How fast fashion fuels climate change, plastic pollution and violence
The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse sparked a call for change in the global fashion industry. But 10 years on, more than 100 billion clothes a year are made – mostly from oil turned into polyester – by people working in dangerous conditions. This is fast fashion's impact on people and the planet.
Companies create more clothes than we realistically need or want, or that we can dispose of safely. And because so much of it is all sold so cheaply, it becomes easy to buy – perhaps not even wear – and then to throw away.
And by “throw away”, of course we mean donate – because that feels good, doesn’t it? But donating to charity shops isn’t the perfect solution to our overflowing wardrobes it perhaps used to be.
Fashion wastelands in Africa and the Atacama Desert
A project called Dead White Man’s Clothes, after the name given to clothing exports from the West to Ghana, shows grimly the problem of fashion waste exports.
The UK is the biggest exporter to Ghana. In fact, the UK produces the most clothing waste in Europe. And we’re the second largest used clothing exporter in the world, after the US.
Traders and tailors in Accra’s Kantamanto market work hard to repurpose and sell the clothing that arrives on their shores.
The upcycling and reuse culture in Accra is a great example of what a more sustainable and circular fashion industry could look like.
But the sheer volume – and poorly constructed fast fashion items that aren’t made to last – means a lot of it is impossible to use and upcycle.
So it ends up in landfills, wrapped around the ropes of fishing boats near Accra, and strewn across beaches.
Solomon Noi, the city’s head of waste management, reckons that 40% of the used clothing coming through Accra’s port ends up as garbage. A landfill that was supposed to have a lifespan of 25 years filled up in three.https://t.co/TenL37Mkjm via @BW
Why don’t these companies recycle these surplus clothes?
Recycling textiles can be difficult and expensive. Take a look at any clothing label – fibres are often so mixed up, they’ll never be separated and reused in any useful way. And again, with such large volumes, made with massive amounts of cheap materials, wastage in factories is also high.
Because so much fashion is made from essentially plastic, burning it can be extremely toxic to health. The investigation found that black, choking smoke and noxious fumes exposed bonded workers to toxic chemicals – leading to coughs, colds, flus, nose bleeds and lung inflammation.
Usually such kilns would be fuelled by wood. But fashion waste is so plentiful (thanks to supplies being cheaper in larger quantites) that several hundred tons are being burned in Cambodia every day.
Exploitation underpins global fashion
Rana Plaza 10 years on – what has changed?
All clothing is handmade by skilled workers
While fashion disposal is clearly a huge problem, the human costs start where fast fashion is made.
Creating clothing is highly-skilled work. Whatever you are wearing right now, from your neckline to the toes of your socks, was crafted that way by a human being.
It’s just not possible for it to be done by machine. It’s done by a skilled operator of many different machines. They are mostly women working for rock-bottom wages in a punishing global system.
“Whatever you are wearing right now, from your neckline to the toes of your socks, was crafted that way by a human being. It’s just not possible for it to be done by machine. It’s done by a skilled operator of many different machines.”
When we treat clothes as disposable, we waste a precious resource – human labour. With any piece of clothing we come across, it’s always worth remembering that someone made it, carefully, with their hands – and likely with little reward.
We probably know this. But it’s become too easy to ignore.
Dangerous, low-paid work for ‘disposable’ clothes
The constant push for cheaper manufacturing traps skilled garment workers in extremely unsafe working conditions. Deadly fires frequently rip through clothing factories around the world. March 2020 alone saw 66 fires in factories across the industry – that’s two per day.
It’s been 10 years since the worst fashion factory disaster, and little has changed. The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,134 people and injured 2,500 (mostly young women).
These women knew their working conditions were dangerous.
The Rana Plaza building was declared unsafe in the days leading up to the collapse. Fashion companies forced the suppliers to fulfil their orders anyway.
Imagine working at your machine, in quiet terror, as the building cracked around you, sewing the hem of a garment that might never even be worn.
That was a decade ago, and if anything the problem of waste in fashion has gone into overdrive – the exploitation of lives; of human labour and skill; all the way to the garment waste ending up on Ghanaian beaches.
And sometimes, companies don’t pay the workers at all.
Just as the world went into COVID-19 lockdowns, the fashion industry owed $16 billion to garment workers for orders completed before the pandemic shut their stores. Some still haven’t been paid.
How has it come to this? Do we now just accept that clothing has to be made from oil and misery – so it can remain dirt cheap, and far too plentiful? Is it our fault as customers who need clothing to function in society?
Fashion companies want us to blame ourselves
No matter our personal shopping habits, the companies are clearly the ones out of control here.
The truth is, we live in a global economic system that sees the exploitation of people and the environment as a fantastic opportunity to make huge profits.
Fashion is only one example, but it’s an eye-opening one. Fashion brands bulk order larger and larger amounts from factories, which lowers the price of each garment. But because they’re ordering so much (to make it cheaper per item), they’re creating far more clothing than could ever be sold or worn.
At this scale, it’s hard to conclude it’s simply “people buying clothes” that’s creating this global system of fossil fuel use, human rights abuses and plastic pollution. The companies make 40% more than we need anyway!
This might be by buying second hand, or from sustainable brands.
Or it might be by joining up with communities that sell, swap, rent, mend or upcycle – like Sustainable Fashion Week. It could also be through making: learn to sew, crochet or knit to see just how much work goes into making one simple garment.
The good news is, everyone who buys and wears clothing can have a hand in bringing the fashion industry under control. Companies can’t keep selling single-use fashion made in miserable working conditions when there’s no demand for these products.
Now that we know about the long history of fashion exploiting people and the planet – from cotton demand fuelling slavery to polyester driving oil production and pollution – it must become just that: history.
With more of us taking steps to protect the planet, some companies would rather play pretend. Greenwashing lets them boost their sales and public image but continue using environmentally-harmful practices.
Climate change is already an urgent threat to millions of lives – but there are solutions. From changing how we get our energy to limiting deforestation, here are some of the key solutions to climate change.