We use clothing in a multitude of ways. Clothing encompasses much more than items we wear to cover our bodies. Clothing in reality may be viewed as a means of communicating to others.
Throughout history people have used clothing to communicate status, emotions and personal style. Kings and queens conveyed their status through robes and crowns adorned with jewels. Marie Antionette relied on her dressmaker, Rose Bertin, to make certain she was the most beautiful and stylish woman in France. Even today, fashion is ever present in our minds on a daily basis whether or not we realize it, or not. Right or wrong - we judge others by their appearance. What they wear dictates to us where they stand in society, what jobs they may hold and even their apparent income.
Many of us do not realize the human demand for fashion has increased dramatically over the past decade. This begs the question 'what is the true cost of fashion?' as we weigh up the environmental and social impact of clothing.
During the past decade, the way we create, buy and sell fashion has changed. Previously, we purchased fewer items at higher cost, but today the ever increasing demand for fashion has created new trends of 'fast fashion' and 'disposable fashion'.
Fast Fashion is defined a designs that move from the runway quickly to retailers at a reasonable cost. The concept of 'fast fashion' has completely transformed the way clothing is now bought and sold. Historically, there were two fashion seasons in a year. Nowadays, fast fashion allows for fifty-two 'seasons' a year to accelerate delivery of more and more products to consumers.
This high-speed revolution is representative of the disposable nature of our society as a whole. The disposable fashion trend aligns perfectly with social media. Normal people project themselves as would-be celebrities, acquiring fast, expendable fashion to appear to wear something new every day on social media. Indeed, globalized production creates products that are so inexpensive to produce, that they can be 'thrown away' without a second thought, or perhaps not.
1. Well, in simple terms the demands of 'fast fashion' means that 97% of manufacturing is now outsourced to developing countries in the world. Employees in those countries are paid low wages and endure challenging work conditions, to retain profit margins for big business. Ultimately, the factory workers in these developing countries lose their rights and have their needs ignored, as they pay the price.
2. Workers in Third World countries such as Cambodia and India, are so desperate for an income, that they are forced to endure these conditions.
3. Manufacturers in these countries equally want the business so badly that they will keep wages low in order to keep up with the demand from foreign countries for cheap goods.
4. Labourers continue to work in hazardous conditions simply because they must in order to survive.
5. There are no safety guidelines or procedures in these factories usually; and the large corporations who use them, are not held accountable for the unethical safety practices in these Third World countries.
The Cost to Human Life
Sadly, we had an example of the true cost when garment factory workers paid the ultimate price in the Savar building collapse in Rana Plaza (Bangladesh), when factory owners ignored the warning signs of cracks and an unsound foundation. The building collapsed killing 1,129 workers in that incident in April 2013. Similarly in September and November 2012 respectively, a fire at Ali Enterprises in Karachi, Pakistan killed 289, and the Tazreen Fashion Plaza blaze killed a further 112 factory workers. A point to note is that in the same year of the Rena Plaza disaster, the fashion industry recorded its most profitable year of all time.
These tragedies have caused many to say there must be a better way to generate clothing without such an enormous toll on human life. Workers within the garment industry in Third World countries are amongst the lowest paid factory workers in the world with a wage of less than $3.00 per day. Around 85% of factory workers are females, who simply have no other means of supporting their families. There is an arguable case that the demand for fast fashion is increasing inequality, and in particular gender inequality given these statistics.
Shima, a 23 year old factory worker said:
"I believe these clothes are produced with our blood. Many factory workers die in different accidents...it is very painful for us. I don't want anyone to wear anything that is produced by our blood."
It would seem that the term 'blood diamonds' now extends to 'blood fashion' or 'blood clothing'.
Tansy Hoskins, author of 'Stitched Up', summed it up by saying:
"Capitalism is the reason why the fashion industry looks like it does today. It is the reason why workers in Bangladesh are paid so little. If you are working in a capitalistic system the main thing you have to do is create more profit. And you have to create more profit than your competitors. This then drives companies to wages drive down. Like, they don't go to places like Bangladesh other than to get the cheapest labour possible. There are no collective rights, no trade union rights, there is very low minimum wage, there are no maternity rights and there is no pension. That is why the fashion industry is in Bangladesh because it can reap the biggest profit out of those people that are making clothes for them."
The ethos of most corporations is to make this quarter better than the last at any cost, so businesses are willing to cut corners to make things work. This means keeping labour costs at an unethical low, and sadly producing clothing under the cheapest conditions possible.
