April 23rd-April 29th marks ‘Fashion Revolution Week’, a movement created in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster 5 years ago that aims to increase awareness of the ethical, sustainable and environmental issues surrounding the fashion industry. This movement hopes to create pressure on global fashion brands both high street and luxury, in order to generate positive change.
Our world has developed to become fast paced in every aspect to meet societal demands, from instant technology at our fingertips to next day delivery. Fashion is no different, and followed demand through the birth of the fast fashion industry, a business model that entices consumers with low prices and weekly changes in fashion trends being sold, leading to higher amounts of consumption. This industry has thrived, with extortionate amounts of profit (circa £3 trillion per annum), leading to CEOs of big fashion brands such as Zara and H&M becoming some of the richest people in the world. However, this boom in industry has come at a significant cost to both the garment workers and the environment, and it is one of the most exploitative industries with a pollution tag to match.
Five years ago, on the 24th April, a spotlight was shone on the ethical values of the fast fashion industry due to a building in Bangladesh called the Rana Plaza collapsing, killing 1,138 people and leaving 2,500 injured, making this catastrophe the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. An overwhelming majority of those people were young women (currently, 80% of garment makers are women aged 18-35), who worked for global fashion brands making their clothes. Before the collapse, workers had noticed the instability of the building and had requested not to return, but managers had threatened workers with a monthly pay docking due to pressure from their employers: global fashion brands. With no union to provide a collective voice, the workers had no choice but to enter the building and complete work, ultimately leading to their deaths.
This tragic incident highlighted the exploitative nature of big fashion brands, who take no responsibility for their workers, forcing long hours upon them in unfit working conditions, whilst paying them less than their country’s living wage. If workers can’t make demands of output, the workload is simply offered to another competing factory who are willing to do the work at a better rate for the employer. These ethical issues listed are explored further in a documentary called “The True Cost“, which is available on Netflix and comes thoroughly recommended if you want to learn more.
Accompanying the appalling ethical values of some global fashion brands, are the environmental effects. Often when we think of combating climate change, trends such as veganism and zero plastic waste spring to mind rather than the fashion industry; despite the fact that the fashion industry is the 2nd biggest cause of pollution globally.
These issues begin with the raw materials used, with cotton and leather (including vegan leather) being the main culprits. Cotton is used in a vast amount of clothes (around 40%) but requires vast amounts of resources to be created, namely water and pesticides, both of which have an accolade of problems with rising rates of farmer suicide and birth defects caused by contamination being among the worst. Leather (both animal and vegan) go through intensive processes to become the malleable material, with vast amounts of energy and toxic chemicals being used that also creates hazardous waste. In addition, vegan leather creates disposal issues as it takes vegan leather significantly longer to decompose due to its plastic nature.
The hazardous chemicals used not only lead the workers to experience harmful exposure (because of the lack of safety practices in place), they also have a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment. Chemical waste from unregulated dyeing practices is often disposed of in rivers that are untreated. This pollutes them and severely affects aquatic life. Microplastics also enter our oceans from clothes made of polyester, as the microfibers come loose during washing cycles, allowing them to flow into oceans and become part of the floating garbage patches, with the biggest one being twice the size of Texas! Marine wildlife, such as krill, are also prone to ingesting the microplastics, and they eventually move up the food chain and find their way into our own diets, causing further complications. Even garments which use recycled plastic contribute to these issues, and therefore they are not totally eco-friendly.
Finally, the waste we generate as consumers through throwing clothes away merely adds to the already mounting problem, with the average item of clothing in the UK having a lifetime of 3.3 years at best. This, of course, is driven by the popularity of social media. With apps such as Instagram marketing new outfits daily, and YouTubers completing clothing hauls regularly, the ideal that clothes are disposable is reinforced. In 2016, it was estimated that 1.13 million tonnes of new clothing was bought in the UK, with 235 million items being cast aside by early spring 2016 in landfill in what was presumably “spring cleaning”efforts.
Some combat this problem through donating used clothes to charity shops and, while this does help through recycling, only 10-30% of donated clothes remain in the UK, with the rest being donated to poorer countries such as Mozambique and Kenya. At first glance, this appears logical, giving clothes to those who need them more. The donated clothes are given to traders by charities who sell the clothes on, which has created a lucrative market (worth £2.8 billion) for traders and provided jobs. However, this has created a dependency on western countries for donations, as local clothing production in these countries have been unable to compete with the cheap prices. Again, not all clothes will be sold, and many will be discarded in landfill or incinerated, emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Without a doubt, the fast fashion industry coupled with our consumerism mindset has created a plethora of issues both ethically and environmentally. However, these issues have begun to be tackled by both consumers and designers alike, aiming to make the fashion industry more sustainable and ethically sound through spreading awareness. These ways will be discussed in Part 2 of this series.