Every day, no matter where we are, fast fashion is thrown at us. We are bombarded with it from all angles. On the TV we see the latest “mini-season” at H&M; waiting for the bus, the shelter advert tells us “These jeans are the best you’ll ever buy!” The millions of fast-fashion followers on social media are notified about “great deals” every hour of every day.
But are these “deals” really so great? That t-shirt you bought for $10 took over 2500 litres of water to make – that’s what we drink over 3 years! It was made by a woman in India, China, or Bangladesh who makes less than $70 each month – $2 a day. It costs more than $250/month for a family of 3 to live in Dhaka, Bangladesh: $152 on rent, $38 on utilities such as electricity, heating and water, and $68 on food. So, the woman who made your clothes works 14-16 hours every day, 7 days a week, and is paid less than 1/3 of what she needs to survive. She was probably paid around 10 cents to make that shirt. Yet if she wanted to buy it from a shop in Bangladesh she would have to pay the $10 you paid.
These statistics should shock even the most hard-hearted, but there’s more. On the 24th of April, 2013, an 8 story building in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1100 people. Over half were women working in the clothing factory which was housed in the building along with a bank and shops.
Just a day before the collapse, workers had reported cracks in the walls of the giant structure. The building was evacuated and warnings were issued to avoid using the building. However, the owner of the building, Sohel Rana, ignored these warnings and told media the building was safe. Workers were forced to continue work the next morning and threatened with a month’s loss of pay if they did not turn up for work. Over 3000 workers were inside the critically unstable building at the time of the collapse, their employers simply caring about the money they made from the exploitation of these vulnerable women.
In addition to these astounding statistics, the year following this disaster was the most profitable in the history of the fast fashion industry. Clearly, people were unmoved by the footage broadcast across the globe which showed bodies of women hardly visible from beneath mountains of rubble – the bodies of women who had died at their sewing machines making the clothes that you pay so little for. And I am among the people who aided this disaster. For I, just like so many others, assumed that this was just a one-off event. I had no interest in the debates, accusations, and discussions or studies that followed, I simply assumed in my naïveté that most clothes were made by wonderful machines across Europe and America, assuming that sweatshops were uncommon, that any that did exist were governed by strict safety laws. I never imagined the world of the people behind the clothes that I was wearing.
Life works in the strangest of ways. Here I was, an ordinary student buying cheap clothes on a budget, then suddenly I was at the bottom of a steep new learning curve. One day I was boasting about how I managed to buy 13 items of clothing for just £50. The next, I discovered Livia Firth. Her Instagram and Twitter feeds filled with comments about ethical and sustainable fashion. “What is this?” I found myself wondering. “Is this some new trend I’m missing out on?” And yes, in a way, it was!
The first step was to find out how bad the situation really was. Was everything really produced in sweatshops in third world countries? Had we really gone from producing 97% of our own clothes in Europe and America in the 1960s to just 3% today? So, I surveyed my wardrobe with some truly shocking results. Of the 86 items – which in itself is shocking – 22% were made in China, 9% in Bangladesh, 7% in Turkey, 6% in Sri Lanka, 5% in India, 4% in Cambodia, 2% in Indonesia, another 2% in Egypt, and 1% in Vietnam, Tunisia, Romania and Moldova. Just 4% were made in the UK and 35% of the clothing was unaccounted for. Multiple brands are simply ashamed to admit where their clothes are made but refuse to do anything about it! Instead of trying better alternatives, they refuse to face up to the facts and tell the public who made their clothes. Personally, I find this abhorrent.
Turning the Corner
It shocked me to find out how few clothes were made in a good or safe environment. Such was the beginning of my resolve. I would no longer buy clothes that were made cheaply and in poor conditions. Instead, I would support ethical and sustainable brands. Any clothes I did buy were to be worn according to the “30 wears” rule. This is a rule I discovered very early in my path towards change. It is a challenge started by Livia Firth, who says “Every time you buy something, always think, ‘Will I wear it a minimum of 30 times?’ If the answer is yes, then buy it. But you’d be surprised how many times you say no.” Livia has worked both with Marks and Spencer and Erdem to produce sustainable fashion at affordable prices that look great and make you feel good for supporting the environment and developing countries.