Damage to the Ecosystem
Another ethical dilemma that arises out of fast fashion pertains to cotton. There is a direct correlation between the increased desire for fast fashion and the demand for cotton, as most garments are made from this fibre. This effect is many fold as this affects the demand for water and causes other environmental factors. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan completely disappeared after water irrigation was squandered to feed cotton production.
Scientists are now genetically modifying cotton to make it more resilient to insects. Cotton farmers spray pesticides over entire fields, rather than spot spraying individual plants, or hiring labour to pull out the weeds manually. The agenda being to produce the cotton crop as quickly as possible at minimal cost. The old methodology of farming included treating the land and growing crops according to seasons. However, with the ever-increasing demand the land is 'treated' as a factory. Cotton farmers are now spraying acres of cotton field with pesticides.
The whole GMO industry does perhaps need review, as companies like Monsanto, who are leaders in GMO crops and the patented seed industry, often benefit two-fold. GMO crops tend to need more pesticides to maintain their productivity, hence them being termed 'ecological narcotics'. Much like the drug industry, a dependency is created. However, it is less well-known that these same corporations not only produce the pesticides, but also hold huge investments in the cancer-treatment and pharmaceutical industry. Given the links between pesticides and cancer, it would appear that a there is a nexus between cause and effect, with humanity as the victims. Equally, it should concern us that a company has access to the food supply and also has deep involvement with chemicals harmful to humans.
No one knows the long-term impact these chemicals will have on the soil, cotton or the people who work the land and families who live nearby. One farmer noted that 'nature has a tendency to heal itself in small pockets. When you spray literally hundreds of acres of pesticide, no one really knows what's going on yet.'
What is the true cost to the people living in these communities, and the soil on a microbiological level?
These farmers have said that pesticides have been labeled as ecological narcotics: the more you use them, the more you need to use them. Already as a result of overuse of pesticides, there has been a rise in birth defects, such as mental retardation, physical disability, cancers and mental illness in areas of the Punjab, India.
Similarly, residents in Hawaii on the tiny island of Kauai have been fighting 'David and Goliath' style with Monsanto over GMO seeds and pesticides, asserting they cause harm to the environment and people. Several companies including Monsanto, Dow, BASF and Syngenta have vast installations in the Hawaiian Islands as the climate permits all-year farming, and ultimately the testing of crops with pesticides. It is reported that restricted use chemicals were being deployed on a large scale to treat crops, whilst birth defects locally are increasing. Similarly, the war on pesticides and GMO seeds is being waged in Europe too, where 2 million EU citizens signed a petition, and a ban is currently in place for three neonicotinoid insecticides. France has recently banned Roundup, which is a popular worldwide weed killer (produced by Monsanto), because of its link to cancer, the colony collapse of bees and devastation of Monarch butterflies.
It has been found in some regions that this mass spraying is affecting the air quality of surrounding areas, without even considering the harm to the soil or humanity in the long-term. We are seeing increasing numbers of allergy sufferers around the globe from the very young to old. Cotton was historically regarded as a natural material, which hypersensitive individuals could use to counter conditions like dermatitis and psoriasis. However, in the future, fabric choices may be even more limited, if cotton clothing is affected in this way.
Another area of concern is the chemicals and fuel used during the production of fashion. Polyester production is heavily dependent on petroleum and uses over four times as much kWh of energy to produce 1 tonne of spun polyester as compared to cotton, whilst emitting large amounts of CO2 at the same time. The environmental effects of fast fashion is certainly one, which both the public, the fashion brands and designers must reform if we are to sustain the planet.
Jeans rose in popularity in the sixties, and even now are firm favourites in the fashion industry. Yet, to achieve that indigo blue shade manufacturers are using toxic chemicals like azo dyes to achieve the distinct denim blue. This is not only harmful to the workers making the jeans, but the waste enters the soil and water system ultimately. The dangerous chemicals may be released during washing with risk to the wearer.
Another risk to not only humans but also the aquatic environment and wildlife, is nonylphenol ethoxylates ('NPE') which was found to be present in 29% of imported clothing in a 2013 study by the UK Environment Agency. This chemical disrupts hormones and impacts the reproductive system, and is found in highest levels in brightly coloured clothing. Even the indirect nexus to humans of NPE via fish and other aquatic foods, is of concern. This concern was clearly shared by the European Union who unanimously voted to extend their ban on NPEs to imported clothing and other textiles.
