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The dark side of fast fashion

$64 USD. That’s the average monthly wage for a worker in Bangladesh’s textile industry, which accounts for roughly 80% of the country’s exports, making it the second-largest garment exporter in the world.

Five years ago this month, more than 1,000 people died and thousands more were injured when Rana Plaza, an eight story-building home to several garment factories, collapsed. Considered to be the worst garment factory disaster of all time, and the worst industrial accident in Bangladesh, the collapse drew worldwide attention to an issue that’s often discussed by consumers but rarely acted upon: the dark side of the garment industry.

Tales of corruption and negligence swirled in the aftermath of the collapse, with revelations that the top floors of the building had been constructed without permits. As a result, 38 people were charged with murder, including the owner, who was eventually sentenced to three years in jail for corruption. Fashion brands were quick to distance themselves from the tragedy, shrouding retailers and consumers alike from accountability for the conditions that led to such an event.

Arguably little has changed to improve working conditions in the garment industry, or make fast fashion more ethical in the years since. Unlike the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which ushered in a new era of labor codes and safety measures for American workers, working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry remain precarious. It took more than two years for retailers to compensate victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. With one of the lowest minimum wages in the world, the Bangladeshi government has been hesitant to raise wages or enforce too many regulations, out of fear that it will spur an exodus of fashion brands to move production elsewhere as part of the global race to the bottom. Although American and European companies have made some efforts to improve safety standards, for example by signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety, subcontractors and those in the informal sector, such as home-based workers, tend to slip through the cracks. Those without formalized employment typically lack the few social protections afforded to them in the industry, and as a result are at greater risk of being exploited.

Bangladeshi Spectrum workers protest deaths at the Spectrum Garment Factory. Image: Derek Blackadder, Flickr

Yet fast fashion not only has consequences for humans, it also has consequences for the environment. The $2.5 trillion fashion industry is the second-largest user of water globally. In the U.S. alone, 13 trillion tons of clothes wind up in landfills each year, leading to soil and groundwater pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions for the industry are also on the rise, and expected to increase by 60% by 2030, with the industry already accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions.

Retailers seem increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of fashion and many have launched sustainability and recycling programs in response. However, terms like “corporate social responsibility” and “sustainability” are thrown around so casually, it makes it difficult for consumers to decipher whether these are just buzzwords or genuine efforts by brands to hold themselves more accountable for the social and environmental ills associated with their industries. In 2014, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing than in 2000 and kept each item for half as long, fueling critics’ arguments that these programs might only promote habits of “guilt free consumption” our throw-away society yearns for. The NYT recently reported that H&M has $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory, prompting further questions over both the environmental and economic sustainability of fast fashion.

Despite these criticisms, there is no denying that the garment industry has helped lift millions of people – particularly women, whom account for 85% of garment workers in Bangladesh – out of poverty. In less than half a century the poverty rate in Bangladesh has dropped from nearly 80% to 30%. The national GDP has grown on average 6% each year, with millions gaining employment in the garment industry.

Image: Fahad Faisal, Wikimedia Commons

In light of this economic dependence, many, such as Bangladeshi Nobel-prize winner and microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, warn against boycotting the industry, advocating instead for an international minimum wage. “We have to make international companies understand that while the workers are physically in Bangladesh, they are contributing their labour to the businesses: they are stakeholders. Physical separation should not be grounds to ignore the wellbeing of this labour,” wrote Yunnus in an op-ed promoting this proposal.

Others, like proponents of slow fashion, argue for investing in pricier, yet more ethically sourced consumer goods. Meanwhile, the degrowth movement advocates for almost no consumption at all and a return to thrift shops and clothing swaps, citing overconsumption as ultimately incompatible with environmental sustainability.

Fast fashion grew out of a demand for affordable, ready-to-wear styles fresh off the catwalk, but how viable is this industry today? Are our appetites for the latest trends really worth the social and environmental costs? Before you vow never to shop at fast fashion retailers again, consider what else you can do as a consumer to pressure retailers to adopt more transparent, environmentally sustainable policies that guarantee safe conditions for garment workers.

Katie Koerper

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