Many don’t realize it, but the fashion industry isn’t what it seems to be. Behind-the-scenes garment workers are under immense pressure to produce clothing at an alarmingly rapid rate in order to meet market trends and make money, leading to poor working conditions, exploitation, and environmental degradation.
Garment workers are among those directly impacted by fast fashion. Working in dangerous, poorly insulated factories for low wages with few benefits or rights is one of the greatest dangers associated with fast fashion; employees work long, grueling hours under immense pressure to produce clothing quickly and cheaply, leading to physical and mental exhaustion over time; this was evidenced in 2013 with Rana Plaza factory disaster which killed over 1,000 workers demonstrating just how dangerous working conditions could be.
Exploitation extends far beyond factories: workers in the supply chain can also be affected by textile dyes that pollute water sources important to communities of color – particularly prevalent in China where over 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater from textile and dye factories is dumped annually, posing serious health threats, including illness, damage to the endocrine system, reproductive issues and is rarely policed.
As well, fast fashion brands’ quick turnover of garments creates waste at an alarmingly rapid rate, particularly their use of inexpensive, low-grade fabrics and size limitations which prevent many from purchasing pieces they want. Each year in the US alone 21 billion pounds of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated – an enormous waste of water, energy, and natural resources used in production.
Garment workers’ exploitation results in deplorable living conditions. Many garment workers are female workers who experience gender-based abuse and discrimination at work, making it hard for them to form groups to advocate for their rights and organize as a collective against such abuse. Furthermore, companies exploit their workforce by refusing to pay livable wages while disregarding labor laws – an issue made worse when these companies source from countries with lax regulations and lackluster oversight.
Though some scholars agree that working conditions and wages for apparel manufacturing workers in developing countries fall below U.S. or developed country standards, others disagree citing how affordable clothing helps consumers feel fashionable while simultaneously helping developing nations’ workers to provide clothes to consumers at an affordable price.
Consumers need to recognize their purchases contribute to fast fashion’s negative effects. Consumers can help combat this issue by supporting ethical brands with transparent supply chains such as fair trade markets where working conditions of suppliers are easily verify. They can also opt-out of supporting fast fashion brands which do not respect worker basic rights or the environment by taking a stand against such brands and thus help shift fashion in a more positive direction.