Meet the real fashion victims and the nasty secret behind your favorite brands.
(#Challengeyoplanet is a series of informative posts on climate change that aim to raise awareness among young people. Read more about the project and the other posts here. )
When I was in high school my typical day after school consisted og this: hanging out at the bar (I am Italian, so bar as in like a coffee shop. Not the Amsterdam coffee shop though); then go to H&M, or Zara, and spend my weekly pocket money in the most absurd $10 t-shirt with emo graphics and pink glitter all over it. Then I would leave that t-shirt in the same drawer for months, maybe years and completely forget about it.
Even if you don’t like shopping, you will understand the rush of adrenaline and happiness you get after buying something that is definitely cheaper than its actual worth.
You don’t think about it twice; you don’t question where it comes from, you don’t focus on the many roads that it must have taken to get to your hands at a 50% discount.
You don’t think about the face behind that MADE IN _____ .
Because we are used to it, right?
We have become accustomed to the fact that living in a rich country not only means that you have access to education, good living standards, healthcare and potential growth. You also have the privilege to decide whether something is cheap enough for you, even though you have no actual idea of its worth. Even though you have no connection with the hands who crafted it.
I felt the same. I adored H&M. My biggest dream was to create a Zara that was Italian, a huge retail chain that would have taken over the world. I had this whole plan inside my head that I would have made everything a lot cheaper, I would have known how to use my good financial skills to beat even a giant like the Spanish giant of retail.
But as a childhood dream, it was sweet, yet the reality of it was disastrous.
Reality hit me in the face when my father, after many years of experience in quality control management of multiple apparel manufacturers in China and India, he sat me down and he really explained to me what it takes to be Zara.
Money laundering, poor quality products made to look like high-fashion garments with just the right amount of styling and advertising, stealing from independent designers, use of sweat-shops manufacturing.
The list goes on endlessly and it’s not just Zara, any massive fashion brand that allows us to buy multiple products for just under $100 is guilty.
I know you’re not surprised. Because everybody knows deep inside that you can’t possibly produce, print, ship and sell a t-shirt for just $10, right?
But we avoid the conversation, and since the garment industry has great environmental impact and we have been talking about climate change for the past few days, we need to talk.
First of all,
WHAT IS FAST-FASHION?
Fast fashion refers to cheap products that look like the ones shown on the runway and they represent mostly 80% of what it is sold in major retailers. Forever21, Zara, H&M, Asos are a few of the big brands that have taken over the fashion industry simply by introducing knock-offs of the expensive, hand-crafted and exclusive fashion that is shown in Paris.
If you have ever been into a fast-fashion retail store, or surfed on one of them, you might have noticed how quickly products go and you will realise that you can become unfashionable just by overnight.
Trends, style, who is wearing what and fashion bloggers coming into play, fast-fashion has boomed thanks to the digital era. We want what we see and we want it now.
Because we are busier and more bored than ever, consumers are constantly striving for something different, something new to excite them. Something to make them feel part of a group.
But at what cost?
What is the cost of producing millions of cheap, low-quality products and sending them out at incredible fast-pace, so that the consumer never yawns in the store, because they are too busy being overwhelmed by the sight of these shiny, fake-trendy products?
The cost is a lot of pollution. And blood.
THE TRUE COST.
(‘The True Cost’ is also a documentary on the topic that you should definitely check out because it explains this whole situation splendidly. You can watch it on Netflix, or on here.)
This is the picture of the cost that fast-fashion has. The collapse of the unsafe garment factory Rana Plaza in Bangladesh – one of the biggest garment manufactuers – left 1000 garment workers killed and 800 orphans behind.
The giant retailer Primark whose garments were being produced in the factory, such as ones by Australia retail stores, Zara and Forever21, offered $200 as compensation to the family of the workers killed. Hold on the “awe”, because the only ones who received the $200 were those who could prove through a DNA kit that they were related. Pretty hard to prove that, when 1000 people’s bodies are buried under the ruins of your own cheap stuff, Primark.
This is the cost of producing cheap products. This is the cost of having constant, endlessly changing trends in our society.
This is the cost of our obsession with consuming, it’s a picture of our greed.
This is only a tiny drop of the bloodbath that fast fashion has left behind.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, especially because we have become so used to our shopping behaviour that the thought of having that on our conscience is uncomfortable, so most of us turn our heads the other way when we swipe our cards at H&M.
But how did it become like this and how is this related to climate change?
Fast-fashion has developed in a way that goes hands in hands with a culture based on consumerism, like ours.
We are because we buy products is the new cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
Brands form fractions of our identity; their subliminal messages and their advertising images constantly bombard us with stimulations that go to influence our behaviours within the society, but also on a subconscious level. They change our perceptions of beauty, they influence our core values and above all, they influence our own ability to feel for others. To imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes. To empathise.
And you know that climate change is all about lack of empathy and a lot about being careless.
