In 2013, in Dhaka Bangladesh, an eight story building housing a bank, apartments, shops and garment factories collapsed, killing 1,134 and injuring 2,500 more. Despite cracks appearing in the building days prior causing other tenants to evacuate, garment factory workers were ordered to return to work.
Seven years later, just after COVID-19 isolation restrictions were lifted, I went shopping for the first time in months. While many stores I walked past were shuttered, it was still a pretty typical shopping trip. Rack upon rack of summer clothes were dramatically discounted marking the end of the season. Much of the other merchandise was similarly on sale in an attempt to entice shoppers back after COVID closures. Shops known for being ‘affordable’ were advertising t-shirts and singlets from as little as $5. Bargain!
Despite being a continent and 7 years apart, the Dhaka building collapse and my shopping trip are more closely linked than I like to think. The connection? Fast fashion.
While the term is relatively new to mainstream media, fast fashion has been quietly replacing slow, seasonal fashion for a long time.The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as “An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”
It’s a beautiful system for suppliers and sellers. Consumers keep coming back (there’s something different every week) and they keepbuying (everything is so cheap), and at face value it seems ideal. Clothes are affordable and available to everyone!
The people cost
Yet as fashion brands around the world continue to order endless new items of low qualityto be sold at low costs, the price is borne by those who make, rather than those who wear the clothes.Garment factories are built where labour is cheap and workers unable to press for better wages and conditions. While working in garment factories is often a way for many to pull themselves out of poverty, wages are still incredibly low, working conditions hard and gender-based discrimination commonplace. In Cambodia, workers commute daily like cattle, crammed into the back of open air trucks. Road accidents are rife and fatalities not uncommon.
The environmental cost
Not only is there a human price to pay for the garments we wear, but there’s an environmental one too. The rise of fast fashion (low cost garments of low quality) has created an age of disposable clothes. No longer made to last and be repaired, clothes may only be worn for a few months before wearing out or being relegated to the back of the closet and eventually thrown out.
While we might take our old clothes to the local Salvo’s bin and assume they’ll be used, the truth is that the majority of unwanted clothes end up in landfill.Unwanted stock, damaged items andinnumerable textile remnants from the production process meet a similar fate.
Clothes in landfill leach chemicals and pesticides, and our love of synthetic fabric means most won’t break down. Plastic particles and chemicals are washed into our water systems affecting our marine life, ecosystems and human health. It’s scary stuff.
Practicing what I preach
For the last 5 months, I’ve worked part time for an ethical fashion brand based in SE Asia. It’s been a truly eye opening experience and has made me face much of what I’ve written about above for the first time.It’s this experience that has made me examine how much I’m practicing what I preach. I don’t want to write about ethical fashion if my own behaviour is contributing to the problem I’m supposedly fighting.
Mybiggest problem however, is thatit’s far easier to write about buying ethically and investing in quality clothes than to actually do it. Who doesn’t love the thrill of a new item of clothing? It’s shiny and new and makes you feel damn good for a week.
On the other hand, buying ethical clothing requires considerably more effort and isoften far more expensive.
A fashion revolution
In April, we celebrated Fashion Revolution Week. Borne out of response to the Dhaka garment factory disaster, Fashion Revolution is a movement that desires to see the global fashion industry conserve and restore the environment and value people over growth and profit.Through cultural and industry change, they believe that fashion can become ethical and sustainable.
Playing my part
While it seems like anambitious goal, as I read more about fashion revolution week I discovered a wealth of ways in which I could play my part. To start small I can send an email to a brand asking ‘who made my clothes?’ and for increased transparency in their supply chain. I can also talk to friends and family about the things I’ve learnt.
In the last month I’ve started repairing my clothes (we’ll see how long my stitching lasts!) instead of throwing them away and I’ve recently attended a clothes swap, getting my new-old clothes fix for free. I’m spending more time checking up on brands (using resources like the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Guide) before deciding whether to buy from them. I’m also just avoiding shopping centres. While this isn’t a great long term solution, it stops me buying on a whim and allows me to plan for things I really need and to save up to buy from an ethical brand.
Change will come
Giving up fast fashion isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It requires effort and self-control and I’m the first to admit that I’m still breaking old habits and learning how to buy more ethically. Yet as we profess to value all people equally, it’s important to recognise the systematic practices that contribute to human suffering, even if it seems as small as buying a $10 t-shirt every month.
Creating a global industry that values people over profit might seem like animpossible wish, but as we all play our part in demanding change through our actions and buying patterns,change will come!
Anna hails from Australia but lives and works in South East Asia. She enjoys travel, good coffee and getting to hang out with awesome people from around the world.