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Fast Fashion – An Ethical Dilemma

March 3, 2020
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When you get dressed in the morning, what do you think about? Are you concerned with colors, wearing a warm enough sweater, or the 12-year-old girl who needs to work in a garment factory for $3 to support her younger siblings? In simple terms, does the materialistic and acquisitive consumer’s desire for a low price of goods outweigh the morally acceptable human standards of worker well-being?

Though we may not always acknowledge the ethical issues inherent in the 3 trillion-dollar fashion industry, they are omnipresent. In part 1 (https://allenaustin.com/fast-fashion-a-growing-phenomena/) of this “fast fashion” series, I briefly introduced you to the new industry standard of fast fashion, cited statistics from a Cambridge University study about the popularity of this fashion behemoth, and talked about the “mindful consumption” (or “slow fashion”) movement which has risen to oppose the mindless intake of the clothes that Zara, Forever 21, H&M and fashion retailers offer. This article will explore a few of the many ethical issues surrounding fast fashion, and the cognitive dissonance that so many Americans are ignoring.

We don’t often wonder, “What is the story behind my clothes?” and instead focus on the price tag. An inexpensive price may blind you from the fact that unethical production means might have been utilized to bring the consumers a low price point. With the adrenaline coursing through your veins from the chase of a good bargain, the slight tug of an ethical dilemma is easy to push out of your thoughts.

Instead of being awestruck that the blouse is only $10, remind yourself of the atrocities that might have been committed. The fast fashion industry has many problems including social, environmental, and health consequences.

Social and Economic:

  • Children– Even though the elimination of child labor is one of the goals of the International Labor Organization (ILO) it remains a challenge in the clothing and textiles industry mostly due to the difficulty of monitoring subcontractors, indirect workers and home workers.
  • Women– The industry workforce is largely made up of young women, who are “low skilled” or “unskilled” and may be migrants. Such workers are vulnerable to various forms of abuse and may not know or be able to claim their rights as employees. Some retailers are working to impose ethical conditions on their suppliers in an attempt to protect such workers, but the success depends upon rigorous implementation which is costly. A particular problem at present is that many subcontractors deny the right of workers to form an association (or trade union) to assert their rights to appropriate working conditions, pay, training and promotion.
  • Pay– Most countries supplying the first world economy’s clothing and textiles have a legally defined minimum wage, but social campaigners assert that there is a difference between such a ‘minimum legal wage’ and a ‘minimum living wage’ – it may not be possible to escape from a cycle of poverty with only the minimum legal wage.
  • Poor (and fatal) working conditions– Many factories remain unregulated and unsafe environments for workers. The greatest disaster was the collapse of a building in Bangladesh (Rana Plaza) in 2013, which resulted in 1,129 deaths. To this day, hundreds of garment workers die every year due to the chemicals, heat exhaustion, or being locked up in the production room during the work day.
  • Precarious employment and wage theft– Use of repeated temporary contracts or the absence of any employment contracts combined with delayed payment and the absence of employment benefits, is common practice in some countries.
  • Sexual harassment– Campaigners for women’s labor worldwide report hundreds of cases in which women are threatened and harassed by their superiors and unable to complain, without risk of losing their jobs.

Environmental:

  • Energy use can greatly impact the environment, with particularly high environmental costs associated with laundry, production of primary materials such as man-made fibers, and in yarn manufacturing of natural fibers.
  • Use of toxic chemicals which may harm human health and the environment – in particular in conventional cotton production.
  • Release of chemicals in waste water – especially in wet pre-treatment, dyeing, finishing and laundry – which may harm water based life.
  • Solid waste arising from yarn manufacturing of natural fibers, making up and disposal of products at the end of their life.

Health:

  • Hazardous chemicals particularly in cotton production, wet pre-treatment, dyeing, finishing and making up.
  • Fiber dust, especially when processing cotton, giving rise to the respiratory disease termed byssinosis.
  • Noise associated with yarn manufacturing, knitting and weaving.
  • Monotonous repetitive processes may lead to damaging repetitive motion injuries, especially among sewing machinists.

 

As impossible as it may seem to change the fashion industry, it is an industry driven by the customer’s demands. The fashion houses will answer to the consumers’ calls. If you change your demands, they WILL change their supply. Demand fair wages. Demand ethical production.