Summer has been beautiful in Seattle this year – and I’ve been taking advantage of it. My month turned into almost two months – I just couldn’t bring myself back to the computer. But now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.
We’ve often had people question why organic sofas cost “so much” – and I’ll address that next week. This week let’s talk about what has become known as “fast fashion” – the idea of moving the newest trends from the catwalk to the store quickly to capture the newest design trends. And the consumers are responding: A Cambridge University study found that people were buying a third more clothes in 2006 than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980. And they get
Fast fashion is all about having trendy, cutting-edge looks NOW – and at bargain prices. Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where “fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.”
So who’s paying for this fast fashion?
Turns out we all are.
Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion, once described buying a pair of shoes at Kmart: “I remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was.”
The same thing happens to me when I pick up a cute whatever and then quickly put it down when I catch its chemical-y smell. What is the fast fashion we love actually made of?
Some really bad stuff, it turns out.
Greenpeace released a report entitled Toxic Threads about the chemicals found in apparel produced by major brands (such as Gap, Levis, Mango, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M). They tested 141 articles of clothing they bought in 29 different countries – and all the articles tested contained either phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) or azo dyes – and sometimes all three. These chemicals are found in clothing and are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin:
- I think you know some of the health concerns regarding phthalates since there has been lots in the media about Bisphenol A (a phthalate) – surprisingly a component in textile processing. A brand new study has linked phthalates to increased insulin resistance in teenagers, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of chemicals that mimic the human hormone estrogen. NPEs are highly toxic to aquatic life, degrade into a long-lived chemical that builds up in the food chain, and may harm reproduction and development in humans. Both the EU and Canada have passed laws regulating the use of NPEs.
- And azo dyes can break down into amines which cause cancer – these too have been regulated in the EU and elsewhere around the world.
These chemicals were found in clothing we put on without a second thought, but they are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin – which is a permeable membrane. Dermal contact is a major route of exposure for these chemicals.
On top of the effects to our personal health, the environment takes a beating too: the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet, dumping untreated effluent (containing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals) into our groundwater. And we’re all downstream.
“Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.”
A Sri Lankan factory owner interviewed by Oxfam demonstrates the pressure they are now under: “Last year the deadlines were about 90 days… [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45… They have drastically come down.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, describes similar instances with garment workers in China: “We have endless overtime in the peak season and we sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day. It’s like this every day – we sew and sew without a break until our arms feel sore and stiff.”
The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in
Bangladesh in April, 2013 killed 1,129 people – and was the last in a long series of garment factory accidents that have killed over 2,000 garment workers since 2005. Warnings not to use the building were ignored and workers were ordered to return or lose their jobs. Even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:
“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour.”
The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. More clothing is shipped and flown from the Far East to Europe than ever before and the life cycle of these garments is decreasing. National Geographic says that clothing represents 5% of total garbage in landfills – and in North America, that’s about 68 lbs. of waste per household per year. And if that clothing is made of synthetics, they’ll be around long, long after we’re gone, leaching their chemicals into our groundwater. So one thing you can do to help the environment is to buy natural fibers. Here’s a video produced by Icebreaker Merino, which shows what happens to a t-shirt made of Merino wool, after just 6 months:
The sad fact is that fast doesn’t mean free – and the costs are high.
 “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam, 2004;http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/rights.pdf