Sustainability - Is Fast Fashion Ethical: Global, National, And Personal Perspectives
Fast fashion is affordable apparel that is massed produced by retailers in sally to the most recent trends. It is now more prevalent and consequential to the world than ever; the surge in consumerism has a big role to play in the rise of the fashion industry. The UN estimates that it is now valued at more than 2.5 trillion dollars .
The fashion industry is the “second-largest consumer of water and produces 20 percent of wastewater while also generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined” . With that being said, I believe fashion to be one of the resource intensive industries and therefore think that it is a relevant topic to discuss.
Through this report, I have gained insight into the multiple perspectives regarding this issue.
Clothes from big fast fashion labels are ubiquitous throughout the world. Their global presence and resource intensive production accounts for a lot of toxic byproducts and waste being released into the environment, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit states that “fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year” . In fact, 68 pounds of textiles is thrown away by the average American per year . The 3R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle, are not practiced and textiles are turned into waste.
Textile manufacturing is one of the biggest water pollutants and accounts for “one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution and a myriad of carcinogens being released into the ocean” . Water pollution has a big impact on the aquatic ecosystem; many bodies of water have been declared as dead zones like the Gulf of Mexico as a result of fertilizers and pesticides used to grow cotton being washed into rivers, amplifying the issue of water contamination. In fact, it takes 2700 liters of water to make one shirt .
Similarly, synthetic fibers are popular as they are cheap to produce and source but have a detrimental effect on the amount of plastic in the ocean. When they are washed in washing machines, they release non-biodegradable microfibers that end up in the ocean. Over 700,000 microfibers are released in a single batch of laundry . This poses a serious threat to aquatic life. Turtles have been found to ingest these microfibers unintentionally and this could damage their digestive system and ultimately threaten their species and biodiversity. Humans are also affected as these microfibers end up in our diet as they are consumed by plankton and fish.
In addition to environmental factors, fast fashion is also notorious for its breach of ethics. Big corporations often exploit the cost of manufacturing in poorer countries. The workers employed at sweatshops can be as young as 5 to 14 years old and are subjected to sexual, physical and verbal abuse . Further, these workers can earn wages as low as 1 US cent per hour, and they work up to 100 hours a week . For example, Primark, a prominent fast fashion label in the United Kingdom only “pays its employees in Sri Lanka €73 when official Sri Lankan figures state that a minimum of €150 is required to feed a family” . Moreover, they are not provided a conducive environment to work in. The workplaces are under facilitated, dirty, hot and do not adhere to global safety standards. Some of the workers are known to faint from sheer heat and exhaustion . The 2013 Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh is a prime example of workers being exploited. The incident resulted in 1,132 deaths and over 2,500 people injuries . The unfortunate disaster was due to lack of maintenance of the building. The government still decreed that no safety precautions should be taken regardless of the loss of lives of women and children, and the countless injuries inflicted, little changes have been made in the fashion industry in terms of transparent brands are in their manufacturing, sourcing as well as the ethicality of their business. Brands such as Old Navy, Nike and H&M unfortunately still operate sweatshops.
Recently, Malaysia has seen a shift towards cosmopolitanism with the influx of imported goods. This is mainly due to the Westernisation that has been so influential in the country, from pop culture to even cuisine. This has increased the desirability of imported products over locally manufactured ones as to some it is superior to the latter. As a result, more are consuming fast fashion goods. The profits generated from the sale are used to manufacture more clothes in third-world countries where workers remain underpaid and ill-treated, hence creating a vicious cycle. In fact, 4% of Malaysia’s solid waste are textiles .
This habit of consuming stems from the fact that Malaysian consumers are not very empathetic and educated nor are they aware of what goes into making a garment, including its ethical and environmental consequences. This is further backed by the fact that only “54% of Malaysians are willing to spend less on new clothes in 2019” . Very little initiative has been undertaken by the government to educate the general public about being smart and conscious consumer. The ignorance of the public combined with the need for acquiring new goods at cheaper prices make for a very lucrative market that the fast fashion industry thrives on. Furthermore, being a Malaysian, we are notorious for our optimization of discounts and promotions and will buy the product regardless of whether we need it or not. So when something as necessary as apparel is marked down, companies can expect Malaysians to succumb to mindless purchasing.
