I receive what seems like 100 emails a week from online clothing stores like boohoo, H&M and ROMWE, not to mention the ads that are always popping up on my Instagram feed. With the convenience of online shopping coupled with inexpensive products, I can’t help but spend hours scrolling through merchandise and even placing orders when my bank account will allow for it. I tend to forget, however, the harmful impact these companies have on both the people who work for them and the environment.
The clothing churned out by these companies is often referred to as “fast fashion,” which, according to Independent, is fashion that “focuses on speed and low costs in order to deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk looks or celebrity styles.” Because of this, the clothing they make and sell is often of poor quality and meant to fall apart after just a few washes, forcing the consumer to then buy a new piece from the same or a similar company and perpetuating the cycle.
The question then, of course, arises — who is making all these clothes? Unsurprisingly, these fast fashion companies use exploitative labor practices, often in developing nations that have few workers’ rights, enabling manufacturers to underpay and overwork employees. More than 80 percent of workers don’t earn a living wage, and it’s not uncommon for garment workers to work 13 to 14 hours per day, nonstop. The conditions in which they must work are inarguably horrific, exemplified by the case of the Rana Plaza, a Dhaka garment factory. One woman, Aklima Khanam, was afraid to return to work after a large crack in the building’s ceiling was discovered, but her bosses threatened to dock her pay if she didn’t show. Just an hour after she arrived, the building collapsed, trapping her for 15 hours. She is now unable to work because of her injuries and therefore cannot earn her paltry salary of just $31 per month, nor has she received any kind of compensation for her accident from her employers. Entering the workforce at age 14, Khanam’s story is not uncommon. Eighty percent of these workers are women and 60 percent are under the age of 18, so these companies perpetuate poverty among women of color as well as child labor.
The environmental impact of fast fashion is also too detrimental to overlook. Some of the main concerns include carbon emissions, because the merchandise is shipped via airplane from factories in the East to retailers in the West, and use of fossil fuels, as many manufacturing plants rely on coal energy. Another concern is landfill waste. Although the vast majority of clothing discarded could be reused, it ends up getting thrown away. According to Klow, a blog that focuses on ecological and ethical living, “In the [United States] alone, clothing landfills occupy more than 125 million cubic yards each year and the worst part is that most of these clothes are made from nonbiodegradable materials.”
Another huge problem caused by fast fashion is water pollution. It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce just one shirt. Many of the products are treated with and dyed using chemicals which are then often dumped into rivers, polluting the freshwater supply in already impoverished regions. The production of this clothing necessitates the use of more than 1.5 million tons of these hazardous chemicals. Toxic chemicals are also used for agricultural purposes to produce cotton, and can contaminate the land and runoff into waterways as well. The effects of this water pollution can be devastating. A documentary titled “The True Cost” shows a farmer in the United States who died of a brain tumor, as well as the children of cotton farmers in India who are being born with serious birth defects.
The consequences of our fashion choices are grave and there are countless victims. Although we are not the ones directly exploiting child labor and polluting the environment, there are ways we can discourage these practices. It is important to be aware of the issues inherent in buying clothing from companies like H&M, who try to brand themselves as sustainable even though they contribute to harmful and wasteful practices. In 2018, H&M released a sustainability report claiming that “by 2030 it aims to use only recycled or other sustainability sourced materials and by 2040 it wants to be 100-percent climate positive,” according to Forbes. In reality, however, the company burned 12 tons of unsold clothing.
We do have purchasing power and can use our money to support more environmentally friendly brands. It can be hard to invest in high-quality clothing on a college student’s budget and styles are always changing, but we can make an effort to repurpose old clothing or swap with a friend when we want something new to wear. Thrift shopping is also a great way to lessen clothing waste and buy recycled items. Sustainability in the fashion industry will not happen overnight, but everyone can work to make small changes to stop contributing to these debilitating issues.
Jessica Gutowitz is a junior majoring in English.