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Better than getting a good deal

Asking hard questions about the fast fashion industry.

If you’re on Tiktok or Instagram, chances are you’ve seen a clothing haul. In these videos, bubbly influencers unbox new outfits while captions boast a ridiculously low cost-to-clothing ratio. Maybe you’ve even clicked an affiliate link, discovered an ultra-fast fashion brand like Shein and started filling a cart of your own. But before you get caught up in the adrenaline of getting a good deal – I invite you to take a screen break and reflect on the bigger picture.

Romans 8:22 talks of all creation groaning, and when I look at the environmental impacts of these fast fashion trends, Paul’s words take on a visceral new meaning. Shrinking rainforests, overwhelmed landfills, choked waterways, polluted air and dramatic swings in climate – to name a few.

“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world,” exceeded only by oil, says ethical fashion advocate Eileen Fisher, and it’s impacting all of our ecosystems. Over 70 million rainforest trees are cut down every year to create rayon and viscose, 85 percent of ocean waste can be traced back to the fashion industry, and the staggering 200 years it may take for clothing to break down in landfills results in the emission of methane into our atmosphere. 

Clearly the fashion industry must change if we want creation to heal. But what about the social and economic impacts of fast fashion? 

You may remember the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. Over a thousand people were killed and thousands more injured when an eight-story building housing five clothing factories crumbled. The owners knew about cracks in the building and continued production anyway. Last year, an explosion in an Egyptian clothing sweatshop killed 20 people and injured 24 more, and earlier this summer workers in Bangladesh’s Gazipur garment factory were forced to flee when a fire broke out. An Overseas Development Institute study in Bangladesh shows that children as young as six work in these deplorable sweatshop conditions.

(Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash).

Complicating the narrative

I wanted to know if these tragedies are representative of garment factories that produce fast fashion brands, so I reached out to Jason Horlings. He has published research on factory workers in Cambodia and currently supports international development programming in Myanmar. His research found that not all garment factories are unjust.

“[There is] a wide spectrum of working conditions and situations in clothing factories,” explains Horlings. “Countries with no garment factory sector are missing a key pathway out of poverty.” Well-run factories provide valuable economic opportunities, especially for young women looking for stable income that isn’t weather or harvest dependent. Although “it is not the only way out of poverty, [it] is one of the most proven ways,” states Horlings.

When I asked him about the deplorable conditions of sweatshops like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh he acknowledged that many factories need to improve their working conditions and environmental sustainability. While there are workers labouring under terrible conditions every day, afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, there are also workers who bring about change through the advocacy of their unions.

A sweatshop in Cambodia where young girls sew yellow shirts to be worn in celebration of the Thai King’s birthday (Flickr).

What can we do?

It can be challenging for us as consumers to know which brands are coming from factories that infringe on human rights and which ones provide stable and safe income sources. This is why we need to ask hard questions when we see prices that are too-good-to-be-true and practice conscious consumerism.

“Buy less, choose well, and make it last,” advises fashion icon Vivvience Westwood. This means opting for secondhand clothing when you can, checking out thrift stores, searching buy and sell sites, and asking friends and connections about hand-me-downs. If you’re feeling creative, try your hand at upcycling discarded garments into something new. You can use apps like Good on You to discover what brands are ethical, follow an inspiring social media account such as Remake Our World, and learn from documentaries like CBC’s “Fashion’s Dirty Secret.” 

Look for spots of hope in our world: the European Union recently created a proposal for reducing textile waste and making fabrics more environmentally friendly. Similarly, working conditions at a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar, were improved after employees held a protest. Participate in Buy Nothing Day instead of Black Friday. Refuse to take part in the consumerist frenzy on social media and don’t believe the lie that more is better. And of course, always encourage those around you to make a difference as well, an act that can be as simple as not liking or sharing those haul videos.

My encouragement to you is this: stand up to the fashion industry. “As consumers we have so much power to change the world,” says actress Emma Watson, “by just being careful in what we buy.” So do just that: change the world by creating healthier consumer habits. Use the power you hold as a consumer to strip away at the appeal of low prices so that the naked truth is exposed.

Author

  • Jennifer lives in Vernon, B.C. and spends her time reading stories or writing her own. She hopes to pursue a career that combines her love for writing and her passion for environmental justice.

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