What’s wrong with fast and cheap fashion?

Yesterday, I walked by Primark. Right away, I saw their greenwashing practices. Vague statements about sustainable fabrics and all that. I know better than that, Primark is horrible. Yet maybe, if you don’t know much about fast fashion, you’ll fall for it. It made me think about that. I have written about fair and secondhand fashion, but I have never dedicated a post to telling you what’s wrong with fast and cheap fashion. That’s the base and core of everything else. You have to know what’s wrong in order to fix the problem. So today I’m telling you about: everything that’s wrong with fast and cheap fashion.

Environmental and Social Problems

There are two sides to this problem of fast and cheap fashion. On one side, there are environmental problems to consider. On the other hand there are social problems that come with it. One is not more important than the other if you ask me. That’s because people (mostly with no or a low income) often suffer from the consequences of environmental problems too. So either way, people are affected. If you tackle the social issues, people will still be affected by environmental problems. Therefore, both problems must be solved. Yet, there is another factor, mentality problems, from us consumers. This is about how we see clothes and what needs to change there.

Environmental Issues

Water use
Making clothes costs huge amount of water. Growing the material (mostly cotton), producing the clothes, dying the clothes. On average, one kilo of cotton costs 8000 liters water (OneWorld). That’s a lot! It would not be such a huge problem if that would all be green water (rain), but most of it is blue water (ground water). It takes decades to restore ground water and so if you take water out of the ground the stock will get less and less until it’s eventually empty. The garment industry is outsourced to other countries than our own, so we don’t really experience that. However, due to this extraction of ground water countries lose their water supply. People need water to live (as you might know) and so due to the garment industry and the extreme amount of water is takes there will be scarcity in those countries. When you buy clothes, you’re taking away that water from the local people. Besides, the ground dries up. This means the ground will slowly turn into a desert, which disrupts the ecosystem. Rain can no longer stay in the ground, food can’t be grown, more floods, climate change. The list goes on, what we’re basically doing is creating dead zones.

Electricity and Emissions
At the same time, it takes energy to produce anything. That means producing clothes also costs energy. Unfortunately, clothing is barely produced with clean energy and so it causes emissions. According to MilieuCentraal (source), it takes about 57 kg of CO to produce three pieces of clothes. Emissions cause climate change and climate change causes again other big problems, we literally face extinction. Less new clothing, less climate change.

Chemicals
Then the chemicals. That again starts at the production of the material (again, mostly cotton), cotton is sprayed with pesticides, all the way to the end use. During production clothes are treated and dyed with chemicals too and people who buy the clothes wash them again with chemicals (much more safe than the ones at production, but still chemicals). Only cotton production accounts for 25% of all chemical-use worldwide (The story of Stuff). The chemicals end up in the environment, poisoning all life. On top on that, cotton farmers are usually highly dependent on the pesticides. They need to use more and more pesticides to keep the yields up. Because of this, farmers drown in costs. The suicide rate among them is extremely high (CNN).

Land-use
Since we buy so many clothing items, there is a lot of land needed to grow all the materials. For wool sheep need to be housed and shaved (which isn’t animal friendly either), cotton needs to be grown and plucked, oil needs to be extracted from the ground to make plastic clothes and even more. This all takes land. Land that otherwise could be used to grow food for the local inhabitants. They then have to buy more expensive imported food. Besides, materials for clothing are grown in a mono-culture. Immensely great field of the same product. This kills the biodiversity in an area (along with the chemicals). Biodiversity loss is terrifying, but I’ll come to that in another post.

Waste
Last, but not least: the waste. Clothing is worn but thrown away so quickly that we have an immense amount of waste. Since most people buy fast and cheap fashion, just a small part is recycled (therefore we should buy recycled clothes). Since we don’t know what to do with the waste, we ship it to other countries. These countries then don’t have an opportunity to built their own market because there are so many clothes shipped there, you can literally find clothes for free or a really small price. Plastic is not 100% recyclable, so any clothes made from polyester, PET, nylon, viscose or acrylic is not 100% recyclable. Besides that, these clothes release microplastics when they’re washed, which adds again to the plastic soup. Even if you don’t buy plastic, due to the treatment of clothes (like dying), other more natural fabrics are also hard to recycle. Waste is never something we should want.

“He was in so much debt,” 25-year-old Yogita said of her late husband. “He wasn’t getting any money from cotton. He chose death over distress.”

An Indian widow

Social Issues

If you think about, the environmental problems above are also social problems. Local people lose water, land, health (due to the chemicals and emissions) and more. If all that is not enough yet, there is more.

Slavery
Working in the ‘regular’ garment industry is alike slavery. People basically work all day, every day. They have no rights and are treated like machines. They’re paid less than a living wage. Think about it. How can a t-shirt cost 3 euros while the person who made it has a good income? It can’t. That’s why Primark can’t claim their clothes are sustainable but still extremely cheap. It’s just not possible. If you’re not paying the price, someone is paying it, with their life. Without a living wage, people can’t do anything. They can barely eat. No health care, not enough food, no free time, no future plans, no personal growth, nothing. By buying cheap fashion, people can never get out of poverty. They are poor and their children will be poor. The local government of those countries doesn’t set up any laws to protect them (which also causes all these environmental problems), so we will have to by buying sustainable.

Child labor
Since people make so little money, their children can’t go to school. People have no choice than to send their children to work in a sweat-shop so that the family can eat. They hope for a better life, but if a child never goes to school it can’t have a better future. Imagine a 10-year old, working all day, every day. It’s horrendous.

If you’re not paying the price, someone is paying it, with their life.

Mentality Problem

Single-use
With all these awful things happening for our cheap clothes, we still treat it like it’s a single-use item. Having a party tonight? Ah, just buy a cute t-shirt at Primark for one night, you can throw it away after! It’s insane. We don’t value clothes, mainly because they’re so cheap. People and environment suffer for our clothes. We should treat clothes with dignity. We should buy them with the intention of having them for life, or at least until they break. And even then, we should repair them until they’re completely worn out.

Quality over quantity
If we would choose quality over quantity, we could wear clothes out. Over generations. If you can’t wear it anymore, someone else who is younger than you can. Clothes should last a life-time. If we all had a small wardrobe with good quality items, we’d have a slow-fashion system. What that ideal system looks like, you can read that here. A system where we value clothes which are made sustainable and fair. And that’s also why a fast fashion company can never be sustainable. They bring out about 52 collections each year, each week there’s new clothing. Buying that many new clothes can never be sustainable, even if they’re made sustainable and fair. We need to buy less and choose quality.

This post is depressing, yes. The situation is depressing. But we can always change things! If we don’t, then who will? In this guide you can read what you can do about it.

Yours sincerely,
Romee

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