Fast fashion's lasting woes

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • February 19, 2015

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We live in a fast food nation. America boasts an economy grossly banking on a population conditioned to love fast and cheap products. From the golden arches of McDonald’s  to the seemingly endless fluorescent-lit aisles of Wal-Mart, the United States is home to consumers who love eating and shopping until they drop, so long as it’s not denting their bank accounts. 

There’s another industry—fashion—that’s yet to have a light shone on the harmful impacts of overconsumption and cheaply made products. This problem is a trend called fast fashion, which, like fast food, appeals to people looking to get a lot for a little. It describes cheap, fashionable, and popular clothing chains with quick inventory turnover—places like Forever 21, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Urban Outfitters. Fast fashion is affordable, but comes with a larger ethical dilemma. Cheap clothing is often the product of cheap and potentially unethical labor, environmentally harmful processes and materials, and a swelling sentiment among consumers that clothes are disposable. And so we buy. We buy a lot.

Instead of racking up guilt, college students ought to become aware of the link between fashion, the environment, and human rights. Fast fashion giants enable overconsumption of unsustainable clothing because their products’ low quality results in short lifetimes. A Victoria’s Secret Pink T-shirt may shrink, or its dye may fade after a few washes. Our solution? Replacement, which doubles our spending, waste, and the larger problems fast fashion contributes to.

Instead of recycling old clothes by donating them or selling them, Americans are throwing away used clothes because we are unaware of how to properly dispose of clothing. The U.S. alone wastes 85 percent of the textiles generated worldwide per year, according to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling. We toss out 21 billion pounds of clothing waste per year—that’s 70 pounds per person. And this amount is growing: Between 1999 and 2009, the volume of clothing that consumers wasted grew by 40 percent. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, textiles have one of the lowest recycling rates of any reusable material.

Fast fashion’s damage isn’t limited to our environment, though; it’s also a human rights concern. These are clothes made in sweatshops in developing nations, and often don’t meet the most basic American federal regulations dealing with minimum wage, working conditions, child labor, and work hours, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The unethical and catastrophic practices of clothing companies have made headlines for over a century, from the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York that killed 145 employees, to the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,100.

Sweatshops are an industry of parallel oppression. This is an idea from ecofeminism, an ethical system that sees a relationship between various forms of oppression—nature by humans, women by men, and developing nations by developed nations. In “Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health,” the ecofeminist scholars Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen argue that most conflicts that cause injustice and damage our planet stem from the cycle of oppression between humans and nature. A culture that shops fast fashions enables the institutions like sweatshops that the manufacturing requires, along with the women these factories oppress through their illegal employment practices. The relationships of the fast fashion industry are complex and far-reaching, including environmental degradation.

In World Poverty and Human Rights, the German philosopher Thomas Pogge wrote about developed nations that, like American fast fashion consumers, facilitate and exacerbate the exploitation of developing nations, and how this creates extreme economic inequality. Consumerism and institutions like sweatshops are perpetrators of this exploitation— a continued form of corrupt and covetous colonialism. We Americans rake in the undeserved benefits with every unethical purchase we make.

As consumers, it’s important to recognize and understand the relationships ecofeminism highlights, and know the stories behind the clothing we buy. Ecofeminism offers a honed focus on our relationships with the world around us. We’re blasted with statistics and images of poverty and pollution from far away places, but rarely do we consider the surprisingly intimate connection we may share with a woman halfway across the globe. It’s even more rare for us to act to improve this relationship. Spending responsibly on clothes is mutually beneficial for both the low-wage working producers and American consumers, and our dollars would go further if spent on higher quality clothes or thrifted buys. If we examine the oppressed perspectives of our fast fashion producers, we can have a better understanding of how to improve our relationships with the global textile economy.