In a world where information travels across the globe in less than a second, it almost makes sense that we want our fashion trends to change that fast too. And stores like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara are making that possible. The $3 trillion fast fashion industry specializes in bringing new trends to market every day, letting us wear what we saw on the runway for the cost of a club sandwich.
But the amount that we pay at the counter doesn’t cover the human and environmental costs of fast fashion – costs that are on the rise every day. Fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet – right after oil and gas. It’s an industry known to use harsh and long-lasting chemicals that are toxic to the workers and the people that wear them, one known to abuse scarce water resources and their employees, and a sector that is responsible for polluting communities around the world.
The Environmental Cost
The entire process of making clothing ends up being fraught with environmental impacts – starting with the cotton that we make it from.
Non-organic cotton farming is responsible for using a quarter of all insecticides applied worldwide, and the equivalent of one t-shirt requires a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizer. Plus, during the process of turning raw cotton into cloth, hazardous materials including heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde are added in order to make it the soft fabric we expect in our clothing. These toxins, along with all the dyes and other synthetic chemicals used to turn raw materials into textiles, are generally released into freshwater sources. And it happens on a HUGE scale! It’s estimated that about 1/5 of worldwide industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. Plus, many of these chemicals remain on the clothing, exposing the wearer to chemicals that take multiple washes to come out.
Unfortunately, moving away from cotton doesn’t help. Polyesters and other man-made fabrics don’t decompose, they take vasts amount of energy to create, and some fabrics, like nylon, release particularly potent greenhouse gases. Even “recycled” polyesters are rarely “green”. Because there aren’t enough recycled plastic bottles to fulfill demand, clothing manufacturers end up buying new bottles from factories in order to create the fabric they label as “recycled”.
The Human Cost
The environment isn’t the only victim of the fashion industry. Today, 1 in 6 people around the world are somehow involved in the fashion industry, and everyone from the cotton farmers to the garment workers are at risk of unsafe, unjust and unhealthy working conditions.
Rana Plaza, while the most recent and well-known tragedy in this arena, is sadly not the only example of wide-scale factory deaths, nor the only example of social inequality in the industry. In China, currently the largest global exporter of apparel, Chinese laborers can earn as little as 12-18 cents per hour working in poor conditions. However, as the cost of clothes is being pushed down even further, clothing companies are moving to countries where labor and manufacturing is even cheaper; places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Besides the tragedy in low wages, garment workers are forced to work in terrible conditions, with little regard for their health. The dangers from chemical exposure among factory workers range from dyes and chemicals that can irritate skin and cause rashes or breathing problems, to other toxins that can cause cancer or even death in the workers that are regularly exposed to them.
In a race to the bottom for prices, factories aren’t spending money to protect worker’s health, or even their rights. Stories have emerged of workers who try to unionize for higher wages getting locked in factories or beaten. And large chains like Zara have been accused outright of maintaining degrading conditions for their workers. In a world where a pair of jeans were $100, only $0.50 cents of that went to the garment worker. As prices continue to fall for the clothes that we buy, so do the wages and conditions of the workers who make them.
What are we willing to pay?
The cost of disposable fashion is extremely high, even if the price tag is not. It’s worth considering what we are willing to pay for another item off the rack.