The fashion industry has become fast, cheap and disposable. We have become disconnected from the reality of where our clothes come from and the very real people that make them.
The massive 3-trillion dollar modern fashion industry is not a sustainable system: the demand for an ever-replenishing supply of low-cost, low-quality “fast fashion” is creating a global crisis of over-consumption and, in turn, rampant waste, crippling pollution, and appalling human rights violations.
Fast fashion’s high social and environmental costs are not reflected in its cheap price tag.
“I checked the labels on my eggs, but not on my t-shirts.” - Elizabeth Cline, author of 'Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’
Image via New York Times
Over the past two decades, global clothing consumption has increased by 400%. Historically, our wardrobes were seen as an investment. In 1900, Americans spent 20% of their income on apparel that we purchased seasonally. We owned fewer items of clothing, but they were made to last, and repair as needed. Today, we spend 4% of our incomes on apparel that is made to fall apart and purchased over the course of 52 “micro-seasons” per year. We are spending less, but buying more than ever before.
Fast fashion has dramatically changed the way we think about clothing. We tend to shop on impulse - with no investment or connection - and simply throw a piece away or donate it after only an average of seven wears.
Unfortunately, buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable comes at a huge cost to the environment. Its negative impacts include enormous water consumption and pollution, the use and disposal of toxic chemicals, and an increasingly alarming level of textile waste.
- Polyester is now the world’s most commonly used fabric. This cheap, synthetic fiber is petroleum-based, non-biodegradable and its production releases high levels carbon dioxide emissions.
- Plus, when we wash our polyester clothes a vast amount of microplastic fibers are released into our waterways and oceans where they wreak havoc on marine life (a single garment can release 1,900 individual plastic microfibers!).
- Cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and its conventional cultivation has become deeply problematic due to its extensive impact on both the farmers that grow it and the environment.
- Dirty: Worldwide, cotton covers 3% of the cultivated land and cotton growers use 18% of the world’s most toxic agrochemicals. Vomiting, paralysis, incontinence, coma, seizures and death are some of the many consequences of occupational exposure to cotton pesticides for the millions of people who work to grow cotton in the developing world.
- Thirsty: Cotton production also uses vast amounts of water (it takes 713 gallons of water to make ONE cotton t-shirt!).
- After agriculture, textile treatment and dyeing isthe second largest polluter of clean water. Millions of gallons of chemically infected water are dumped into our waterways each year which is toxic not only to the environment, but to the people who use the rivers to drink, bathe, and cook.
- The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That’s almost 11 million tons! Local thrift operations and charities only sell about 20% of donated items. Most of our inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84% of our unwanted clothes went to either an incinerator or landfill in 2012.
“It isn’t enough just looking for quality in the products we buy, we must ensure that there is quality in the lives of the people who make them.” - Orsola De Castro
Image via our partner, tonlé
With 98% of our apparel now produced overseas, it is easy to forget that very real people made all of the clothing we wear.
Everyone loves a bargain, but the relentless demand and excessive consumption of the fast fashion industry puts pressure on companies to to find ever-cheaper sources of labor in countries with little-to-no regulations.
Textile factories and garment manufacturers, determined to keep costs low in order to compete for the business of big name retailers, consistently find ways to cut corners, including low wages, limited health care access, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, forced overtime, and the practice of subcontracting their production to criminally-abusive, non-compliant factories.
The retail buyers, factory owners and suppliers have made the conscious decision to increase their annual profit margins at the cost of basic human dignity.
- The global garment and textile industries employ 60 million to 75 million people worldwide. Some make as little as $3/day which is far below the living wage necessary to provide a family with shelter, food, and education in urban areas where factories are typically located.
- 85% of garment professionals are women, a majority aged 18-25. Sexual harassment and discrimination is commonplace within the industry and ignored, or accepted, by management. Women are forced to leave or are terminated if they become pregnant, causing many to seek illegal, unsafe abortions in order to keep their jobs. We can’t empower women in one country, and exploit them in another.
