Is Fashion Destroying the Environment? SF Investigates

Waste Water Discharged By A Garments Factory In Chengdu
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“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world… second only to oil. It’s a really nasty business…it’s a mess.” — Designer Eileen Fisher

Once upon a time, the majority of humans made their own clothes, while the wealthy elite employed couturiers to make theirs. Then, couturiers got smart, started creating “looks”, and urged them onto courtesans who were eager to mimic royal dress in order to impress – a premise that eventually gave way to seasonal trends. Couturiers soon became celebrated designers whose names, reputations, and skills evoked a brand.

Encoded in human DNA is the desire to be a part of a community, and fashion is a tribal signifier that speaks to belonging. If it were purely utilitarian, however, it would be no fun at all. That is why fashion’s fantasy side exists – it allows humans to imagine themselves differently, to change the framework of existence by donning a new sartorial personality.

Conceptually, fashion is the most humanistic of art forms resting on a foundation of profound creativity and ingenuity, but in reality, it has become a cold and indifferent business obsessed with the bottom line. Over the centuries, fashion has evolved to meet the needs of its constituents in new ways, thanks in large part to industrialization, which streamlined mass production. Multinational conglomerates eventually came along in the 1970s and bought pieces of fashion brands, thereby injecting them with fresh revenue streams and allowing them to grow into billion-dollar empires.

Quickly, the industry changed as globalization connected the world and created unique international supply chains that allowed brands to source cheaper labor and affordable materials. Shareholder bank statements exploded with profit, but the ROI was never enough and will never be enough, in fact. This is the background in a brief and somewhat reductive nutshell, but it’s important to know where we came from in order to understand where we are today: standing at the precipice of an international environmental and human-rights disaster of which the fashion industry holds much of the blame.

Cambodian garment factory workers protesting for a fair living wage | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

First, a distinction must be made between fast fashion and high-end fashion, with the former being the major contributor to environmental pollution. High-end brands, however, have more obscure supply chains and often do not disclose which factories they use or what their workers are paid. This makes it harder to pinpoint how ethical they are, although there are many watchdog groups that put out lists concerning ethical practices.

Some, however, like Stella McCartney are transparent in their practices and only use vegan materials for production. Gucci has also joined the ranks of ethical high-end fashion brands, with the recent unveiling of a new “Culture of Purpose” that embraces sustainability and eliminates the use of fur. For now, high-end brands are more trusted when it comes to environmental impact, therefore, fast fashion and its criminally irresponsible production methods will be the focus of this investigation. The negative impact of high fashion, while harder to trace, is still important to the conversation and will be explored in-depth for a future piece.

Fast fashion is the cheap, mass-produced offerings that clutter the shelves of H&M, Forever 21, Mango, Zara, and other affordably priced and trendy brands. From the outside, access to affordable trends looks like a win for the consumer. However, the consumer cycle has become so swift and so urgent that fast-fashion brands work around the clock in order to bring new looks to the shelves in as little as two weeks from start to finish.

The above tweet by fashion influencer Bryan Boy raises a very important point: if you’re buying clothes that are cheaper than your lunch, you have to ask where they came from and how they could be produced so inexpensively. However, peeking behind the curtain to see how your AED 80 slipdress was manufactured will shatter any illusions that you ever had about the practices of the industry.

First, fast fashion does not invent anything – it copies everything straight from the runway. So when you’re buying “trends”, you’re buying cheap imitations of someone else’s creative work, which have been altered just enough so as not to get the company sued. Having said that, brands like Zara and H&M are often on the receiving end of copyright and trademark-infringement lawsuits. However, they are “too big to fail” in that they often settle these cases without going to trial, and are rarely held accountable for their actions.

Second, it’s insane how quickly these brands can produce clothes after ripping off designs from the runway, especially considering how vast their supply chains are. Let’s follow one item of clothing to see what it takes to get made. For this thought exercise, imagine a trendy shirt made of 100 percent polyester, which is created from petroleum in an energy-intensive process that converts large amounts of crude oil into fabric.

The manufacturing of polyester, which primarily takes place in third-world countries with little to no industry oversight or regulatory safeguards, creates massive amounts of toxic emissions that contain “volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride” according to the US National Library of Medicine. If inhaled, they can result in aggravated respiratory diseases.

Most factories simply dump the byproducts directly into nearby water supplies, furthering the damaging impact of the environment and community health. Polyester isn’t the only material that poisons the environment and the humans that come into contact with its waste byproducts. Cotton, nylon, acrylic, viscose, and other common materials are also criminal contributors.