In addition to that, Malaysians look to recent trends and runway looks for fashion inspiration. However as “half of Malaysian jobholders are still earning less than RM2,000” , not many can afford the high prices that these luxury designer brands set for their clothing. Therefore they often resort to fast fashion as it is convenient, affordable and most importantly, accessible.
I am sad to admit that my circle of friends and I are victims of the fast fashion industry. This is because it has, over the last decade or so, manifested into the norm – the most socially and financially accepted way of buying clothes. Personally, I consume fast fashion because it is not only easy to acquire but cheap as I don’t have the access to a disposable income. This is not only an issue for me but one that is prominent among my group of friends. We don’t have the time and experience to secure a job because, firstly, we are currently schooling and making money solely for the sake of buying clothes shouldn’t be our priority. Moreover, scouring for sustainable fashion that’s locally based and affordable is also time consuming and may be at times pricey as the cost of production is usually higher when it is ethically manufactured. This is due to higher labour costs as well as the expensive raw materials needed.
Even my aunt, Andrea Wong, who previously worked as the editor-in-chief for a local fashion magazine – Elle Malaysia, said that the editorial shoots often consisted of clothing from H&M and Zara as they offer a vast range of styles that cater to whatever the theme of the shoot may be. It is this convenience that is offered by fast fashion and the absence of awareness on the consumers part that facilitates the growth of unsustainable fashion. As for me, if I needed a new shirt, I wouldn’t go to such lengths to find an ethical brand that offers the style I like and is within my price range, instead I would go to Uniqlo or Zara because their prices are reasonable and further, I can select from their vast range of styles. Basically, many resort to fast fashion as it affordable and accessible.
The prevalence of sustainable fashion brands that are mainstream isn’t very significant in Malaysia; there are a few niche business but only a minority of my acquaintances would be willing to go to such extent for the sake of being environmentally friendly. Besides, not many people are aware or even interested in the nuances of fashion, let alone the consequentiality of fast fashion and its environmental effects because many of them they see clothing and apparel in general as merely a tool rather than a means of expression or something of interest. As it is an object of necessity, this leads to a disregard for where and how the clothes are produced. The lack of awareness is not a result of blatant ignorance, but rather an absence of education and empathy on the consequences to the environment arising from fast fashion.
Courses of Action
The most straightforward way to deviate from fast fashion consumption is to reduce or completely stop the consumption of it. Additionally, opting for secondhand or vintage clothing can prove beneficial to the environment and is more cost effective in the long run as you don’t pay the premium of purchasing a brand new piece. Although not popular in Malaysia, more people should opt to shop in thrift stores, start garage sales or even bundle stores. Investing in high quality and timeless pieces will prove effective in conserving costs as the cost per wear will be less, and it’s more environmentally friendly as you produce less waste. Furthermore, advocating for further and more developed customer education regarding environmental and ethical issues can be done by supporting local as well as global sustainable and ethical fashion brands. This will raise public awareness about the ongoing issues that fast fashion industryl impose. The government can help by funding small fashion brands that revolve around sustainability and ethically sourced and produced product. Through this, these companies will gain more exposure and will influence other businesses and even consumers to go green. Another way the government can intervene is ensuring that farmers limit or even discontinue their use of pesticides as it results in organic cotton and is better for the health and welfare of the farmers, not only that but it protects the wildlife. Lastly, we can start by recycling and repurposing our clothes instead of immediately disposing them. Also, in order to fully recycle clothing, it has to be made out of 100% biodegradable materials like cotton, linen and silk. Synthetic materials like polyester cannot be recycled.
