The High Hidden Costs Of Fast Fashion

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in India and other parts of Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National.

The fashion industry conceals many dirty little secrets. Its labour practices have long been notorious, with many low-cost producers relying on sweatshop production and in some cases, child labor. These and other problems have only worsened with the rise of fast fashion– cheap, shoddy clothes intended not for the long haul, but to be worn for a short while, and then discarded in favour of the next new thing.

Many of us reject this approach to buying clothes. But regardless our individual preferences, the success of chains such as Forever 21, H&M, Target and Zara has shaped the fashion industry, and this not for the better. It’s another example of the crapification of a staple product, in this case, the production of  attractive, long-wearing, quality clothing. Price pressures from fast fashion companies make for even more cutthroat competition in the rag trade.
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A recent Newsweek cover story, Fast Fashion is Creating An Environmental Crisis, spotlights another series of problems for the ethical consumer to ponder: the environmental costs that fast fashion imposes. The article is an eye-opener and although I summarize some of the main points here, it is well-worth reading in full.

As Newsweek describes, perhaps the most significant of these problems is outright waste:

Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.

The situation is much the same in the UK, with 350,000 tonnes of clothing ending up in landfills and the average person only wearing 2/3 of his or her wardrobe.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult using current technology to recycle the fibers used to make clothes into a form where they can be reused to produce pleasing clothes. So although in theory recycling at the level of the fiber is an option, in reality much fast fashion — and other textile waste, for that matter– ends up as rags or in other industrial uses, and some is shredded  to be used as insulation. But there’s only so much demand for rags or insulation.

I’s also possible for an entire garment to be recycled. It need not be broken down into its fiber constituents in order to be effectively reused. Yet while there is a market for secondhand clothes, and a global one at that, the glut of cheap clothes produced by the fast fashion industry has caused that market to collapse, both in the US and further afield. This in turn has had a pernicious knock-one effects, with exports of shoddy castoff clothes to emerging markets destroying domestic textile production, especially clothes made by skilled artisans, according to Oxfam.

In fact, there has recently been a bit of a backlash to the dumping of secondhand clothes from the west in Africa.  Last year, as Newsweek reported, some political leaders called for ban on secondhand clothing to protect their domestic textile industry during the course of a summit of East African heads of state.

What Happens to Most Textile Waste?

In the absence of a strong market for secondhand clothes, most discarded textiles in the US end up in the trash: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator. What happens to them there?

Well, it depends on whether they’re made from natural or synthetic fibres. Natural fibres– cotton, linen, silk– or semi-synthetics made from plant cellulose such as rayon, behave much like food waste in a landfill, producing methane as they degrade, thus contributing to global warming. The situation for synthetic fibres is worse. They are essentially plastics and take generations, at minimum, to break down and ultimately blend back into the ecosystem rather than remaining as chunks of discrete rubbish.

Other Environmental Problems

Waste is only one environmental problem created by fast fashion. Many textile production processes are very water-intensive, as is growing cotton, a notoriously thirsty plant. Further, cotton is also extremely chemically dependent:  only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, but cotton production accounts for 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals used and 25 percent of insecticides, according to AlterNet.

Further, most textiles  are produced using chemical dyes, causing pollution in the places where textiles are made, and having associated health and safety impacts. Most fast fashion is produced in low-wage countries, largely in Asia, and needs to be shipped to the major European and US markets. This means that despite the cheap nominal costs of these goods, they have a large carbon footprint.

What Can Consumers Do?

So what can we, as consumers do, to mitigate some of the impacts this industry causes?  The first and most basic step is to consumer less of fast fashion. By one estimate (which is admittedly a bit imprecise) merely extending the lifespan of a garment by three months of active use would reduce carbon, waste, and water footprints by 5-10%.

Tracing Supply Chains

I’d first like to mention some of the non-environmental impacts of fast fashion and low-cost textile imports. Bangladesh has become the world’s second largest apparel producer, with $25 billion in annual revenue, as a result of duty-free access for imports offered by Western nations and low worker wages (the minimum monthly wage is $68, compared to $280 for the world’s largest garments producer, China). Sixty percent of Bangladesh production is sent to Europe, 23 percent to the United States and 5 percent to Canada, according to Reuters

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when 1135 textile workers died after an eight-story factory collapsed, alerted the world that Bangladeshi producers were skimping on more than wages. Since then, activist pressure has forced major Western retailers who source clothes in Bangladesh to pay more attention to health and safety concerns.  But three years later, has much really changed?

“You have about 200 brands working together, and there’s definitely more transparency, more attention to the issue of human rights in the global supply chain,” Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business in New York, told Reuters. “But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers’ protection – there aren’t enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing,” she continued. “So not enough has changed.”

Now, it may certainly be true that not much has changed so far. But that doesn’t mean consumers should let up on pressure to force retailers to verify that wage and labour conditions, as well as health and safety compliance, of companies that form part of their supply chains.

Championing Sustainable Production

Eileen Fisher, fashion designer and founder of the eponymous women’s clothing chain, surprised the fashion world a couple of years ago when she claimed at an awards ceremony that the fashion industry was the world’s dirtiest– trumped only by Big Oil. It’s difficult to evaluate the validity of her claim, as there are certainly many potential claimants for the world’s dirtiest industry crown. But as summarized above, fashion does indeed have lots to answer for.

