Today fashion consumers expect retailers to produce garments that are in tune with what’s happening on the catwalks, the red carpet and the street. To satisfy this demand for the latest trends, high street retailers have increased the amount of clothes pouring into our stores to an unprecedented high, from two seasons a year to fifty in some cases. As well as wanting the most up to date looks, the consumer wants everything cheaper, and the high street complies, with average clothing prices decreasing yearly. But who or what is really footing the bill for our increasing appetite for fashion?
Sarah Ditty at The Ethical Fashion Forum puts it simply: “In the short-term, farmers, garment workers and certain ecosystems pay the price for cheap fast fashion. In the long-term we all will.” At every stage of the production chain, cheap fashion is wreaking havoc on our world. It begins with the raw materials, as Charlotte Turner from The Sustainable Angle explains: “The production of fabrics like cotton contribute to the poisoning of water streams from synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and the loss of soil fertility and biodiversity caused by monocultures.” Man-made fibres are also putting pressure on our natural resources. Synthetic materials are often made from petroleum – about one cup of crude oil is used to make one polyester t-shirt. The labour conditions behind these materials need to be questioned as well. Cotton farmers in the developing world receive an unfairly low price for what is a valuable commodity. Uzbekistan – the second biggest producer of cotton in the world – forces tens of thousands of its citizens, including young children, to work in its cotton fields for little or no pay.
The production stage of the chain has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. Eight months ago there was widespread media coverage when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. Although inspectors had discovered cracks in the building the previous day and requested closure, managers at the factory threatened to withhold a month’s wage from those who refused to come to work the next day. Killing 1,130 workers, the accident was the worst in the history of the garment industry. Matalan, Primark and Mango have since admitted to having ties with the sweatshop.
As the Rana Plaza disaster proves, the poorest people in the developing world are paying for our cheap, fast fashion with their health and sometimes their lives. Because it’s the most cost-effective solution for retailers, 90 per cent of our clothes are imported from outside of the EU, mostly from South-East Asia. To produce garments at the going rate, factory owners forgo safe and humane working conditions for their employees and don’t pay them what they need to have a basic standard of living. “They’re given well below a living wage and a lack of fire and building safety results in them risking their lives every day they go to work,” Iliana Winterstein from the non-profit organisation Labour Behind the Label explains. “They suffer physical and verbal abuse from their supervisors, and because the vast majority of workers are women, sexual harassment is rife. Being denied the right to join a union is the norm, as is enforced overtime, a lack of toilet breaks and an inadequate supply of drinking water.”
As well as the social repercussions, throughout the production stage our environment is continuously being damaged. The countries that produce these garments generally lack pollution and emissions regulations. When the materials are processed, finished and dyed, toxic chemicals are used, which are often dumped into water supplies. And let’s not forget the fuel expended to export them from Asia to the West. These are just some of the many ecological issues at play.
By now we can see that cheap fashion is racking up a hefty ecological and social bill, and it doesn’t end once the garments land on the high street. Due to the lack of time and money that goes into their production, the garments are poorly made, making them unwearable after a few outings. Because of their low price and the fact that they are only ‘fashionable’ for a short time, they are discarded after a couple of months. As a result about 1.2 million tonnes of textiles go to landfill every week. Giving unwanted clothes to charity is certainly a better option than binning them, but it’s not the perfect solution. Only 25 per cent of clothes donated are of adequate condition to be sold in the UK. The remainder are either recycled or sold in the developing world. Although some say this creates jobs and helps communities, others argue that in the long run it prevents the growth of their own textile industries and subsequently the country as a whole.
Unfortunately the supply chain is a complex one, and the problems cannot be fixed overnight. Many brands are trying their best by sending inspectors to review the factories they use and taking a look at how they can reduce their ecological footprint. “It is not simply a case of being able to label a brand ‘good’ and another brand ‘bad’ and we do not advocate boycotting anyone,” Iliana says. “The workers will usually be the ones to pay the price should a brand respond by pulling out of a factory.” To tackle the problem sufficiently our whole wardrobe philosophy needs to change and we need to invest in quality garments that will transcend the seasons. “Buy less, and buy better,” suggests Sarah at The Ethical Fashion Forum. “Ask questions and do your research.” Get behind some of the many organisations that are fighting for change, like Labour Behind The Label, The Fair Wear Foundation and The Sunstainable Angle. Read up on their work, sign their petitions and donate money if you can. If you want to ensure your clothes are coming from a good place there are plenty of ethical designers to choose from.