All in all, I have concluded from my research that fast fashion has only one benefit: to provide clothing that is affordable and accessible. However the cons outweigh the pros as fast fashion is indeed extremely harmful not only to the environment but to the wildlife and us, humans. In response to this, I have started to become more conscious of my consumption of clothes as well as the material it is made of and where/how it was produced. I have made it a point to check the tags to see what the garment is made of. Furthermore, I have also started trading and borrowing clothes from my friends or family members, this not only reduces waste but also encourages sustainability. Moreover, I have started to go thrift shopping more and have opted for second hand clothes as they are much cheaper as opposed to new garments. With that said, this report has taught me about the fast fashion industry and its wastefulness, as well as how I can do my part in preserving our environment.
- UNECE. UN Alliance aims to put fashion on path to sustainability. www.unece.org. [Online] July 13, 2018. [Cited: April 15, 2019.] https://www.unece.org/info/media/presscurrent-press-h/forestry-and-timber/2018/un-alliance-aims-to-put-fashion-on-path-to-sustainability/doc.html.
- Dory, Kaya. Why fast fashion needs to slow down. www.unenvironment.org. [Online] June 27, 2018. [Cited: April 15, 2019.] https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/blogpost/why-fast-fashion-needs-slow-down.
- Dory, Kaya. Why fast fashion needs to slow down. www.unenvironment.org. [Online] June 27, 2018. [Cited: May 11, 2019.] https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/blogpost/why-fast-fashion-needs-slow-down.
- Wood, Kate. 8 Reasons to Rethink Fast Fashion. www.lifehack.org. [Online] 2018. [Cited: May 11, 2019.] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/money/8-reasons-rethink-fast-fashion.html.
- NRDC. Encourage Textile Manufacturers to Reduce Pollution. www.nrdc.org. [Online] 2018. [Cited: May 10, 2019.] https://www.nrdc.org/issues/encourage-textile-manufacturers-reduce-pollution.
- WWF. The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt. www.worldwildlife.org. [Online] January 16, 2013. [Cited: April 10, 2019.] https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirt.
- Chow, Denise. Fight against plastic pollution targets a hidden source: Our clothes. www.nbcnews.com. [Online] May 5, 2019. [Cited: June 8, 2019.] https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/fight-against-plastic-pollution-targets-hidden-source-our-clothes-ncna1000961.
- Something, Do. 11 FACTS ABOUT SWEATSHOPS. www.dosomething.org. [Online] 2018. [Cited: April 10, 2019.] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-sweatshops.
- The World Counts. Not a nice place to work!… http://www.theworldcounts.com. [Online] 2018. [Cited: April 9, 2019.] http://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/modern_day_slavery_facts/sweatshops_conditions.
- Organisation, International Labour. The Rana Plaza Accident and its aftermath. www.ilo.org. [Online] 2018. [Cited: June 9, 2019.] https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/geip/WCMS_614394/lang–en/index.htm.
- McVeigh, Karen. Cambodian female workers in Nike, Asics and Puma factories suffer mass faintings. www.theguardian.com. [Online] June 25, 2017. [Cited: April 10, 2019.] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jun/25/female-cambodian-garment-workers-mass-fainting.
- Scally, Derek. Primark criticised in Germany over poor conditions of Sri Lankan suppliers. www.irishtimes.com. [Online] June 12, 2019. [Cited: July 8, 2019.] https://www.irishtimes.com/business/retail-and-services/primark-criticised-in-germany-over-poor-conditions-of-sri-lankan-suppliers-1.3922577.
- Rosli, Nadiah. Today’s trend, tomorrow’s trash. www.nst.com.my. [Online] May 18, 2018. [Cited: June 19, 2019.] https://www.nst.com.my/lifestyle/pulse/2018/05/370987/todays-trend-tomorrows-trash.
- Nielsen. MALAYSIA CONSUMER CONFIDENCE STABLE IN Q1 2019. www.nielsen.com. [Online] May 15, 2019. [Cited: June 8, 2019.] https://www.nielsen.com/my/en/insights/article/2019/consumer-confidence-stable-in-q1-2019/.
- Khor, Samantha. Report Reveals That Half Of Malaysians Are Only Earning Below RM2,000 A Month. says.com. [Online] May 3, 2018. [Cited: April 20, 2019.] https://says.com/my/news/half-of-malaysians-are-still-earning-below-rm2-000-a-month.