It’s a Saturday and you are currently waiting for the arrival of your new Zara dress, the one you needed, the one you fell deeply in love with. The mailman rings on your door. “Finally!” You open the door and receive the precious product with impatience. “I am going to look so good in this!” I love the red, it’s exactly like the picture on the website.” What excitement to try a new item for the first time! But, there seems to be a problem. That dress that looked fabulous on the website does not suit you. Now you will have to return the dress. Still, with the dress on, you go on the website to check if they have a smaller size. Good news, they indeed have it but… “What is that?”. In the recommendation section, you see a similar dress but it’s fancier than the one you purchased. You decide to return the dress and buy this new one. Hopefully, this one will fit like a glove and you’ll look like the queen you are!
This story might seem very inoffensive but behind the dress, there is a whole world of environmental impact and human abuse. Let’s dive down into the fast fashion industry and its horrible consequences.
A couple of years ago, fashion was not as demanded as it is now. Runaways were reserved for only a few and people usually bought what they needed. However, from the late 80s on, the fashion industry started to be available to the everyday customer, from magazines to tv shows. And now, buying your usual t-shirt seems pointless with the high-quality fashion items from famous designers. Also, fashion companies started developing more seasons within the seasons. Now there were multiple new products between the usual spring-summer and autumn-winter season. This was a turning point for many brands as they saw it as a great opportunity to manufacture cheap quality clothing items from the Global South with fewer production costs. The benefits were insane and the overall cost was ridiculous compared to the usual production of fashion. This process is now called fast fashion and its mass production system benefits not only companies but also customers that can find disposable fashionable products on demand. This is especially significant in Millenials and Gen Z as they have developed a sense of fashion online and offline that need the purchase of new products not every season but almost every month.
This high-demanding system means a highly demanding production process. The steps of the manufacture often require large amounts of water as well as produce toxic waste and insane amounts of C02. It is estimated that the fashion industry uses 44 trillion liters annually, 3% of the global irrigation water use. The water is used especially for fibers like cotton and most of the time does not get recycled. As a result, the contaminated water is thrown back into rivers, polluting the water and risking the health of populations that don’t have the means to access safe water. It is also estimated that the fashion industry generates 8,1% of global C02 only on its production. It also produces a huge carbon footprint in transport, as every step of the process takes place in a different country. And last but not least, the industry is estimated to use 15000 different chemicals in the production process, being a great risk to the environment and the workers, as most materials are not managed efficiently and workers have higher chances of gaining respiratory diseases and other health issues. Another problem regarding the environment is the big amount of textile waste that does not get recycled. Firstly in the production process, where a lot of fabric is tossed away, ending usually in rivers or big dumpsters, and secondly on the market where the demanding customers have a sea of fashion products to choose from, where a lot of them are unsold or returned. Depending on the brands, some of them try to recycle the items and send them back to the Global South and others, usually luxury brands, burn the unsold garments.
Another important threat that the fashion industry allows and encourages is the exploitation of workers. Usually, fast fashion brands are located in the Global South where production costs are cheap. Why are they cheap? Firstly, because the processes are conducted in infrastructures with no safe conditions. These types of buildings are usually in a poor state, unventilated, and with a high risk of accidents during labor. One example is the disaster of Rana Plaza factory in 2013, where a fast fashion factory collapsed and 1134 Bangladeshi workers died. Secondly, the labor is extremely cheap and even children are encouraged to work in these types of fields. These are often called sweetshops, where labour is conducted as almost slavery, where children and women are exposed to the worst violence. These type of conditions are very critic towards women, that constitute the biggest workforce in the fashion industry and are usually the victims of exploitation and even sexual abuse from supervisors.
Behind your Zara dress, there is a lot of misery and a huge impact on the environment. Now, it would be unfair to put all the blame on the consumers as they are not the biggest problem. The issue lies on those factories and brands that encourage these malpractices or even dare to call their companies sustainable, appealing to the customers with their “greenwashing”. There should be serious regulations in the fashion industry that avoid the mistreatment of their workforce and assure better conditions in their workplace as well as reduce pollution. We should also avoid huge shopping sprees, promote the recycling of materials, and bring back old professions like tailors or shoemakers that can help us fix our used clothing or transform certain pieces into more fashionable wear.