We live in a world of Fast Fashion — that means inexpensive clothing are produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. And trends change nearly everyday. So the 40 million garment factory workers have to work under immense pressure to speed up production time at reduced costs and cut environmental corners in the name of profit.
Today we purchase 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year which is 400% more than what we consumed just 20 years ago. Apparently 1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion related job, and 80 percent of the labor force throughout the supply chain are women. It is the most manual labor intensive industry.
Let’s think about our consumer behavior on a Black Friday — as if we are in danger of running out of stuff — we join the shopping frenzy to fight for best deals — with millions of transactions within only a few hours. We believe that our happiness is achieved by daily increase in amount of stuff we bring into our lives.
More than 97% of apparel and 98% of shoes sold in the US are made overseas, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. During the 1960s, roughly 95% of apparel worn in the US was made domestically.
An average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste each year — equivalent to 11 million tonnes from the US annually, most of which is non-biodegradable and sits in landfill for over 200 years releasing harmful gases in the atmosphere.
At this point you might be thinking — well why don’t we donate them? Here’s the truth — less than 10% of these donations are sold through local thrift stores, while rest are dumped in third-world developing nations, adversely impacting their local clothing industry.
Fashion industry is the second most polluting, after the oil industry, and does not account for the cost of natural resources — water for processing, land to grow fiber, toxic chemicals to dye the clothes. You might argue that this industry creates jobs, but the cost and impact of harmful chemicals and gas emissions far outweighs its benefits.
Cotton represents 50% of total fiber used to make clothing — more than 90% of which is genetically modified, using vast amounts of water, chemicals, pesticides and insecticides. These toxic wastes and complex chemicals contaminate the local ecosystem, soil, agricultural produce, ground water and often have degenerative mental and physical health implications.
On a global scale, these behaviors are deeply rooted in our economy of consumer capitalism — where numbers drive results — large corporations consistently aim for higher profit margins, quarter over quarter, compared to their competitors.
To reap the biggest benefits, these western brands go to countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where there are no collective rights, no trade unions, no pensions, no maternity benefits and very low minimum wage.
4 millions garment factory workers, over 85% of them women, are in Bangladesh working at a minimum wage of less than $3 per day — lowest wage paid anywhere in the world. Most of them work for long strenuous hours under poverty wages, factory disasters and suffer violent treatments from employers, sometimes even beaten to death when raising concerns over poor working conditions. Often these women get a chance to see their kids only once or twice in a year, who usually are raised by friends or relatives outside the city.
If you look closely, apparel prices have deflated over the years, primarily due to cheap labor and increased competition. The idea of buying more and more comforts at cheaper prices is actually making us poorer, while the basic amenities such as housing, education and health care are increasingly getting less and less affordable. The more we learn about the trading practices of these high-end fashion industries and their tenacious influence on our consumer habits through their ad campaigns and social media outreach, the more we understand how they manipulate us and undermine our values.
What we don’t realize is that when a shirt costs $5 and a pair of jeans $20, it’s quickly seen as disposable. This is an example of consumptionism — an ideology, or system of beliefs, that prioritizes consumption and spending above all else. Most Americans practice this, while their credit lender encourage it.
We are more likely to dispose of cheaper, mass-produced clothes than more expensive items, according to a 2009 study into consumer habits.
Factories are forced to cut down steeply on labor wages due to huge pressure mounted by these large brands who threaten to take business wherever cheapest manufacturing costs are offered.
These brands do not take responsibility for their unethical and immoral practices, disguised by the fact that they do not own any factory or employ labor directly — thus perfectly orchestrating and engineering a business model that leads to worker exploitation and mass impoverishment. Major western brands are able to source cheap materials and labor, while avoiding all accountability for the growing cost of the human health and the environment.
There is an urgent need for systemic and radical change in our economy. It has long been recognized that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is less than adequate as a measure of the economic health and welfare of our societies. It does not factor in cost of human capital and destruction of environmental, social and economic injustice.
Today, GDP is outdated and does not measure human well being and thus needs to be upgraded and improved.
So the next time you are shopping at H&M, Zara or Forever 21, first consciously ask yourself if you really.. really need to buy that shirt and think about its impact on the environment. We, as consumers, have the power of choice and wisdom to transform our habits and lifestyle. It is imperative that we adopt a responsible, ethical and sustainable way of doing fashion for long- term sustainability and well-being of our planet. We need to stop treating people as profits and land as commodity. There are better and more humane ways of consuming and there is so much more we need to do.
Start by asking these simple questions— where are your clothes coming from? Is it acceptable that someone dies to make the apparel you wear? Or would you just turn a blind eye?
Be responsible. One shirt at a time.