In an age that exalts the value of consumption to an egregiously high pedestal, the consequences of purchasing clothing have become increasingly far-reaching and inconspicuous. Over the past two decades, the garments in circulation have become cheaper, more abundant and accessible than ever before. New items of clothing have become more a form of entertainment than an investment.
So how is it that multinational corporations like Zara, H&M and Forever21 continue to sell clothing at low prices and still manage to stock their shelves with new clothes every few days? The answer is threefold: poor quality, overproduction, and exploitation. And they count on influencers, social media, and a global imbalance of power to perpetuate this end.
Unethical Labour: A Global Political Disaster
For centuries, the Global North (which isn’t limited to the geographical north – it represents political superpowers such as Australia and Israel as well) has exercised its control over countries such as India, Bangladesh and China (the Global South) through colonisation. Global corporations therefore rely on cheap labour from countries with extreme income inequalities, severe lack of personal freedom and institutional misogyny.
As of the beginning of the 21st century, the Global North controls 80% of the income earned anywhere in the world, and multinational corporations hold an unfathomable amount of power and influence, both economic and political, over countries in the Global South. This gives way to severe exploitation of their already underpaid garment workers, 90% of whom are women. In cases where workers are physically or sexually abused and forced to work in appalling conditions, local governments are often powerless or indifferent. And this is all for the sake of producing clothes cheaply and quickly.
It seems especially ironic when brands capitalise on Women’s Day or Pride Month to “empower” their customers in the Global North while carrying out blatant human rights abuses in poorer countries. “Rainbow-washing” and “greenwashing” are examples of marketing strategies that are dissonant with the actual practices of such brands.
Sustainability, Greenwashing and Landfills: The Origins and Destiny of Fast Fashion
Because fast fashion companies churn out clothing at the rate of 4700 tonnes per second and largely use unskilled workers, their clothing is often of very poor quality. The sewing methods and materials used to create garments for fast fashion companies result in clothes that aren’t durable and are likely to be disposed of after being worn a few times.
Brands such as H&M and Mango put out “Conscious” or ‘Sustainable’ collections, all of which are considered forms of greenwashing. Firstly, the “sustainable” standard only applies to materials in the clothing, and not to the methods of production or the overall supply chain. And secondly, often only about 50% of the materials used actually need to be sustainable to be considered “conscious”. It is also extremely difficult to find out what materials are used and what methods of production are employed in creating particular garments because of the severe lack of transparency that actions of multinational corporations are shrouded in.
Fast fashion is characterised not only by the rate at which clothing is produced, but also by how quickly it ends up in landfills. Clothing that isn’t durable and is made of flimsy material such as polyester is often disposed of by individual consumers, but this is not the only source of waste. In fact, most clothing doesn’t even have to be purchased to be disposed of; about 100 billion items of clothing were produced in 2020, over 60% of which produced by fast fashion brands ends up in landfills anyway. This is where governments need to step in and set standards for the production and disposal of clothing; individual consumers don’t have much of a role to play in this aspect of the supply chain.
The “There’s No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” Argument
While it might be tempting to wait for the global economic and political landscape to change before altering your consumption habits, it is important to remember that consumerism, controlled by the everyday individual, still plays a huge role in the exploitation carried out by fast fashion companies. Looking at the continued practices of fast fashion brands, it is perhaps safe to presume they will not change their practices, because the global fashion topography and distribution of political power do not urge them to do so. There is no one to hold multinational companies accountable, mainly because of how much influence and wealth they have amassed. The political solution to the problems brought about by fast fashion is likely to take years, but it takes very little to change individual consumer habits. The arguments against the capitalist mode of production shouldn’t draw us into complacency, and it is incredibly important that each consumer makes an effort to consume more consciously.
If you admire fashion and enjoy the process of putting outfits together, you mustn’t let the issues with fast fashion discourage you. In fact, the process of purchasing ethical and sustainable clothing can be far more creative and fulfilling. Here are some habits that might help you along the way:
Look to the past for inspiration:
Clothing used to be incredibly expensive up till the early 20th century and would therefore be re-worn multiple times. The idea that repeating outfits was shameful began being perpetuated by Western media after the Second World War. This was a standard held mainly for women who, in the aftermath of the war, were restricted to the roles of “housewives” and were seen as objects to be dressed up and shown off. In the 21st century, social media and influencer culture have helped propagate this notion to unprecedented extents. But here’s what: repeating clothes isn’t shameful. Wearing what you already own is one of the best things you can do for the planet.
Creating lasting garments of good quality can be very tedious and expensive, which should be somewhat reflected in the costs of finished garments.
Repurpose old clothing:
This is a great way to keep up with shifting trends, or even expand the value your clothing brings you. Why is it that the only extant items of clothing from 16th century England are the Bristowe hat and bits of Queen Elizabeth’s dress? It’s because over the following centuries, the fabric from each surviving item of clothing was used to make cushion covers, tablecloths or curtains.
19th century Europe also saw trends fluctuating between large, billowing dresses and slender, sophisticated silhouettes. This allowed clothing that was trendy a decade ago to be upcycled into something that suits contemporary tastes.
Buy second-hand clothing:
One cannot stress the importance of this habit enough! Lasting clothing can be preserved and passed on when its owner grows out of it. By purchasing second-hand clothing (or by wearing hand-me-downs), you not only preserve its legacy but also give new life to an item that has served its previous owner well.
The root of all the problems with fast fashion is its sheer magnitude and rapid scale of production. Less clothing produces less waste and demands less labour. Buying from local producers is a great way to encourage more ethical and sustainable production. Local brands do not face foreign competition and therefore aren’t incentivised to keep their prices dangerously low and rely on underpaid workers. When faced with higher prices, consumers are encouraged to purchase fewer items of clothing and choose lasting staples or invest in clothing they won’t get bored of.
It’s also important to recognise that since women are stereotyped as materialistic, consumerist airheads far more often than men are, they become scapegoats for the struggle against rampant consumerism. Because women are also considered the stereotypical “maternal” figures, society expects them to shoulder the responsibilities of bringing about change. Men, on the other hand, are expected to counteract all their efforts by being rash and inconsiderate. Every consumer is responsible for their actions and must contribute to the effort against the oppression and waste brought about by fast fashion. The only way to bring equity and sustainability into the production of clothings is to make sure the struggle against harmful practices is inclusive.
But let’s get one thing straight: clothing is expensive. Creating lasting garments of good quality is enough of a task in itself; creating and distributing them on a global scale is even more tedious. It is hard work that should be compensated.
But most importantly, ask questions! Transparency is paramount to understanding the inner workings of a brand, and can help one make more informed decisions about what and how much to purchase.
Photo credits: Brand South Africa / Adam Smith Institute / Newsweek / Inc.com / The True Cost Movie
Written by Nitya Khirwar
Edited by Thenthamizh SS
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