“Some people say [clothing is] the second or third largest polluter,” Fisher repeated in an interview with Fashionista. “I’ve come to really believe that we have a lot of power as designers to actually change this problem.”

Fisher has herself taken several steps toward this end. First, her company offers classic, timeless designs that are consistent with a sustainable approach.  She’s sought to develop a sustainable supply chain and has additionally promoted  sustainability by launching customer education campaigns, instituting transparency practices (e.g., labelling a garment with a description that parallels that used for food labelling); and moving some of production back onshore t reduce the corporate carbon footprint.

She also created the Green Eileen, which allows  customers a small store credit when they trade in used garments. These are then sold on through Green Eileen,   donated to women’s shelters and charities,  or recycled, spending on their condition.

At this point I’d like to mention that Western companies are not alone in developing sustainable garment and textile production practices. FabIndia, an Indian company, is well-known for its sustainability practices, and in fact, can be said to be a leading pioneer of the concept of corporate social responsibility. Founded over fifty years ago by an American, John Bissell, as part of a Ford Foundation project to develop crafts-based employment in India, Fabindia has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.

Fabindia  has structured itself so as to insure that artisans are involved in its decision-making. It  is comprised of several community owned companies, each of which has one and sometimes two artisans on its board. Artisans are encouraged to buy shares and take a ownership stake. Merely making a profit on a product is not sufficient reason to offer it for sale; any product Fabindia produces must be consistent with its guiding principles.

Unfortunately for consumers who might like to buy into this story, most of FabIndia’s production is aimed squarely at the Indian market, and focuses on the types of fibers– cotton, especially– that suit the country’s hot and often humid climate. Some of the fusion wear products might work in a Western setting, but to date FabIndia has a very small presence outside India, with  outlets in Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, and the UAE.  But FabIndia’s size and success has both preserved and extended the skills of traditional textile artisans throughout  various parts of  India.

Paying for Handwork

The impact of low cost textiles is not just felt in developed countries, but also causes harm in countries such as India that are major textile producers in their own right. India retains vibrant textile traditions, the excellence of which was recognized by the elite of ancient Rome. One passage written by Pliny the Elder laments the impact on Rome’s balance of payments of the appetite of Romans for Indian textiles.

Several  million traditional handweavers still ply their trade. Weaving is a highly-skilled job, but declining compensation is causing younger weavers to train for other types of work. Many of India’s poorest citizens cannot afford to pay for this high-quality handwork, and the declining demand further presses the wages of handweavers.

Textiles in India occupy a special space. It’s the only country that features a spinning wheel on its national flag. Gandhi promoted the the production of khadi cotton– simple handspan, handwoven fabric– as part of his  strategy of swadeshi– village-based production– as a means of liberation from the economic system imposed by the Raj. (This included steady infusions of mass-produced fabric from the UK. Textile production comprised one foundation of the Industrial Revolution, but at the same time seriously damaged India’s artisanal production.)

It is ironic that today, the price of khadi is beyond reach of many Indians– it has become rich people’s fabric. Both the national Indian government as well as individual Indian states have created infrastructures that support hand production, but sadly, many of these bureaucracies are sclerotic, and focus on mindless replication rather than husbanding hand production skills to create clothing that people wish to wear.

Organic Production, Natural Dyes

The last two decades have seen a move away from the use of chemicals to produce textiles,  to instead resurrecting old textile traditions that used natural processes, especially plant, insect, and mineral-based dyes.  These dyes typically used large amounts of organic material. Moreover, dying processes are usually quote water-intensive, whether natural or chemical processes are used.  Yet natural dyes don’t cause the same pollution problems generated by chemical dyes.

Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul is the world’s leading expert on indigo, both practically and intellectually. She’s written the classic text , Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, about this most widely-used natural dye, which has been used for thousands of years throughout the world. The use of indigo, she says, is now undergoing a revival in many parts of the world, from West Bengal in India, to the United States.

Some large companies, such as Levis, have stepped into this area, and produced a line of jeans dyed with natural indigo and made from organic cotton. The cost of this product was marginally higher than standard Levis, but not ridiculously so, and suggests that a strategy of focusing on natural production  could be economically viable.

Unfortunately, the company didn’t strongly support the product, and it’s very difficult to get further information about it. This is perhaps because Levis does not want consumers to ask difficult questions about its normal production processes, which do not use organic cotton and employ toxic, highly polluting chemical dyes.

Numerous boutique companies have also now sprung up that feature natural dyes. One of these, Dypt, founded by British textile designer Simon Marks, who has travelled extensively in Asia researching natural dyes. Marks has maintained workshops in Indonesia and in India.

Purchasing natural dyed fabric made from organic natural fibers is one way to reduce the environmental impact of one’s textile consumption.

Looking Forward

The future direction of the fashion industry is partly in the hands of consumers. “Consumers shouldn’t buy into this ridiculous concept of fast fashion,” says Balfour-Paul. “Slow fashion is far more environmentally sustainable and makes more sense. “Why should you throw out your clothes after a couple of months? The whole fashion world needs to turn around and reexamine the word fashion.”

Such a examination would have a very different focus than its present one of turning out new products and designs, according to an accelerating schedule. “The industry needs to think of itself in terms of the environment,” she says. “The planet can’t afford fast fashion.”

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