The Problem With Fast Fashion And How You Can Help Make A Difference

Fast fashion clothes rail

This week we invite Harjit Sohotey-Khan, founder of Jewelled Buddha to talk to us about fast fashion. Harjit sells ethical fashion and homeware for style conscious women. Her brand is about empowering you with beautiful, ethically made wardrobe staples that enable artisans to live a life free from poverty.

Here we are six months into the aftermath of a global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a second wave. At the height of Covid-19, global demand for fashion fell, catapulting everyone into a new normal that now means we shop less, consume differently and spend more time at home. Whilst we’ve found comfort in loungewear and stay at home style, we’ve also rediscovered what lives in our wardrobes shifting our priorities to a more mindful way of living.

This shift in our values has partly been triggered by necessity but also the increasing awareness of how the fashion industry continues to exploit people and the planet even at a time of crisis. So let’s take a look at the key issues around what’s wrong with fast fashion and how we can help bring about change.

The Fast Fashion Model Drives Human Rights Violations

Garment worker holding fast fashion sign

Fast fashion is cheap, trend-driven clothing influenced by celebrity culture and fashion catwalks. It hits our high-streets at breakneck speed fuelling our desire to wear the latest styles and promotes a throw-away culture that has us back in the shops before we know it. We’ve lost our appreciation of quality and our altered perception of price means we now think it’s normal to pay a few pounds for a t-shirt. This never ending cycle of consumption means clothes end up in landfill polluting the environment. 

But there’s a human cost.

Millions of garment workers around the world, many of them women, have to suffer gruelling long hours, as much as up to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Along with low pay and dangerous working conditions it’s impossible for any of them to work their way out of poverty. That wasn’t the plan. The plan was that the richer Western countries would invest in developing countries to make their clothes and that would help poorer people in those countries earn a sustainable income. But that hasn’t happened. Big brands have exploited their power over manufacturers meaning corners are cut, profit and prices are squeezed and workers suffer. The cheaper our clothes the lower their wages. The faster we want those clothes, the longer they have to toil to keep up with the demand.

The Rana Plaza Factory Tragedy

Garment workers protesting

The Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013 was a wake-up call to the world. Over 1,100 people died and 2500 were injured. It highlighted just how terrible the working conditions were in Bangladesh’s garment industry and how big high street brands needed to be held accountable for putting profit before safety. If you’ve not seen The True Cost movie, I’d recommend you watch it. It’s a gritty documentary film that takes you behind the scenes of the global fashion supply chain and explores how fast fashion has resulted in the exploitation of millions of workers around the world.  

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh Accord of Fire and Building Safety was introduced to safeguard the rights of garment workers, but big brands are today, still violating the rights of those who make our clothes. During the height of the pandemic, when demand for fashion plummeted, numerous brands such as Kohls and Urban Outfitters, cancelled and refused to pay for orders already produced, causing a humanitarian crisis. In Bangladesh alone, brands have cancelled over $3 billion worth of clothing with over 4 million factory workers not paid and at risk of starvation. 

The Rise of Ethical Fashion

Remake, an organisation and movement that works to change the fast fashion industry model, started the #PayUp Campaign, to hold brands accountable for refusing to pay suppliers and garment workers. As a result of this campaign, 21 brands have committed to pay in full for orders completed and in production. You can check out the Remake website here and sign the petition to put pressure on brands to pay their suppliers.

Ethical Fashion - Ganges Cape Front

As an ethical brand that champions artisanal craft communities, I find it shocking that high street brands don’t respect garment workers. I take great joy from the stories of our artisans and believe that in order to appreciate your clothes, you should also appreciate those who make them. After all, without their hard work, we wouldn’t have a business. But the big high street brands are still behaving like colonial masters in developing countries, profiteering from the vulnerable and marginalised. 

It has to change and the only way it can, is if we as consumers demand that it changes and call for transparency and equality.

Ethical Fashion - Scarf

Unlike fast fashion, our accessories and clothing are made entirely by hand using upcycled, handloomed, organic and vegan materials. We champion artisans who make our products and work collaboratively to share their stories. We only sell authentic textiles and celebrate craft techniques that have been passed down through generations. Each and every product we carry, empowers artisans to a fair and sustainable income. Working exclusively with social enterprises, NGO’s and brands that share our respect for people and the planet, we consciously seek out those who have a strong sense of integrity and transparency in their fair trade practices, women’s empowerment programmes and environmental impact. 

But that’s another problem. Transparency in fast fashion is a tricky issue.