- On average, garment professionals are required to work 10-16 hours a day, 6 days a week. This leaves little time for their families, increases their exposure to abuse, and prevents them from obtaining the training and skills necessary for higher paid, more secure work.
- Low wages and sacrificing an education for employment traps garment professionals in a vicious cycle of poverty, while the revenues of factory owners, suppliers, and clothing brands continue to grow.
- Workers are often forced to work in unsafe working conditions, resulting in frequent accidents and disasters, including the horrific 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,173 garment factory workers.
- Attempts at unionization or representation to demand better pay and working conditions are oftentimes met with intimidation, threats, and termination.
- Where there is extreme poverty, there is child labor and human trafficking (an estimated 168 million children are trapped worldwide). Many children are forced into employment to help their families, or people desperate for a better life are tricked into dangerous and poorly paid work with the promise of a well-paid job or internship.
- Employers prefer children to pick cotton because their small fingers do not damage the crop. Yarn and spinning mills are notorious for hiring children as they are easy to control and there are no unions or supervision to protect them.
- Child laborers and forced laborers are subjected to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and they are often paid below the minimum wage.
- Garment professionals around the world are paying the high cost of our cheap fashion. No item of clothing is worth its maker being stripped of their freedom and dignity.
Image via our partner, tonlé
“Clothes aren’t going to change the world, the women who wear them will.” -Anne Klein
Ethically-made and sustainably-sourced clothing may have a higher price tag, but the quality is also much higher, making its cost-per-wear much lower. Buying less, and buying better, doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. Not only are you benefitting from a garment that feels better and lasts longer, but you benefit from knowing both people and the planet were treated with respect in the making. Each purchase we make has the power to make the world a little bit better place.
Next Steps: The Clothing "Buyerarchy"
With a problem so big, how can we even begin to make a small dent? Trust us, we know the feeling, but we also know that small, collective actions have the power to achieve big results.
When you are searching for a few pieces to add to your closet, we encourage you to use the sustainable shopping buyerarchy model. The graphic above helps to simplify it, but it's a very nuanced and complicated debate on what’s really best regarding the social & environmental impacts. For now, this is our best assessment of purchase behaviors, organized in order of least to most harmful for our planet and the people that make our clothes:
- Love what you already have
- Mend & repair
- Borrow / Swap / Thrift - online, between friends, FB marketplace, local secondhand shops, natural materials
- Thrift - polyester (buy a microfiber wash bag!)
- Make your own clothes
- Rent ethical, sustainable and/or natural fibers
- Buy sustainable and ethically made new clothing
- Buy sustainable or ethically made new clothing
- Buy local
- Rent synthetic fabrics or from larger brands
- Buy new from big box brands - natural fibers
- Buy new from big box brands - polyester or acrylic
Like a food pyramid, you want to focus your efforts on actions that are at the "base" of the structure (or the lower numbers on the list above.) So whenever possible, love what you have, take good care of it, and borrow, swap or thrift your items. Of course, there will be times that you'll end up purchasing new - like the sweets at the top of the current food pyramid, just focus on doing this sparingly. This model is meant to be an empowering tool - not something to cause shame or stress. Do your best and enjoy the feeling of your shopping aligning with your values!
The first step is knowledge and awareness. The next step is to begin to consider the social and environmental impacts of our clothes, and purchases in general. You don’t have to love fashion any less, but try to resist the need to follow the latest trends. See the value in quality over quantity. Demand transparency from your favorite clothing brands. Push for the use of recycled and organic materials, and a guarantee that every person involved in the clothing supply chain is treated fairly and provided a living wage. Boycott brands and retailers that greenwash and/or utilize sweatshops. Support fair trade. Shop local.
And, finally, the best thing you can do is embrace a mindset of progress over perfection. There is no all or nothing approach to being a more conscientious consumer. Sometimes, either financially or logistically, it just isn’t possible. That’s okay! Each conscious purchase, no matter how small, adds up. You will find only encouragement at Siela, no judgement. We are all at different stages in our journey, but we are all in this together.
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” - John Wesley