The term “ethical fashion”—sometimes referred to as “slow fashion”—is used to describe fashion brands that commit to ethical and sustainable production methods.
Because the term “ethical fashion” exists, it implies that some fashion brands don’t use ethical or sustainable production methods. And this is true. In fact, in an effort to maximize their profits, the majority of fashion brands use unethical production methods, which have devastating consequences on the environment and people. Below is an overview of each.
The Environmental costs of fast-fashion
Today, fashion is the second-most polluting industry on earth. Why is that?
Well, because of the availability and low cost of fast fashion—and the desire to keep up with the Joneses—people now buy 400 percent more clothing than they did two decades ago. And lots of land and water are needed to meet this demand, becoming contaminated in the process.
Added to that, most clothing is made cheaply, so that it’s worn only a couple of times before it’s thrown out. In the United States alone, more than 11 million tons of clothing is added to a landfill every year. Most of this is not biodegradable, so it sits in the landfill and releases harmful gasses into the air for more than 200 years. (Only 10 percent of donated clothing ends up in thrift shops; the rest is sent to a landfill or a developing nation, destroying that nation’s local fashion economy.)
But that’s not all.
Today, the most-used fabric is cotton. 80 percent of that cotton is genetically modified. It requires regular sprays of pesticides to grow, and then is cleaned and dyed with toxic chemicals.
These pesticides and chemicals then end up in the local water supply, causing birth defects, mental illnesses, skin ailments, digestion problems, jaundice, and cancer in the men, women, and children who live and work in these areas. In the developing nations where most clothing is produced, people are unable to afford treatment for these ailments.
Unfortunately, the social costs go deeper than this.
The Social costs of fast-fashion
There are about 40 million garment workers in the world today. 97 percent of those garment workers live in developing nations, and 85 percent are women.
The reason that fashion brands like to outsource their production to garment workers in developing nations is because it’s cheap. These countries often have no labor or trade laws. And if they do, they’re poorly enforced.
This means that fashion brands can pay garment workers poverty wages and offer no benefits, like health care, maternity leave, or retirement. It also allows fashion brands to ignore the working conditions of their garment workers.
As a result, most garment workers work 10-18 hour days for less than $3, in factories that are hot, filled with toxic chemicals, and structurally unsafe. (For example, in 2013, an 8-story factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 garment workers.)
When garment workers ask for better conditions, fashion brands—capitalizing on the garment workers’ lack of opportunities—threaten to move their production to another low-cost producer.
And because fashion brands don’t officially employ individual garment workers, they’re able to pretend that they’re not the cause of—and take no responsibility for—the poor treatment of these people.
The thing is, fashion is a $3 trillion industry. Fashion brands can afford better conditions for garment workers. They simply choose not to, so that they can maintain their salaries and profit margin and keep costs low for the buyer. This means that the only people who are negatively impacted are the garment workers—the lowest paid and most vulnerable.
The consumer’s power
While it’s certainly okay to be a fashion brand that produces fashion and employs garment workers, it must be done in a way that respects people and the environment.
And the consumer (that’s you!) is in control. Fashion brands are only able to survive if people purchase their products. Every purchase that a consumer makes has an impact; it either supports a living wage or a poverty wage, environmental sustainability or the exploitation of limited resources.
To learn more, watch The True Cost.