In recent years, brands like Zara, Topshop, Uniqlo, H&M and Forever 21 have come under fire for creating fast fashion. Fast fashion products are clothing and accessories that companies price significantly lower than the competition, produce more quickly and make of lower quality. Like many products, the world’s poor produces fast fashion, and thus, helps continue the cycle of poverty. Here are three facts about fast fashion and poverty.
People create fast fashion in dangerous sweatshops. To provide cheap, ever-changing inventories for customers, fast fashion companies perpetuate fast fashion and poverty by relying on factories in countries with poverty wages, where safety, sustainable practices and suitable working conditions are nearly nonexistent.
One such factory complex was Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where the collapsing of a building in 2013 killed over 1,100 people and injured thousands more. Rana Plaza housed five garment factories that manufactured products for almost 30 major European and North American fashion companies.
Today, however, there has been an increasing demand for company transparency and ethical manufacturing practices. In the wake of the Rana Plaza Tragedy, the Bangladeshi government has sought to improve safety measures in garment factories and had 38 people charged with murder in 2016 for their roles in the building collapse. Along with the Bangladeshi government’s efforts, companies and trade unions signed two major safety agreements: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Brands like Nike and Patagonia committed to adhering to higher transparency standards after the tragedy.
The business model of fast fashion companies emerged from the idea that consumers always want to stay on top of trends, and thus, will buy new clothes as trends change. To change trends more quickly, fast fashion brands release new clothing once a week or more, which creates a great deal of waste. Instead of the Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer clothing seasons that were once prevalent, fast fashion companies have created 52 micro-seasons.
Since the clothes are only trendy for one week or less, companies do not create them to last. Often, fast fashion clothing falls apart in the washing machine or dryer after only one or two wears. If the clothing falls apart in one wash and was no longer trendy anyway, consumers automatically go back out to buy new, cheap pieces from the fast fashion brands. The clothing is so cheap to buy that consumers may not realize that they are spending more money in the long run in terms of cost-per-wear on a fast fashion garment compared to a more high-quality one.
The destroyed and unwearable fast fashion, which contributes to nearly 70 pounds of textile waste per person, per year in the United States, ends up in U.S. landfills or ships, along with other garbage, to developing countries. Many of these developing countries do not have the capacity to deal with all of this additional waste, and therefore, cannot prevent pollution or other waste-related problems.
To combat the issue of the fast-fashion causes, retailers like Asos and Gap, along with dozens of others, signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment in 2017; the Commitment encourages brands to use monofibers instead of mixed-fiber and synthetic fabrics. These practices make it easier for people to recycle fabrics and garments going forward.
Chemicals in Clothes
Fast fashion products often contain lead to create bold colors and shiny accessories. Vinyl and plastic products that are red, green, orange and yellow are more likely to have high contamination than products in darker or more muted hues.
Even in low concentrations, lead is extremely dangerous to human health. When it comes to fast fashion merchandise, experts are concerned that these products will leave microscopic particles of lead and other chemicals on consumers’ hands; without proper sanitation practices, these particles can end up on food, drink and other accessories, which can create an environment for repeated exposure.
The Dangers of Lead
Lead contamination, even at low levels, can cause kidney failure, nervous system issues and cardiovascular risks. Lead accumulation in bones and tissues can also cause reproductive issues in women, such as infertility; lead released during pregnancy puts both the mother and fetus in danger. Many experts, considering these risks, have stated that there is no safe level of lead contamination.
The women and children charged with producing these garments and accessories are in danger of lead contamination, just like the women purchasing and wearing these products. For these workers, treatments for health conditions related to lead contamination are either too costly to afford or unavailable. Often, workers may die from complications related to lead contamination in the products they manufacture.
To combat these problems, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is fighting against fast fashion companies to eliminate lead contamination on clothing and accessories. In 2010, the CEH sued retailers regarding toxins in accessories; since then, the CEH has been testing accessories sold in-store and online by fast fashion brands for lead contamination.
As more disturbing facts come to light about the fast fashion industry, consumers continue to demand change. With the rise of ethical fashion brands and the increased popularity of secondhand shopping, both fast fashion and poverty may disappear in the future.
– Shania Kennedy