As an industry, fast fashion is ironically outdated compared to other industries. With no change in half a century and no move to better production methods, countries in the Global South, such as Bangladesh, continue to destroy their environment for economic gain. The responsibility lies in the hands of the consumer, the production facilities, and transnational corporations to consider what impact their decisions might have on the communities and people involved in producing their products.
Fast fashion has completely revolutionized the consumer’s wardrobe development through the creation of low cost pieces with short-lasting and low quality material. As the seasons go by and popular styles change, fast fashion offers an affordable way for consumers to keep themselves updated. The costs for this are paid for not by the consumers nor the companies’ selling these products. Rather, by and large, the environment pays most heavily, alongside the factory workers making the clothing.
As dramatic as that might seem, the consequences of certain production practices are having serious affects on the environment. This kind of apparel production negatively impacts developing countries. These impacts are not only caused by the physical damage via the production methods themselves, but also via the increased pace at which consumers are purchasing fashion items. In the last 20 years, production has increased by 400%. When fashion trends speed up, consumers often follow, especially when the produced apparel is so cheap.
This speed of consumption of fashion items has a detrimental impact on our earth as a whole. This is made worse by the fact that these clothing items often can’t be donated or resold due to the low quality of manufacturing material.
Several factors play into these effects such as the inexpensive material which often sheds microfibres, the disposal of waste water into bodies of water near production facilities, the use of toxins to create garments, and the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere through outdated technologies that are used in the industry.
While the world’s landfills pile up, the conditions in Bangladesh are unable to be monitored or controlled by protective environmental laws because the industry controlling these factories has influence over government decisions. The fact is, the dependence of developing countries on these industries for income specifically for manufacturing workers often makes it difficult for governments to address the environmental consequences.
In Bangladesh, most garment factories are located in the capital, Dhaka. Here, there are many industrial suburbs participating in the production of fast-fashion apparel. One of many suburbs, Savar, experiences often seriously detrimental effects to their citizens: As factories are operating in proximity to school districts and people’s residences, the factory’s toxic waste is disseminated in the air surrounding them and in the wastewater typically poured into the nearest body of water. An elementary educator in Savar, Tamanna Afrous, said her students are capable of knowing which colours are currently in style by the toxic fumes surrounding their region. Thus, the outdated and inexpensive technology the facilities currently use are the source of the catastrophic effects on the environment. Setting guidelines as well as funding new initiatives is essential in order to incite change in all industrial clothing facilities around the world.
On top of the hazardous effects of the environment, environmental colonialism is an ongoing issue originating in the establishment of colonies and the effect on the environment and the people. Today, eco-colonialism is a major consequence of fast fashion practices. In Bangladesh, citizens often experience detrimental social effects: the real cost of working in the garment industry can be seen in the collapse of the Rama Plaza on April 24th, 2013. This event killed over a thousand factory workers on site, later followed by other events near the capital that continued harming Bangladeshi workers. The dangerous working conditions and the repulsively low wages are recurring themes in these disasters occurring throughout Dhaka. This reflects upon the idea of a modern form of eco-colonialism apparent in the apathy towards the environment of Bangladesh, by the increased release of toxic fumes into their land in the midst of such a disaster. Due to this imperialist attitude of the leading garment companies, workers lose their lives and suffer from the fumes and the polluted water surrounding their homes. Unfortunately, in the last eight years since this large accident occurred, little action has been taken to protect the citizens of Bangladesh and their families.
Overall, fast-fashion has enormous negative impacts on the production side and positive impacts for consumers unaffected by the dangers of this industry. While consumers sit back, type in their credit card information and impatiently track their packages online, countries like Bangladesh are suffering environmentally and socially.
Although there is a current trade off between the safety of workers and the environment competing with the low cost garments, new environmental and social initiatives have risen in the last decade.
In 2015, two years following the Rama Plaza disaster in Savar, Dhaka, the Bangladesh Planning Commission, the Government’s economic public policy institution, deliberated and released a plan to sustain economic growth while supporting two causes, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. The Poverty-Environment Initiative was created to allow leaders in Bangladesh to come up with policies to protect their citizens economically and allow for environmental nourishment. For one, 28 projects have started supporting the impoverished families through the establishment of more income prospects while investing in environmental sustainability following the destruction of the country’s land and air by industrial facilities.
Regardless, these governmental initiatives have not been enough to commit to truly demonstrate the government’s initiative to prioritize the environment over the economy. Now, the responsibility lies with all the consumers.
Thus, the real solution is in the buyers: fast-fashion is attractive due to the cost reduction compared to other brands. It is clear that the habits of the consumer revolve around purchasing large quantities of clothing at low cost. The average American purchases 53 items of clothing per year, the highest rate in the world. While this is practical for consumers always in need of a style change, the world is suffering from it.
Whereas boycotting was always the first instinct of buyers to eliminate large corporations, the energy of the crowd always dies down and new and old buyers return to the market. The only way to solve the problem at hand is to raise prices for consumers and increase awareness on the origins of the products being purchased. By doing so, consumers can put pressure on corporations to use more sustainable methods and safety practices of production while increasing worker wages at the same time.
Supported by Dr. Nayak, the impact of fast fashion practices is not solely on the environment: The Triple Bottom Line of sustainability emphasizes the impact of fast-fashion on the environment, the economy and also on the wellbeing of the population. Thus, through the implementation of sustainable manufacturing practices, social and ecological destruction in Bangladesh can be diminished, allowing for smarter consumer practices and a safer environment for workers.
Unlike methods of transportation like plains, trains and cars, apparel production is something that can be easily adjusted to stay in line with human rights by raising awareness on the true outcomes of cheap apparel. The result is a safer and more rewarding environment for industry workers and a step forward in environmental safety.
Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao
Photo Credits: “Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers” by Solidarity Center, published on January 9th, 2015. Licensed under Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). No changes were made.
Juliana Malka is a second year student studying a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a minor in Life Sciences at McGill University. She is passionate about international human rights and is serving as a staff writer for Catalyst.