Editorial Feature

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

Livia Firth explores the dark side of the fashion industry

How do you define sustainable fashion? The truth is, you can't. Or at least not in a few sentences. Terms such as 'ethical', 'sustainable' or 'ecological' fashion have been so overused that they create more confusion than certainties.

We are in a situation today perfectly described by Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, when he asked a very simple question: “How did we end up in an era when we have to define and certify things that should be normal?”

So, let’s try to define unsustainable (and fast) fashion.

Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon; one that's caught us all in an absurd circle of micro trends – around two mini seasons a week in store. Disposable clothes stay in a woman's closet for an average of just five weeks before being thrown out. The average UK wardrobe contains 152 items (11 items still have tags on, 16 items are only worn once, and 57 items are still left unworn).

Follow the Leader, by Guerra de la Paz, 2011 (From the collection of Art Works for Change)

In reality, this is exploiting not just us, the "consumers", but also the planet’s resources and the people who produce them. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed 1334 people, showed the world the true human cost of production at these vast volumes and low prices.

Rana Plaza Collapse, by rijans (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)

Four years on from the Rana Plaza tragedy, we thought we would be looking at a reformed industry wondering why we ever needed to debate essential human rights in the garment industry, but, sadly, we remain very far from that position.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse was not an isolated incident. Throughout Bangladesh, an estimated 90% of buildings do not meet building regulations, and disasters are a regular feature of the country’s industry, which employs nearly four million people.

We are seeing clothes produced faster and cheaper than ever, and still not really asking, "who pays the true cost of a $4 dress?".

Customer and Goods, by Gustavo Otero | Collection Museum of Tomorrow, 2016 (From the collection of Museu do Amanhã)

Each year across the world, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories. These are predominantly made in countries described by the UN as the world’s least developed. All in all, the garment and textile industry is estimated to be worth some $3 trillion. And the bulk of that goes into the pockets of the owners of those fast fashion brands – many of whom appear in the Forbes rich list.

Garment factory, by Musamir Azad (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)
Garment worker (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)

To complicate things further, we’re also seeing fast-fashion brands become clever at appearing radical without changing much below the surface. Even when fast-fashion retailers use materials like organic cotton, for example, the sheer volume of items those companies produce is still very much a problem; most of that ends up in landfills. As QZ reporter Marc Bain writes, "a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill."

Trucks at the Sanitary Landfill, by Gustavo Otero | Colection Museum of Tomorrow, 2016 (From the collection of Museu do Amanhã)

So, it’s pretty clear that we need a new architecture for the global garment industry.

The Lawyers Circle (a network of female lawyers working to protect women's rights), in partnership with TrustLaw (a group of lawyers working toward environmental change) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (an organization dedicated to improving the conditions for garment workers) have recently created a groundbreaking Living Wage report. It sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental human right, and that companies and governments have a responsibility to uphold this right. It’s been developed with the assistance of lawyers based in fourteen countries where large scale retailers source garment production, and examines the relevant labor laws and regulations as well as their implementation and control mechanisms. The Living Wage report, and initiatives like it, will hopefully provide a framework that will allow garment workers to be treated as equals in the future.

Considering we all get dressed every day, don’t we owe it to the people (mostly women) who make our clothes to know where our clothes come from and under what conditions?

Female Garment Workers, by GarmentsWithoutGuilt (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)

It’s not all doom and gloom. Fashion has the power to empower and express who we are – why not use this as a tool to share beautiful stories of the people who make our clothes? There are some great brands and incredible organizations that are already leading the way.

Let’s not forget, we have a huge power as consumers – let’s move away from viewing clothes as disposable and buy clothes that we love and that will sustain our wardrobe for years to come.

Livia Firth (From the collection of Global Fashion Agenda)

Livia Firth is the Founder and Creative Director of Eco-Age. Eco-Age is a purpose-led ideas consultancy that powerfully aggregates global thought leaders and influencers to address the compelling issues and opportunities of our day by delivering solutions, through ethical and sustainable values.

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