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By Luca Pang, age 16

What is fast fashion? If you’re unfamiliar with the term, fast fashion refers to cheap clothing which is rapidly produced by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Many people are still unaware of the true social and environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry. 

The social injustices within the industry have become even more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic struck and retail stores began shutting down, many global fashion brands responded by canceling billions of dollars’ worth of orders. In Bangladesh, the garment industry provides millions with the opportunity to feed their families, but the cancellation of nearly $3 billion in orders is hurting workers at the bottom of supply chains in order to protect company profits. A report by McKinsey & Company predicted that the $2.5 trillion fashion industry will suffer losses of 30% in 2020, which will have severe ripple effects on garment workers in developing countries. 

The injustices garment workers face were not ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic; in fact, they have faced some of the most harsh working conditions in the global industry since its conception. Brands and factory owners have been known to find ways to cut costs to boost profits. In April 2013, 1,134 garment workers died when a factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, despite evidence that the factory owners knew the building was unsafe, as reported by the New York Times

Even when buildings aren’t collapsing, working conditions are terrible. The True Cost, a 2015 documentary, highlights many of the issues with fast fashion. The documentary shows some of the conditions garment workers endure, such as the low pay of $2 a day. In an interview with the documentarians, one 23-year-old mother from Bangladesh reported that her starting salary was only $10 a month. Some women are denied toilet breaks, and as many as one in four workers report sexual harassment in the workplace. Furthermore, workers are prevented from unionizing. In one factory in Bangladesh, in response to a list of demands presented by a workers union, staff brutalized the workers with batons, according to Human Rights Watch. 

The fast fashion industry also has devastating effects on the environment. According to the BBC, the cotton required to make one jacket can take as much as 10,330 liters of water—an amount equivalent to 24 years of drinking water for one person. Additionally, the pesticides, fertilizers and growth hormones from cotton farming hurt the environment. According to the Pesticides Action Network, nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning, and many more suffer from chronic ill health, such as cancers and reproductive problems.

Due to the cheap nature of fast fashion, garments are often viewed as disposable and end up having very short lifespans before they are thrown away. The True Cost revealed that the average American throws away 82 pounds of non-biodegradable clothes per year. Globally, an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created each year, and the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second, according to the BBC. 

You may be thinking, “But I donate my clothes to charity!” As stated by The True Cost, regrettably only 10% of clothes donated are sold. When clothes are not sold, they end up being sold en masse to developing countries, where only a small portion of the clothes are salvaged before ending up in landfills or being burned. 

What can be done to put an end to this harsh reality of social and environmental injustice in the fashion industry? For starters, wear your clothes for longer. NBC News stated that just by wearing clothes for nine months longer can reduce your carbon footprint for that garment by 30%. Also, buying clothes secondhand from thrift shops or websites such as Depop or eBay is another great way to reduce clothing waste. If everyone bought one used item this year, it could save nearly six pounds of CO2 emissions per person. That’s equivalent to removing half a million cars off the road for a year. As for the injustice faced by garment workers, spreading awareness on these topics through social media or otherwise can help to provide justice.