On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, leaving 1138 people dead and another 2500 injured. For weeks leading up to its collapse, garment workers in the factory had been voicing their concerns about cracks that had appeared in the building’s structure. Yet, without building standard regulations or worker unions, their voices were ignored and they paid for their employer’s negligence with their lives. Sadly the Rana Plaza Disaster is not a one-off with huge structural issues of ruthless neglect and exploitative practice lying at the heart of the Fast Fashion Industry. While major incidents may grace the headlines for a while, they are soon forgotten, along with the daily exploitation of garment workers all over the world.
As the 2nd dirtiest industry after oil, Fast Fashion is also having severe repercussions on the environment as well as on its workers. If fashion is to be sustainable, we need to seriously reduce the amount of clothing that we consume and radically transform our methods of manufacture, cutting down on waste and repurposing fabrics.
Yet, this will not just rely on top-heavy structural change and legal alterations, but also on the individual mind-sets of each wearer. It’s up to us to call for change and to demand multinational corporations to radically change their modes of business. Here are 3 reasons why this is not something that can simply be thrown in the closet and forgotten about.
Picture Credit: The True Cost
According to the International Labour Organisation, around 170 million children are engaged in child labour, being a particularly prevalent issue in the textile and fashion industry with its demands for low-skilled labour. Due to the opacity of the fashion supply chain, many employers continue to get away with horrific human rights violations without big brands and consumers ever finding out. We must continue to draw attention to this injustice and support the work of organisations such as Stop Child Labour to put an end to these atrocities.
Many garment workers are forced into binding contracts that lead them into spirals of debt and lock them into their labour. Many labour brokers in India promise migrant workers that they can help them find employment, offering loans of $7000 to be paid back when they find a job. This would take someone at least two years to pay back and, with contracts of employment only lasting three years, it’s virtually impossible for workers to escape this spiral of debt. In need of work and without other options to turn to, many people fall into an endless cycle of human trafficking. It’s clear that this is going on within factories of huge clothing manufacturers, yet many of these multinational corporations continue to ignore the need to investigate their supply chains and thus turn a blind eye to this modern-day slavery.
Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing were purchased in the UK-an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012. On average, a garment lasts 3.3 years before it’s discarded, ending up in landfill. Most of this waste is non-biodegradable meaning it sits in landfill for 200 years or more while releasing harmful gases into the air. There is also a tremendous amount of waste produced in clothing factories. As an example, in Kanpur, India, leather production is resulting in more than 50 million litres of toxic waste water being poured into the River Ganga on a daily basis. This polluted water is then used in local farming and as drinking water. Major western brands continue to source cheap materials from places like Kanpur while avoiding all accountability for the growing cost to human health and the environment.
Picture Credit: The True Cost
How you can help
Reading these facts and figures, it can be easy to feel powerless in the face of such widespread injustice. Yet, there are simple things that each of us can do to begin to unravel the Fast Fashion Industry’s tightly-knit web of corruption.
- Evaluate your own spending habits: Ask yourself questions about your own habits. How frequently do you buy clothes? Do you tend to buy a few investment pieces that will last a while or a new item for every occasion? Where do you tend to buy your clothes from? A good way to start is by pinpointing areas where you could make a change and giving yourself a specific target. If you tend to buy something new every time there’s an event, you could borrow from a friend instead. Why not try buying only from charity shops or brands whose ethical and sustainable standards stand up to scrutiny?
- Look deeper into fashion brands: After looking at your own ethical credentials, check out those of your favourite brands online. Prepare for a lot of “green-washing” (that’s legal jargon used to make everything sound environmentally and ethically squeaky clean), which often covers up major gaps in their ethical standards. Demand more. Just as food labels now detail exactly where the produce comes from and what it’s made from, clothes’ labels should let us know their source and how they’ve been made. A good way to put pressure on big fashion brands is simply to email and ask about their supply chain, about the working conditions of their employees and their methods of manufacture.
- Don’t compromise: In order for real, radical change to happen, consumers need to be prepared to take a stand and not settle for greenwashing and capsule conscious collections. Many funky ethical brands are popping up online offering beautiful products that have been made fairly and sustainably. In many ways, buying ethically can seem like a luxury, with many of these brands nestling into a pricier niche. However, there are a few cheaper alternatives, such as buying from charity and vintage shops that, while not tackling the exploitation of workers directly, do recycle discarded items and reduce waste. Clothes from these shops are usually very affordable too and don’t entail one-off big purchases. Another option is to organise clothes swaps with friends-a fun way to revamp your wardrobe without breaking the bank or giving in to the convenience of the High Street. If making a one-time investment purchase is an option, buying one slightly more expensive item that will last a long time rather than lots of cheaper, poorer quality versions will mean less waste and will save money in the long-run.
So, while the ugly truths behind Fast Fashion continues, let’s not allow them to go ignored. Instead, we can play our part in exposing this corruption for what it is and encourage a Slow Fashion Industry that places true value on the people and the planet that put the clothes on our backs.
Header Picture Credit: Fashion Revolution
Written by: Hannah Roberts, volunteering contributor at AmaElla