Fast Fashion Backstage: Sweatshops, Sexual Harassment and a Poisoned Environment
inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.
It is the ‘Vintage’ pair of jeans from PrettyLittleThing or the pastel sweater from Primark. It is the new ‘Vegan’ pair of strappy heels from New Look or Topshop. It is the Gucci handbag that states it was Italian made when in reality, it was made in China but got the luxury stamp in Italy. It is those seemingly innocent things we consume and do not think about. In a world always questioning whether it is right to buy plastic bottles when a reusable one can last longer, we need to start using the same approach to fast fashion. And quick.
Climate change is one of the most discussed and argued topics in the world. (It does exist, by the way.) Ever since we were made aware of that, society and governments started to be more conscious by encouraging people to recycle, use less plastic and to use public transport to name a few.
What about fast fashion?
I am sure that a lot of people are aware of sweatshops- the bad working conditions, child labour and the little pay. We may think of sweatshops as factories that are scattered in developing countries when in reality, they are a massive industry themselves. While the fast fashion industry keeps on getting richer, they look for the cheapest form of labour they can possibly find: vulnerable and poor underage children that are promised decent wages. The fast fashion industry is estimated to be worth 35 billion U.S. dollars while they pay their workforce as little as 3 U.S. cent per hour while they work up to 100 hours per week. Companies such as H&M, ZARA, ADIDAS look for an obedient workforce that would not question their treatment. In developing countries, 168 million of children between the ages of 5 to 14 are forced to work in sweatshops in order to help their parents afford basics like food.
Sweatshops are operated in strict and unpleasant conditions; many sweatshop bosses lash out at employees for refusing over-time or asking for sick leave. There are also many instances of sexual harassment that women endure and sometimes report. The outcome? She is forced to work more. The Human Rights Watch has documented sexual harassment in many sweatshops across Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. The victims got no legal protection and the attackers were not punished. Sweatshops also choose not to employ many men because their demands must be given consideration while on the other hand it is easier to silence a woman in a developing country due to a patriarchal society. This is evident in the fact that sweatshops rely on a 80% female workforce. Cleanclothes.org stated that Indonesian women employees report that "girls in the factory are harassed by male managers. They come on to the girls, call them into their offices, whisper into their ears, touch them, bribe them with money and threaten them with firing if they don't have sex with them." While we pay £5 for a top in Primark, this is is the price that female workers have to pay to feed their families.
Sweatshops have also been proven to be physically toxic to workers: The World Health Organisation revealed that child labourers exposed to the toxic chemicals in their work environment are dying before 50. Tanneries in Bangladesh release hazardous chemicals into the air, water and streets. There are over 250 of them discharging 6,000 cubic metres of toxic effluent and 10 tonnes of solid waste a day. The 2012 Human Rights Watch reported that "Apart from heavy metals like chromium, cadmium, lead and mercury, a conglomerate of chemicals are discharged by the tanneries into the environment. Workers aged eight and older are soaked to the skin, breathing the fumes for most of the day and eat and live in these surroundings throughout the year. Personal protective equipment is not provided." The most protection child workers sometimes receive is wellington boots while being exposed to chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide and sulphuric acid to name a few. Due to these working conditions, chronic skin and lung diseases are prevalent.
While toxic to workers, nature is not exempt from this. It can take up to 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric, while up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton. This causes dramatic ecological consequences such as the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has entirely drained the water. The fashion industry is guilty of using 1.5 trillion litres of water per year while 750 million people in the world do not have access to drinking water. After the water has been used, 90% of wastewater in developing countries is discharged into rivers poisoning the environment. It has also been documented that 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textiles treatment and dying alone.
Due to the poor quality of the fabrics used within the fast fashion industry, every time we wash a synthetic garment, about 1,900 individual microfibres are released into the water, making their way into the ocean. Scientists have discovered that small aquatic organisms ingest those microfibres which introduces plastic into our food chain as they are eaten by small fish and so on. It has also been documented that 85% of human-made debris on the shorelines around the the world are microfibres while 190,000 tons of textile micro-plastic fibres end up in the oceans every year. As for land pollution, it has also been estimated that an average family in the western world throws away an average of 30kg of clothes per year while only 15% is recycled or donated. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester which are used in 72% of our garments are non-biodegradable and cake take up to 200 years to decompose.
So why is nothing being done about this? Fast-fashion is the most toxic industry in every sense of the word- to the people and their health, the environment and even our health. Why are high street shops still making a new collection for each month? Why are they making 'sustainable' collections to appear woke while under the same breath they hire children to make said collections? Why are our 'luxuries' made through exploitation? I know it is amazing to pay next to nothing for something nice but is it worth it if the person that made that garment did not even get paid a half of that price?