Clearly, these toxic chemicals are of great concern generally, however the impact may be more dangerous to children. Research suggests that children are more sensitive to these chemicals, with greater ramifications during growth stages in children. Greenpeace commenced the DETOX campaign which has coaxed some big brands like Benetton, Burberry and Mango to address this issue. It is worth noting that in 2014 there were 550 dyes and 3,000 chemicals restricted worldwide. The larger luxury fashion brands were lagging behind, however it is clear that people power does work. These efforts are being heard by big brands, as the Tesco chain, announced in July 2017 that they would be joining the DETOX campaign. Clearly, such measures are welcomed however as a population we must keep a careful watch as a public relations exercise whilst still putting profit first, is not the answer in the long-term.
Another negative result of the fast fashion industry is the amount of clothing that has been piling up in landfill sites over the past couple of years. Fashion is ever more seen as a disposable product. Unbelievably, the average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste a year. Additionally, 80% of this waste is non-biodegradable, which means it will sit in landfills for over 200 years. This figure is even higher in the United Kingdom, where 85% of clothing ends its life in landfill sites. Most landfill waste is incinerated, releasing toxins and methane, which are both harmful to the environment.
Even if you think you are being charitable by donating your clothes, you will probably not realize that only 20% of donated clothing is actually sold in charity stores? The rest is deployed to Third World countries, like Haiti. The problem with this template is that Haiti is now over-saturated with clothing. Haiti's once thriving clothing industry is now virtually extinct. It is evident that there is clear cause and effect, so western habits come at a massive cost, which is usually borne by countries further down the fashion food chain.
Manipulation of the Industry
The population is ever more ready to turn a blind eye to things around them. However, this is shortsighted as events have a way of doing a full circle. The point being that high-end fashion is seemingly available at low cost almost as soon as the catwalk shows of the various Fashion Week shows commences.
We take advantage of the offers presented by chat shows and fashion magazines, which in fact advertise the latest outfits of Hollywood celebrities, offering a low cost alternative, so you can emulate the stars. Rather strange that these fashions and lookalikes, are immediately available in the High Street and online. Clearly, we should expect the designers and their labels to be viciously fighting for copyright and intellectual property infringements. However, this cause of action seems on the decline, but we fail to question why? Instead, we see lucrative buyouts of Chinese fashion houses and accumulation of massive wealth by those at the top of the industry. Stefan Persson of H&M actually bought a whole Hampshire village of Linkenholt Estate for 25 million in 2009 to add to his billionaire property portfolio.
It would appear that if like the GMO producers have 'fingers in many pies', that we may be seeing similar activity by the designers and fashion industry leaders. Many fashion brands are produced in Third World countries, as evidenced by the various labels involved in the Rana Plaza fire. Let's face it, whilst we love designer labels, most given the economic climate, would produce cheaply in these regions and the mass population would buy these goods. We clearly need to examine the ethics of our decisions, as it is clear that a thrifty decision today, costs us and someone else tomorrow.
Social Responsibility of Fashion Brands
The fashion industry is synonymous with glitz, celebrity and the luxury lifestyle. We have seen the rise of a new type of journalistic ambassador in the form of fashion bloggers. These individuals often secure lucrative collaborations with brands in exchange for promotion of their fashion lines.
Advertising in fashion often is done with huge budgets and limitless resources. Sometimes, the imagery projected is not properly assessed as to its social effect. This may seem trivial but advertising is very powerful, and not everyone can assess the reality from fiction within the campaigns presented. Clearly, we will all be aware of the use of size '0' models, and the arguments that projection of this image could affect perception of some women as to their own body shape. This argument also stands for race, ethnicity and perhaps other traits.
Some fashion houses have made errors of judgment in this regard, where they simply should have thought of the wider implications of their photographs. Equally rather than approaching the manufacture of products for profit, more focus should be on satisfying the client's needs. The big brands have recently taken a huge interest in the Muslim fashion marketplace, given it has a projected worth of $484 billion by 2019. However, a recent article criticizes the lacklustre designs at high costs, stating that it even disrespects the modest culture.
Many brands have animals in their logos, which clearly pulls weight with their audience. Whilst this may seem something that we are used to, maybe as part of their social responsibility, they should offer something back to the animal kingdom in lieu of profits they achieve. Logos and branding have huge impact in the marketplace; if this were a human image then there would be no question over intellectual property. However, given the environmental factors caused by the fashion industry, which is actually the second most harmful to the ecosystem (oil is the top polluting industry), this is not a huge request.
Firstly, we must understand the fashion industry is perpetuated by propaganda in advertising. It is advertising that informs us that having material goods will make us happy. Reality check - happiness cannot be purchased in the High Street, neither is it vested in material goods, even though they may offer us a temporary burst of excitement.