Waste water discharged by a garment factory In Chengdu | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Imags

Once a bolt of polyester fabric has been assembled by the factory, it’s purchased in bulk by a brand and then shipped – sometimes thousands of miles in polluting freight ships – to the manufacturer of choice to be cut and sewn. Again, the majority of fast-fashion brands work with factories and manufacturers in third-world countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India in order to circumvent costly industry and governmental regulations. They exploit the cheap labor of these countries in order to produce clothes at a bare minimum of cost, which is why you – the consumer – will end up paying just a few dirhams for this particular dress.

The conditions in the factories themselves are dismal. Driven by enormous quotas and indifferent managers, workers operate in extreme weather conditions, around the clock, and with little to no amenities. The tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, for instance, could’ve been avoided if the site managers hadn’t sent thousands of workers back into a collapsing building in order to fill the day’s quota. Because of huge production demands placed on fast fashion, over 1,000 workers lost their lives when the building collapsed.

Every single one of us – me, you, and everyone you know – should absolutely and completely stop buying fast fashion. Forever.

Prior to that moment, a certified engineer had informed the building’s managers that it was unsafe, unstable, and unfit for human activity. The loss of life, in this case, was needless and entirely avoidable. If you thought Rana Plaza might have been a wake-up call for the industry, it wasn’t. In fact, 112 people died in a fire at a clothing factory in Dhaka just last year. There are countless other instances of human exploitation at garment factories around the world.

Besides risking their lives to make cheap clothes, exploited factory workers do not earn a living wage – sometimes making as little as 12 to 18 cents a day – which is why you’ll often hear that protests have broken out at clothing factories. In fact, H&M is currently embroiled in a dispute with its Myanmar factory, where workers have alleged lack of payment. Because of cash systems, the records of payment remain unverifiable, and the issue therefore remains unresolved.

Burmese women stitch sports clothing in a garment factory for a Taiwan company June,12, 2003 in Hlaing Tharyar, Burma. She makes an average wage of 50 cents a day which is a fairly normal salary. The United States senate has just voted to ban all Imports from Burma and freeze the assets of its government. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in "protective custody" after a clash on May 30,2003 between supporters and a pro-government group last week. The recent economic sanctions continue to be a blow to the country's struggling market economy .
Inside a Burmese garment factory | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

While we were only discussing one trendy polyester shirt, the harsh reality is that this example cross-applies to hundreds of millions of products that are being manufactured, shipped, and sold to the consumer on a daily basis. Because they are inexpensively produced from cheap materials, these items are not made to last and considered “disposable”.

Every year in China, textile waste is estimated at over 26 million tons, while the US is responsible for 12.8 million annually. You might think, “So? What’s the big deal? These disposable products end up in landfills, and that’s what landfills are for.” You’d be right about that, except the very nature of cheaply manufactured materials means they emit N2O, a gas that is 300 times more damaging than CO2. Speaking of CO2, it is projected that the fast-fashion industry will be responsible for 2.8 billion tons of emissions annually by 2030.

The list of environmental atrocities goes on ad nauseam: production wastes billions of tons of water annually, coal is used to power factories, hazardous chemicals are used to dye synthetic fabrics and then dumped into water supplies, container ships that export the products and materials pour pollution into the air, 70 million trees are turned into fabric every year, and plastic microfibers from synthetic clothes cannot break down and harm marine wildlife. Should I go on? Because I could forever and still not fully touch on all the ways fashion has destroyed the environment.

As a three trillion-dollar industry, fashion produces more than 150 billion garments a year. This prompts the question: why are we purchasing clothes at such a fast rate? Because we can, because it’s cheap, because it’s readily available. It’s packaged and marketed in such a way as to erase its exploitative footprint.

H&M, Zara, Forever 21 – these brands produce billions of garments annually because people buy them. Simple supply and demand. The way to topple this problem once and for all is to cease the demand. That’s right: every single one of us – me, you, and everyone you know – should absolutely and completely stop buying fast fashion. Forever. Given the atrocious environmental and human damage caused by mass production, this is the only answer.

I realize what that means for my life, and yours. However, the global situation is so dire that I refuse to offer any other choice. No compromise is possible when it comes to one of the most widespread, damaging, and exploitative industries the world has ever known. Commit to stop buying fast fashion, commit to informing others, commit to a better future for the next generation.

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