There’s also a more sinister side to the fashion industry where radical extremism has found its way into the very fibre of our clothes. We’ve all heard about the the forced detention of over a million Uyghurs and Muslim-ethnic minority groups, by the Chinese government in the province of Xinjiang. Evidence shows that the Chinese government have been forcing Uyghurs to work in factories, making many of the products we wear. Almost 20% of global cotton - and 80% of Chinese cotton is grown in Xinjiang. With extensive textile and garment production , it supplies clothing factories across China and the world. Although most fashion brands do not source from Xinjiang, many of their supply chains are likely to be implicated. In fact, the EUFL (End Uyghur Forced Labour) says “Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated.” 

A scary thought for both consumers and retailers.

Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Clothes going to landfill

It goes without saying that we can’t talk about fast fashion without talking about the environmental impact it has on the planet. Whilst our thirst for fast fashion continues we lose the appreciation and value we once had for our clothing. This encourages us to dispose of them faster and therefore contributes to landfill and incineration. Traid, the clothing waste charity estimate that around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill in the UK each year. Therefore it’s crucial we circulate what we already have by recycling, upcycling and buying second hand. 

Water Usage

The fashion industry is the 3rd largest user of water. From irrigating cotton crops and textile dyeing to the everyday washing of clothing, the industry relies on water throughout the textile production process. Did you know it takes around 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt? That’s the equivalent to how much water we normally drink over a 2 and half year period. With millions of people already at risk of water shortage, it’s vital we reduce the consumption of water in the production process. Take the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake, it has now totally dried up largely due to the irrigation of cotton farming. Conventional cotton not only uses huge amounts of water but also pesticides that have over the years caused thousands of farmer deaths. 

There’s also the problem of untreated waste water. A byproduct of textile factories, it contains toxins such as arsenic. mercury and lead. These are dumped into rivers polluting not only waterways but marine life, wildlife and affecting human health. Microfibres are also devastating to marine life which make their way through the food chain on to our plates! 

Greenhouse Gases

According to Greenpeace, global emissions from textile production are equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2. This outweighs the carbon footprint of international flights and shipping combined. Clothing has an environmental impact at every stage, but it’s fabric production that has the biggest climate impact accounting for 70% of the carbon footprint for an item of clothing. This means that most of the carbon footprint emissions starts at the beginning of the life cycle of an item of clothing. So by extending the life of our clothes we can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our clothes. 

Deforestation

Environmental impact of fast fashion - deforestation

Most of us are aware of the link between forests and paper or palm oil and the rainforests of Indonesia. But what has deforestation got to do with fashion? Well, there’s a dark side to some of the clothes we wear. Take a look at your clothing labels and you’ll probably see rayon, viscose or modal. Made from the pulp of trees you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re more eco-friendly than plastic based fabrics such as nylon or polyester. In fact, these fabrics are often marketed as being more eco-friendly. After all, they’re plant based right? Think again. They’re often made from trees from endangered rainforests.

Here’s how your clothes are made from a tree; Dissolving pulp mills, located near forests all over the world take trees, add chemicals and create a dissolving pulp. The pulp goes to the producer, who makes it into a fibre that is sent to a dyer or spinner. It is then made into a textile which is sold to fashion brands. Some of the worst offenders are located in Canada, Indonesia and even the Amazon, destroying old trees that are critical to the survival of wildlife and our climate. 

As a consumer it can be overwhelming to learn that our clothes come at such a cost. There’s so much information that’s conflicting, what with all the green washing and eco-friendly marketing messages out there, it’s easy to get confused. Most advocates for ethical and sustainable fashion come from a place that’s non-judgemental and want to genuinely raise awareness of issues such as human rights and environmental impact. It’s not as easy as saying stop buying fast fashion ,it’s more about pressuring fast fashion brands to change their colonial mentalities, treat those who make their clothes with respect and be responsible and accountable for the damage they are inflicting on the environment of other countries and here. 

So what can we do to help change the industry? 

Sustainable fashion campaign

1) Demand transparency - get involved with Fashion Revolution a movement of people from all over the world that are driving change in the fashion industry. Use the hashtag #whomademyclothes and ask brands to be transparent and accountable for their actions. Share on social media and spread the word. 

2) Fall in love with your clothes! Appreciate them, treasure and be creative with the clothes you have. Upcycle, buy second-hand, swap, thrift and recycle. Do what you can to extend the life of the clothes you wear.

3) invest in clothes that are better quality, provide longevity, that are classic pieces and timeless. Trends come and go but style is forever.

4) Buy ethically made, sustainable fashion. There are so many amazing brands out there that are making a positive difference to the lives of artisans and garment workers. Check out the Ethical Brand Directory for inspiration on brands doing good.

5) Take time to learn about the reality of what’s really going on in the fashion industry. I’ve listed some resources below;

The Clean Clothes Campaign

Anti-Slavery International

Labour Behind The Label

End Uyghur Forced Labour

For more information, head over to Jewelled Buddha. Plus get 15% off with the code: ETHICAL15

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