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By Hannah Berhane, Ethics and Policy Intern

There is such joy in receiving a package with a new piece of clothing. Even as a student, the luxury of buying new clothing is one that my peers and I indulge in fairly regularly. The social media platforms I frequent, like Instagram and TikTok, present me with a mass of constantly changing trends and an even greater selection of places to purchase new items from. As an avid thrifter and a semi-frequent online shopper, I have participated in many of these trends, usually until their demise within a few months. However, my recent reflection on the nature of consumption has shifted the way I participate in fast fashion and even thrifting or buying second-hand.

I find it important to first acknowledge that individual actions cannot single-handedly alter the systems and ideologies that dominate the fashion industry. It is not necessary or productive to feel burdened by the need to fix a multibillion dollar industry. However, I have found it impactful to develop a better understanding of the nature of consumption and production in this day and age. By cultivating this understanding, we can fight against the invisibilization of the processes required to create and sell our clothing. By cultivating this understanding, we are able to more consciously spend our money and debate the ethics of these industries.

Identifying the Problem (and its Impact on Workers Rights)

Fashion and textile production are moving at a faster pace than ever before. Trends that once lasted for five to ten years are now lasting only months to a few weeks. In order to keep up with these ephemeral trends, fast fashion brands are emphasizing quick production of clothing. Garment production has doubled globally since 2000, and the average consumer buys 60% more clothing than they did seventeen years ago, while keeping their clothing for half as long as they did before 2000. To buyers like me, this may not mean much more than having to buy clothing more frequently. For others, however, there are real consequences of the increased pace of clothing production. For workers in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and several other countries in what is commonly known as the Global South, this increased pace of production has significantly exacerbated the extent of worker exploitation. While garment workers in the Global South have been exploited by corporations in North America and Western Europe for many decades, the exploitation in the garment industry has reached new heights in the past 40 years as the Global South continues to meet the growing demands of fast fashion.

Lack of Transparency in the Fashion Industry

The realities of garment workers in a fast fashion context is one that is not shared with consumers of this clothing. On social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where people engage with the latest trends, there is very little information shared by companies about who makes this clothing, where it is made, and what the environmental cost of this production is. In fact, corporations will frequently make vague and unsubstantiated claims to sustainable or “green” efforts. Naturally, customers who want to shop more consciously frequently support corporations that appear to be more sustainable. However, despite what corporations may claim, typically there are very few tangible efforts being made to reduce their impact on the environment or to limit worker exploitation. The practice of only superficially appearing sustainable or environmentally conscious is referred to as “greenwashing.” According to Katie Okamoto, sustainability editor at the New York Times’ Wirecutter, a common example of greenwashing is when online shoppers are presented with the option to opt into “carbon neutral” shipping if they pay a little more. Typically, this indicates that the clothing company is working with a third-party payment service involved in some way with carbon offsetting projects. However, most of these carbon offsetting projects will take years to begin, and the impact of carbon offsetting is still not clear. Scientists fear that carbon offsetting does not significantly reduce emissions, and may actually make these emissions worse. Thus, the idea that by paying extra, customers are able to combat shipping emissions is one that has very little backing. Because of the lack of transparency offered by corporations, making informed choices regarding clothing consumption is difficult for the average customer. In fact, the lack of transparency from clothing companies actively obscures many of the disturbing realities of the fashion industry.

Gendered Exploitation in the Garment Industry

One of the facts obscured by this lack of transparency is that, according to the nonprofit organization Remake, 80% of the millions of garment workers are women between the ages of 18 and 24. Less than 2% of these workers earn a living wage, and women and children are frequently paid less than their male counterparts. Dr. Hakan Karaosman, an award-winning researcher focused on fashion supply chains, writes, “Fashion, as a system, is paralyzed by imbalanced power relations.” Dr. Karaosman also notes that in the fashion industry, issues of gender, class, and nationality play out on a dire and drastic scale. Beyond the serious exploitation faced by women and girls in particular, garment workers are typically of a lower socioeconomic class and face issues like wage theft, which have significant impacts on their quality of life from a day-to-today basis. Wage theft often occurs in the  garment industry when brands do not pay for completed work until it is delivered. If orders are canceled, workers simply do not get paid. Low-income workers also fall victim to exploitative tactics, such as the setting of impossible turnaround times and last minute changes to orders that force them to work unreasonable hours. Many of these workers also experience disturbing health and safety dangers.