When you are driven by the excitement and desire to own and consume and you feel the need to fill yourself with the apparent attributes of a product to gain satisfaction; you become a robot. You are empty of any ability to feel for things that are not your own immediate and materialistic satisfaction.
It’s all good. Everybody is kind of like that, because everybody is heavily influenced by a society that is fundamentally based on creating that.
This is why we don’t second guess buying a cheap t-shirt when we know the real cost is unfair labor, pollution and chemical exposure.
We don’t care because the ultimate destination to buy a cheap, trendy product is satisfaction, and how can you turn people off from something that makes their day shine a bit bright away?
It’s tough psychology and when fast-fashion giants realised that with a little bit of market research and a lot of advertising, they decided to put it all in.
Thanks to free-trade laws, poor economic development of developing countries and that fact that fashion had become so accessible and globalised since the boom of the fashion blogging era and the Instagram generation; fashion brands realised that they needed to not only produce more, but an impossible variety of cheap crap that could somehow shove it inside our closets. Not selling? No worries, there’s sale season for that!
Forever21 was ordering 100 million garments per year in 2009, Zara processes 1 million garments per day. H&M collaborates with influential runway fashion designers to sell cheap versions of their high-end clothes that we lust over on the runway. Top Shop in London probably gets more visits then the British National Museum.
So I think we have identified the villain in the fairytale here. But to be fair, the fashion industry is far more complicated than pointing at the bad guy.
But the easy point that we can raise is that fast-fashion is destroying our planet in its own unique way.
HOW IS FAST-FASHION AFFECTING CLIMATE CHANGE?
Just because it’s clothes and we wear them, it doesn’t mean that they don’t pollute.
In fact, the fashion industry has placed second in the “Most Polluting Industry”game, right after the oil industry and it hasn’t really lost its title, as more and more fast-fashion brands pop up all over the net.
Fashion has a complex supply chain. Going through each and every step of the making of a sequinned dress from H&M to analyse its sustainability would be enough to drive us all mad.
However, we don’t have to go into specific, or have a chemical engineering degree to know that a died pair of jeans washed to look like they are your boyfriend’s pair of jeans are full with toxic chemicals.
In fact, the pollution starts with its raw materials. The textile industry is responsible for 2.6% of the global water use and 17% of industrial water pollution induced by textile dyeing, treatments and the 8,000 synthetic chemicals they use to make our clothes look better than their real quality and short-life span.
Not to mention the fact that we have fallen in love with products made out of unsustainable textiles.
Nylon and polyester, which is the material our fast-fashion brands are crazy for, are non-biodegradable and highly unsustainable. Manufacturing nylon creates a nasty gas, nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Polyester – another great fast-fashion lover – wastes huge amounts of water in the process of cooling, combined with lubricants and other chemicals that remain in the water and go to in contaminate other water sources.
Have a look at what your clothes are made out of, you will find out that they are mostly a mix of polyester and rayon.
Rayon is another fast-fashion best friend. Made from wood pulp; but don’t let the green environment goggles fool you.
Because of it’s origins and the unsustainable demand for new cheap clothes every day, old forests and local farms have to be cleared to make space for pulpwood plantations and they often suck a huge amount of water, like eucalyptus. Rayon is also a good lover of chemicals (caustic soda, sulphuric acid).
What about the standard cotton t-shirt?
Sorry, James Dean. But even the white t-shirt is bathed with the blood of our planet. It can take up to 5,000 gallons of water to product a t-shirt, not to mention the fact that cotton is a thirsty plant and because of that reason, companies have found a way to bring cotton in countries whose environments was not naturally equipped for its growth.
While only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides
So from the growing of the materials, the bleaching, the dyeing and not to mention the carbon footprint of the transport of the cheap clothes to our door; fast fashion is slowly starting to lose its glam and we are entering into a darker side of the clothes rack.
Altogether, more than a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used in the dyeing of textiles each year. The dye wastewater is discharged, often untreated, into nearby rivers, where it reaches the sea, eventually spreading around the globe. China, according to Yale Environment 360, discharges roughly 40 percent of these chemicals.
Poor Working Conditions.
If kids today can barely notice that the steak on their plate comes from a once living animal; it is almost expected – and accepted -that we dissociate from the product we choose to buy.
We forget that our $20 jacket from Zara was actually made by a person, someone like you and I, who is filled with dreams, hopes, passions, fears and above all, struggles.
Someone who is so far away from the moment of us euphorically buying a product, that we don’t waste a second to ponder on them. Or do we choose not to, because the inconvenience of a truth like that could completely revolutionise who we are as a person, thus as a consumer?
If we were to stop ignoring the actual impact that our purchases has to many aspects of our society and the way a majority of people live in; our world would change. We would be rid of the labels that we stick on people to recognise them from the mass. We would probably spend more time things that we actually enjoy, instead of buying things to replace the missed feeling of doing them.