We must stop viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses, and watch with our eyes wide open. The population is bombarded with advertising on billboards, television commercials, magazines and over the radio airwaves. Adverts are wrapped up with sexy models, and packaged with celebrities offering us the luxury life. Advertising has one motivation, that is to suggest, tell and show us to buy, buy and buy. Imagine an advertisement which said don't buy this product because we employ low-paid workers in Third World countries and this enables us to deliver you great products at low prices. I am sure you would see that this would grate at our conscience. However, we must face the reality that the fashion industry operates to a five or six time mark-up on cost. Factory workers at the low end of this cycle are clearly paid next to nothing for producing quality fashion, in a system which we perpetuate.
Instead of ignorance being bliss, why not be a conscious consumer, and ask yourself a simple question before buying:
"Where do my clothes actually come from?"
"What is the true cost of this item?"
Sometimes this sort of reflection is needed to challenge our behaviours, and perhaps review the way we interact with the world and other occupants of the planet. We came to accept that 'you are what you eat'; well the same principle applies to fashion, 'you are what you wear'. This stance worked with regards animal furs, for which demand had rendered many animal species endangered. Those wearing furs came to realise they were perpetuating killing of many precious species.
Endless consumption will lead to manufacturers wanting cheap prices, coupled with huge profits at the expense of the factory worker. Maybe we need a revolution in the fashion industry, with consumers demanding ethical social responsibility. We need to demand fair and equal treatment of people within the industry, from the high earners to low paid. Humanity needs to reassess its values and morals, but more importantly to appreciate humankind itself in all aspects as opposed to profits.
There are some really simple ways to break the unethical habit of consuming fast fashion. Buying fewer items that are more durable, timeless and made under fair conditions, will actually save you money in the long run. It really is a false economy when you consider fast fashion does not last, and yet costs in so many ways. Equally, less time will be consumed in choosing an outfit when there are fewer options. Moreover, this offers wellbeing beyond compare with the knowledge that you are caring for the environment in a meaningful way.
There are many ways in which you can start to change the Fast Fashion industry, namely:
1. Stop shopping all the time
Move your mind set from "buy, buy, buy" to "experience, experience, experience". Don't buy five shirts in Zara, and instead reallocate £50 to taking your best friend out to dinner, or even better, deposit it to your desperately hungry savings account. Invest in timeless fashion, pieces that are created rather than mass produced, paying a fair price for something that will last for many years.
2. Watch the Documentary - The True Cost
Sometimes, the only way to understand and gain appreciation is to see things directly. The True Cost is a documentary which follows a young mother's journey working within an overcrowded textile production factory. It explores the many ways in which the Fast Fashion industry is successfully destroying humanity.
3. Check Fashion Labels before Purchase
The majority of fast-fashion production, from picking cotton to sewing, occurs in Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. Make it your mission to look for products and tags stating the clothing is not made in these regions. Clearly, health, safety and working conditions are monitored in the Western World with penalties for non-compliance.
Generally, we need to be more inquisitive generally where fashion brands are concerned. Internet access and social media has given us the tools to understand these businesses and how they practice including what chemicals they use in their processes. Ask about transportation and packaging, and interact suggesting better methods or expectations. It will only be the case that change will come if we demand it.
4. Be Part of 'BUY ONE, GIVE ONE'
This is a great concept that is taking off in several industries. We are all part of humanity and should not leave anyone behind. The scheme suggests that every time you buy a new item of clothing, you offload an item that has overstayed its welcome in your wardrobe. It would be great to give it to a friend or donate that item. Remember the minimalist movement is all about 'quality over quantity'. Paying more for one quality item that will last, is a much wiser decision all things considered, than buying several items which cost in many ways. The other great part is that our conscience will leap for joy in the knowledge that this deed was part of the global movement to save the planet!
Fast Fashion much like any business is driven by demand, if we want to look for a culprit, then the clues would be tracked very close to home. Each time we buy these cheap goods, we need to imagine the impact on that factory worker who is paid next to nothing to produce it. Beyond that we must simply look out the window, and imagine those many things in nature, be it the oceans, air we breathe, wildlife that we take for granted. We must realize our actions operate to the same 'cause and effect' which keeps the planet in balance. Unless we respect this principle, we will ultimately lose these things in the future. The effects sadly will be irreversible. However nature has 'gifted' us many natural substances which do exactly the same as these toxic ones. The problem is that same old chestnut - money. We must appreciate the worth of the intangible over the shiny stuff, if we want to exist in a world of tranquility and love!
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