Sustainable fashion can be considered “the responsible use of resources, [with] low/no environmental impact and fairly treated workers. It does not pollute the environment, uses renewable resources and uses a ‘closed-circle’ lifecycle.” This means items are produced from a certain material, used, recycled and then made into new materials – in a never ending loop! Ethical fashion can be considered “the production of clothes according to [ethical] labour and human rights”. This means clothes are made by workers in safe working conditions, who receive a fair wage. Brands who sell fashion like this are People Tree, Nomads Clothing, Mayamiko, Elborne Living, and Nisolo Shoes.
These brands work with artisans all over the world, keeping local industry alive with Fair Trade. What a contrast this is to the fast fashion industry where brands such as Topshop introduce over 400 new styles every week! The chemicals these brands use on your clothes can cause cancer and other diseases with the some of the worst offenders being Calvin Klein, Levi’s, and Zara. Items from these brands were tested and 88% of Calvin Klein items, 82% Levi’s items, and 70% Zara’s items contained traces of these chemicals!
During the manufacture of these fast fashion products, hundreds of different chemicals are used. The River Ganges, which flows through Bangladesh and India, is the second most polluted river in the world. One billion litres of sewage and toxic waste enters this river every day, with chemicals such as Chromium-6 entering the drinking water of the 400 million people dependent on the river. This toxic chemical attacks the liver causing cancer and jaundice.
Looking at these facts is it any wonder that the fashion industry is the second highest polluting industry in the world after oil? Every third world village where the fast fashion industry exists has experienced an outbreak of cancers, mental illnesses, and birth defects. 70-80 children in every village have a disability. Companies are recommending new seeds to farmers, marketing them as “pest control” seeds. In fact, these seeds require pesticides known as ecological narcotics. The more they are used, the more they are needed, and while production increases for a short time, after a few seasons the production begins to rapidly decrease due to the soil contamination caused by these pesticides. Further, in the past 16 years there have been 250,000 suicides of Indian farmers. That’s approximately one every thirty minutes!
What to Do:
“So, what am I supposed to do about this?” you’re asking. The answer is simple. Stop supporting fast fashion! I have stopped buying fast fashion. The things I now own, I have worn many times and I never throw anything away. Unwanted clothing can be sold through sites such as eBay, Vinted, or you can upcycle your items by making an old top into a waistcoat, or by turning that old pair of jeans into some shorts for summer! You could even take your old trainers to a Nike store where they will be recycled for you! However, while charity shops are also a good idea, only 10% of items donated to charity are resold. The other 90% ends up in landfill or a developing country (and likely their landfill). This has ruined industry in countries such as Haiti, where there was a booming industry which has now all but disappeared due to the crate loads of unwanted clothes arriving every day.
I’m not staying you must never buy anything new again. You can support ethical brands which, although they are more expensive, will last longer and you will also have a sense of achievement when you are wearing something you can be certain has been made by a worker in happy circumstances. But try to stop buying from high street stores!
Read more about her below and check out other great articles from our contributors:
A Brief Introduction to Ethical Lingerie
What About Us?: Do Women Over 50 Care About Slow Fashion?
Knit together by a dream
City girl at heart
How did I get here and where am I going?
Consuming with Consideration
Annaborgia: Fashion for the Vegan Bride
About the Author
I’m Hannah Lyons, a British student, passionate about the environment, nature, and the way we are treating our fellow humans. After watching the True Cost Movie, I felt impassioned to change the way we think about fashion, and have been doing a lot of research into the field. My favourite books are “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” By Lucy Siegle, “Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution” By Safia Minney and “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” By Elizabeth L. Cline. I have started an “Ethical Fashion” social media account to help raise awareness of the true cost of our clothing and am honoured to be working with Trusted Clothes.