A Quick Guide to Critical Issues Caused by the Global Phenomenon, Fast Fashion

Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/utslibrary/19285407203.

Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/utslibrary/19285407203.


Tons of articles exist online exposing fast fashion and the problems that manifest as a result of it. It can become difficult to follow especially if you are unfamiliar with the subject.

We’ve broken it down for you.

First, you need to know the four basic players in the fashion industry:

  1. Consumers: buy clothes from brands

  2. Apparel brands: design and sell clothes to the consumer

  3. Factory owners: take orders from brands and direct garment workers what to make

  4. Garment workers: make clothes

Now that we got that covered, here is how fast fashion is affecting people and the environment across the world.

1. Unsafe Working Conditions

There is a huge market for fast (and extremely cheap) labor in primarily India, China, and Los Angeles. Step into a factory in any one of these locations and you will feel sweat dripping down your neck 10 minutes in.

Yup. No industrial air conditioning.

Ever heard of the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 people in one day?

A garment worker called out a deteriorating wall but the factory owner ignored the cause for a repair because it would halt production, resulting in delays for the ginormous client base of apparel brands.

Apparel brands nowadays push out 1-2 collections every month (versus the traditional 4x a year). Because of this, they need products made around the clock to meet tight deadlines. Brands cannot afford to spend a minute away from production.

Most factory owners avoid investing in anything that actually benefits their garment workers as those costs would get past on to the brands. Garment workers are left with the bare minimum to get the job done - a chair, equipment, and maybe a cheap fan from the local market.

A majority of clothes are made from conventional cotton which is sprayed with pesticides to grow more abundant. Pesticides are known to cause seizures, headaches, depression, and unconsciousness. Farmers growing the cotton to garment workers handling the end product can feel these effects.

2. Water Pollution and Climate Change

Garments require a lot of resources. We’ll spill some hard facts to wrap your head around.

The clothing and textile industry is the largest polluter in the world next to oil. Approximately 20% of industrial water pollution is from garment manufacturing. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt and 5 trillion liters of water is used per year for fabric dyeing.

This is especially dangerous in areas facing water stress such as Central Asia where the Aral Sea has nearly disappeared from cotton crops.

Different material content has less impact on water than others. However, synthetic fibers like polyester emit more greenhouse gasses. One polyester shirt emits more than 2x that of a cotton shirt.

In 2015, polyester production for textiles released about 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases, that’s equivalent to the yearly emission of 185 coal-fired power plants.

3. Overconsumption and Waste

We consume more than we produce. The more consumers want, the more brands influence factories to produce. Consumerism is one thing but wasting garments that end up in landfills another.

According to NPR’s report from the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of textiles ended up as waste in 2013. On the factory level, 15% of fabric ends up on the cutting room floor. And to think that 95% of the textiles in landfills could be recycled.

4. Child labor

According to the International Labour Organization, 170 million children are engaged in child labor. This is 11% of the world’s children working in sweatshops and being prevented from attending school and getting an education.

The overall supply chain of any fashion brand is widely complex and can be difficult for companies to control every stage of production. Even when brands have “ethical values” and strict labor guidelines for their partners/factories, work can easily get sub-contracted to other factories that the brand may not be aware of.