One such example of these dangers is the collapse of the Rana Plaza building near Dhaka, Bangladesh in April of 2013. Rana Plaza was a garment factory where thousands of people worked to supply clothing that was primarily sold in the West. Well-known brands like Walmart, JCPenney, Mango and Primark were some of the many brands found to be producing at Rana Plaza. Employees interviewed after the collapse explained that they had seen cracks growing on the walls of the factory for days before the collapse, and that the floors of the building that they worked on had been constructed without proper permits from the city. Though this building had been deemed extremely unsafe, and the bank and shops located on the first floor of the Rana Plaza building were evacuated days prior to the collapse, managers continued requiring employees who worked in garment production to come to work so they wouldn’t fall behind on production. Eventually, just as many workers feared, the building collapsed, killing more than a thousand people and seriously injuring more than two thousand. In the aftermath of the collapse, many corporations did not admit that their clothing was being sourced from Rana Plaza until their labels were found in what was left of the building. Several of these corporations paid the victims of the collapse and their families settlements, but the majority of the brands sourcing from Rana Plaza refused to take accountability. However, on a global scale, the Rana Plaza collapse did call attention to the horrors of the garment industry. A month after the collapse, national and global pressure resulted in the signing of the Accord on Fire and Building safety by 220 companies whose clothes were being manufactured in Bangladesh. This accord is a legally binding agreement that holds companies accountable for safety violations and requires them to invest at least some financial resources into the safety of the buildings their clothes are being produced in.

Though the garment industry has improved slightly since the Rana Plaza collapse, the industry in Bangladesh and elsewhere continues to endanger workers. Garment workers continue receiving wages that leave them below the poverty line, and union busting remains prevalent in garment factories across the Global South. These workers also continue being exposed to dangerous chemicals and dyes, without being provided proper protection by factory management or corporations. To put it simply, much of the clothing that is purchased by consumers such as myself in the West is produced at the cost of the health and lives of workers in the Global South, where corporations find cheap labor and malleable labor laws.

What Can We Do?

Upon hearing such stories, it is difficult to continue participating in the fast fashion world in the same way. However, coming to terms with the brutal realities of fast fashion can feel daunting. It can feel difficult to entirely avoid fast fashion, which is pervasive in our communities and is the most affordable option for many people. It can also feel intimidating to imagine going up against multinational enterprises in order to challenge the norms of the fast fashion industry. However, according to Parcel Pending, college students make up about 40% of consumers and have $143 billion in buying power. The role of college students in consumption of fashion is more significant than we think, and we can combat problematic aspects of fast fashion in a myriad of ways.

First and foremost, we can avoid overconsumption. One of the hallmarks of fast fashion is that clothing is viewed as easily disposable. Consumers are constantly buying and rebuying, typically buying into the latest microtrends and into the commentary of fashion influencers online. Slowing this down by buying less and buying carefully is crucial. An important exercise in fighting overconsumption and fast fashion is reflecting on longevity. When purchasing new or even thrifted items, seriously consider the following questions. How long can I wear this item? Will it last me a significant period of time? Are there many ways I can style said item? Other important questions to ask oneself are those related to why one is purchasing a new item of clothing. Buying with purpose rather than impulse leads to less waste and a more intentionally curated wardrobe.

Similarly, mending and taking care of the clothes we already own is crucial. It is revolutionary to consider ways to extend the lives of our clothes rather than immediately donating or throwing away clothes when we no longer want them. Whenever I feel tired of my wardrobe, I try to “go shopping” in my own closet in order to find ways to make what I already own feel new. This practice has helped me reinvent my wardrobe many times without participating in fast fashion at all. The urge to needlessly consume by buying new clothes is one that has been indoctrinated into us, and it is one I feel often. However, this urge has tangible consequences for others and for the Earth. By using practices such as mending clothes and going shopping in my own closet, I am able to resist the urge to constantly consume.

The power of our purchases and our choices is much more significant than we think. By becoming more conscious participants in all aspects of fashion, we can reduce the impact of our choices on garment workers and on the Earth.


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