We all have that piece of clothing sitting in our closets: That shirt we spent less than $10 on because it looked cool for a second, or those jeans we only wore once before it went out of fashion, but have you ever thought of the great lengths taken for us to wear the newest trend? Sustainability and ethics are oftentimes looked over in order to get these trends to us as consumers. In the fast pace changing world that we live in today, the fashion industry does its part in keeping up.
When considering sustainability in the fashion industry, it is pivotal to understand what sustainability means. First of all, sustainability describes many different approaches toward improving the way of our life which encompasses the idea of reducing, reuse and recycle. It means encouraging individuals and companies to reduce their consumption of resources, such as water, land and fossil fuels; reusing products, such as glass jars, shopping bags and clothes; and recycling materials, such as paper, cans and plastics bottles.
The textile and fashion industry are considered to be one of the most polluting industries in the world. According to Strähle, fashion retailers can play an important role in promotion sustainability since they are the intermediaries who communicate between producers and manufactures on the one hand and also customers. (Strähle, 2018) Durieu argued that retailers ‘can greatly influence changes in production processes and consumption patterns and are positioned to exert pressure on producers in favor of more sustainable consumer choices’.
The sustainability in the textile industry is an ecological system that is designed to maintain balance meaning that no more should be taken from the environment than can be renewed. In addition, fashion production and design methods that are environmentally and/or ethically conscious because the definition of sustainable fashion is subject to interpretation even those working within the field have differing opinions on best or most important practices. (Farley, 2015) There are environmental issues as well as ethical issues surrounding the fast fashion industry. These issues play a huge part in everyone’s lives whether they are working in the factories or living as the consumers of these goods.
The ethical issues are described as social injustice towards the workers in the factories that produces these garments. The ethical issues stem from the production with the use of chemicals and the waste into the surrounding rivers which harms the local people in the area. Not only are people affected by this but the surrounding animals as well and the ocean. Which ultimately is also an environmental issue. Workers not only work in this dangerous environment, but their wages are low and their working conditions aren’t great. This all leads back to how the Fashion Industry and its booming consumerism causes the high amount of increase in the production of clothes. When the chemicals from these factories enter the water, it harms the aquatic life and essentially passes back to the consumers of these foods. These chemicals come from the extensive processes of dyeing and bleaching clothes and they are left untreated and into the nearby waters of the local villages. Many local people depend on the water for drinking and growing crops. There are many health risks to not only the workers but also the consumers outside of the factories. Fast fashion also leads to the inequality of gender because of the unbalanced gender ratios in these factories were mostly women of children work to support their families. Their wages are low, and they are working environment that is unhealthy because of the high demand and low costs of these fast fashion items.
Not only are there ethical issues from the fast fashion industry but also environmental. As stated, before that there are chemicals released into the waters but also due to fast paced and high command in the industry, there is an extensive depletions of natural resources. The amount of clothing that comes out of these factories releases chemicals and effects the greenhouse gases which pollutes the earth. There are microfibers from synthetic fabrics that comes from the factories as well that pollutes the environment because of these synthetics’ yarns are made out of plastic, the isn’t good for environment of the ocean nor its habitat. The waste is not only from the chemicals derived from the factories but also from the large amount of clothing that is thrown away due to the high production. More clothes are thrown away than recycled or reused. ‘In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created. The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills. These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.’ (Reid) With the rising and vast amount of clothes thrown away, it is hard to reverse the aftermath of the the planet because of high consumerism and low costs.
Another issue that is widely prevalent in the fashion industry, is largely popular fast fashion brands stealing artwork or designs from independent artists. In many cases, the work will be an exact replica. For example, the highly popular fast-fashion brand Zara faced criticism for allegedly copying the designs of Tuesday Bassen, an independent artist based in Los Angeles.
Bassen, an illustrator and designer, posted a side-by-side comparison of her pin designs next to Zara’s. ‘You know what? Sometimes it sucks to be an artist because companies like @zara consistently rip you off and deny it,’ Bassen wrote on Twitter. Bassen has worked with companies such as Playboy, the New Yorker, the United Nations, Nike, Adidas. Bassen contacted Zara with the help of her lawyer in regard to the article of clothing. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, responded, telling Bassen that her designs were not ‘distinctive enough’ to be associated with her and that ‘notifications about the copies amounted to a handful of complaints in comparison with the monthly traffic on Zara and Bershka, a store owned by the same parent company’ (Guardian)
According to, War on Want, an anti-poverty charity based in London, The Bangladeshi garment industry generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue. However, the wealth generated by this sector has led to few improvements in the lives of garment workers, 80% of whom are women. The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn little more than the minimum wage, set at 3,000 taka a month which is $33.25. This is far below what is considered a living wage, which is approximately 5,000 taka a month, or $59.84. This would be the minimum required to provide a family with shelter, food and education. Additionally, many Bangladeshi factory workers are forced to work 14-16 hours a day seven days a week.
On top of this, workers face unsafe, cramped and hazardous conditions which often lead to work injuries and factory fires. Sexual harassment and discrimination is widespread and many workers have reported that the right to maternity leave is not upheld by employers. In 1972, Bangladesh ratified the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Conventions, which gives factory management the right to prevent the formation of unions (War on Want). An example of the working conditions inside sweatshops comes from a firsthand account from Shima Akhter. Shima is a garment worker in Bangladesh and a single mom. She recounted her experience in the documentary, the True Cost, saying that, ‘We submitted a list of demands to the managers and after they received the list, the managers, along with 30-40 staff, attacked us. They used chairs, sticks, and scissors to beat us up. They kicked and punched us in the chest and abdomen and banged our heads on the wall.’, she continued by saying, ‘We want better working conditions. I do not want another owner like the owner of rana plaza to take such a risk so that no more workers die like that, so that no more mothers lose their child like this.’ (The True Cost).
The vibrant colors and prints that we see on garments more often than not are achieved with toxic chemicals. Because of this, textile dying is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world. These toxic chemicals run into streams of drinking water in places like Cairo’s Ain el-Sirra district, Bangladesh and China. (The Independent). These chemicals not only have an impact on the environment, but they cause deformities on the children and adults near the water, and diseases such as cancer and infertility (The True Cost).
On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza Factory building collapsed. The building had too many floors and heavy equipment for the structure to withstand. On top of that, earlier that morning, workers pointed out to management about the structural issues of the building, but it was ignored. The building’s fall killed 1,138 people, injured hundreds more and is considered the deadliest recorded disaster in the garment industry. The phenomenon behind this catastrophe is something that we benefit from every day, and that phenomenon is Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion is defined by Webster’s dictionary as: an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers. Examples of popular fast fashion brands are: Forever 21, H&M, and Zara.
The fashion industry is the world’s second largest polluter, right behind the oil industry. According to the documentary series ‘Make Each Choice Count’ from the Wildlife Fund and National Geographic, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton t-shirt. That is enough for one person to drink for 900 days. according to National Geographic, 97% of water is salty, and nearly 2% is locked in snow and ice. That leaves less than 1% that we can access, and 70% of that is used to grow our crops. In essence, that means an excessive amount of the world’s clean water is being used for the garment industry. With accessible, clean water amounting to less than 1 percent of the world’s water supply, this resource is both valuable and finite.
In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has nearly doubled from 7 million to 10.5 million tons. That is about 30 times as heavy as the empire state building. As our clothes sit in landfills, they release landfill gas, a toxic combination of air pollutants that includes the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that diverting the clothing that we throw away into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.
Polyester is one of the most popular fibers used in fashion. With that being said, when garments composing of polyester are washed in washing machines at home, microfibers of plastic are shed increasing the levels of plastic in our ocean.