But the harsh reality is that we do not care and by ignoring the truth, it will inevitably hit us in the face.
Exactly like it hit us when we watched the news on the factories in Bangladesh. It will hit us in the face and we will pay attention for a bit, change our profile picture on Facebook and go back to watching clothing hauls on YouTube.
Workers need a standard minimum wage tailored to the minimum wage of their country, which will inevitably be lower than richer countries; however, most of the people who are employed in the garment industry in developing countries DO NOT receive a minimum wage that allows them to live with dignity in society.
It should allow them to get access to food, shelter, healthcare, clean water, clothes and the possibility to a normal life, right?
Some people like to debate that these workers should be thankful they have a job; as countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh heavily depend on the garment industry for their economic development.
But is it really empowerment if the very things that should lift you above poverty are leaving you tired, frustrated, in poor health and with little access to education, personal time and time spent with your family?
Since the situation is caused by the developed countries’ addiction with consumption, when we question the worker’s demand for proper working rights, it almost sounds like we are digging for an excuse to find ourselves comfortable with the fact that people die, get sick and exhaust themselves to make a piece of clothing that we are most likely to throw away.
Workers across the world face a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and mental stress. Even in factories which on the surface look clean and modern, workers are deprived of their internationally-recognised basic rights.
Ask questions, research their manufacturers, their textiles, their sustainability; it’s all over the internet, you don’t have to search it in a public library, nor be Julian Assange.
You will dig deeper into this nasty business and find an inconvenient truth: the brands that are all about positivity and motivation and fun are always the ones who exploit these minimum-wage workers and use toxic methods of manufacturing.
The only reason why fast-fashion has developed this unsustainable business model is because we are addicted to buying things that we don’t need to full fill us in way that our lives can’t.
When you feel sad and you go shopping, sit in that moment and ask yourself: ‘Am I running away from anything by buying something that I absolutely don’t need?’
Before you reach your hand to another pair of boyfriend jeans that you will surely wear the next day and then abandon it in the laundry for the next 6 months, think about how much water, energy, work and transport that pair of jeans has taken to come to your local retail store and look at that price. Is $15 enough to cover all that? Possibly not.
Instead of buying hundreds of cheap, low-quality products, explore your style and invest into key pieces of good quality and made by a brand that you can feel related to; invest in pieces that can be mixed and matched with your wardrobe and that can have longer lifespan than the summer trend on the page of Teen Vogue.
As mentioned above, mix old with new. Go through your clothes every couple of months and pick out the items you haven’t worn in a long time; you will find that you will be surrounded by a lot of crap that you actually don’t need and either donate it to your local shelter, or to a trusted charity that has some sort of credibility and transparency.
Don’t throw it in the bin, don’t leave it somewhere to be picked up. Just because it’s clothing, it doesn’t mean it’s not litter.
Demand more from brands.
Since we drive this market, we might as well to use the power that we have to drive it into another direction.
After the collapse of the factory building in Bangladesh, fast-fashion brands have stepped it up in advertising and public relations to reassure their consumers that they were all turning ethical and good now. (H&M and its 1 million dolls price for whoever found a recycling solution, anyone?).
But cut through that bullshit. Keep demanding for substantial changes, not PR techniques.
Demand more transparency, demand more sympathy for the people who sacrifice huge parts of their lives for us to buy a 10$ t-shirt.
It’s disgusting and it should not be overseen. Tweet, shout, yell and hashtag all you want, it is communicating after all.
But above all, find some compassion within yourself. We can talk about all the injustices and unfairness of this world, in particular of the garment industry, but we fail when we can’t picture the idea that behind a garment there is the sweat, blood and time of a person like us. When we accept the pollution, the exploitation and the poor quality that we cover our bodies with, we become part of this nasty business.
As I have specified before, I am also going to keep you updated on the conference in a short and easy to understand way, as life is already boring as it is. If you are not sure about what is going on in Paris other than terrorist attacks and pain-au-chocolat, this article will answer all of your questions. (Click here)
The EU has been urged to cut more coal in light of the Paris Conference, as coal accounts for 18% of its greenhouse emissions. UK and other European countries have pledged to close every coal plant by 2050; I guess we will just have to wait and see. [x]
The Cop21 tackled the problem of transportation, as it account for 70% of the gas emissions in urban centres in Europe. There needs to be a complete revolution of urban centres, focusing on renewable energy, functional alternatives to transportation that are cheap and easy enough to use for citizens. Cities4Climate is another of the initiatives that were born in Paris this week and they are focused on boosting investments for greener and smarter cities, even Leo DiCaprio is behind this initiative. Bravo! [x]
Unicef has launched a digital map initiative on climate change that aims to share the stories of young people and climate change. ‘Act Now For Tomorrow’ will engage 500 young people from all over the world in sharing their lives affected by climate change. [x]