and toxic chemicals used in textile treatment processes can be dumped in waterways and those factories can pump out an often unchecked amount of emissions.
However, because of consumer demand and transparency requirements, things are improving. As a result of a Greenpeace’s campaign exposing that H&M and Zara, among other global apparel brands, were selling clothing with hormone-disrupting chemicals, huge retailers have signed on to an agreement to eliminate toxic chemicals from their manufacturing processes. H&M has pledged to eliminate toxic chemicals from its supply chain by 2020.
The Pearl River in China runs indigo due to the chemical-intensive dyes in wastewater discharge. 40% of the jeans sold in the U.S. are manufactured in Xintang, the “Denim Capital of the World”, so you most likely have an article of clothing in your closest that was a part of a supply chain in this region. Many regions worldwide are in severe drought or suffering from water contamination from industrial pollution. Each year, in China alone, 2.5 trillion liters (yes, trillion, with a ‘t’) of wastewater are dumped into rivers. The country is dealing with the grim public health consequences of unregulated dumping; residents along rivers suffer higher rates of cancer and one in five people lack access to clean drinking water. This is water that could be used for things like oh, you know, drinking, bathing, and growing already threatened crops in places like Mexico where 70% of the waterways are polluted.
The realities of resource scarcity, mainly water for water-intensive treatments and growing cotton, are hitting the bottom line of massive retailers in a significant way. Even the brands themselves are confronting these issues because it’s hitting them where it hurts. This is a positive thing; many companies are rethinking the design and production of their garments, encouraging innovative treatment processes like water-less dye processes, and using more renewable materials for their textiles that aren’t as water and chemical intensive.
If your moral compass is even slightly active, please, for the love of your fellow human beings, stop giving Forever21 your money
There is a special place in fashion hell for this store. They commit egregious social justice crimes. The retailer has declined to join industry working groups to stop child labor and it’s one of the few retailers still sourcing cotton sourced from Uzbekistan, a country notorious for “drafting” children to work in cotton fields. The retailer faces multiple sweatshop labor scandals every year and has done nothing to reform labor conditions along its supply chain. After a 2001 lawsuit filed by women forced to work in sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles (Forever21 maintained that it all was perfectly fine. WTF?), it outsourced the rest of its production. Check out this documentary, Made In LA, about the women and the Garment Workers Center’s struggle to hold Forever21 accountable and sponsor a boycott. Ripping off the work of designers is also a part of their business plan. The’ve faced more than 50 copyright lawsuits and pay the settlements rather than apply for licenses. And all of this from a company that wears its Christian roots on its sleeve. I guess the execs missed like 90% of the Bible that talks about treating everyone with dignity and respect.
So, now that I’ve completely ruined your day/closet/joy from retail therapy, you’re probably overwhelmed. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the atrocities that happen in this industry. Please, check out some of the many links I’ve provided for more information and spread the word. Here’s how you can take action:
Research brands before you shop
The 2010 California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires multi-million dollar companies to disclose their efforts to stop and prevent trafficking and slave labor in their supply chains. Look for the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability programs and judge for yourself. Have they published any reports about the successes and challenges faced after implementing their labor and environmental policies? If it’s just a mission statement and nothing else, I would stay away. And if the company doesn’t even have a sustainability/CSR section, then definitely never shop there. Lack of transparency is a huge red flag and usually indicates lack of company ethics.
Send the message to brands where it hurts: profits and brand reputation
Disappointed with what you’ve found/not found? First step- stop shopping there. Next, tell the brands via social media or through a petition why you’re no longer a customer and what they need to do to earn back your trust.
Thanks for hanging in there; I know this was a heavy post, but a necessary one. In part II, (next week, happy stuff, yay) I’ll give you ways to clean up your closet, support local and sustainable brands, and offer my savvy vintage/thrift shopping tips!