Fast fashion is fun, convenient, cheap, and has gained massive popularity over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, it's responsible for the death of thousands of people and billions of animals every year.
As consumers, our fast fashion addiction kills too many people and animals globally by poisoning water sources, employing workers in unsafe conditions, releasing plastic microfibers in the oceans, farming animals, and skinning wildlife for their pelts.
Shopping for new clothes has become cheaper, easier, and faster than ever before. High-street stores release hundreds of new styles inspired by the latest trends every week.
But the fast fashion industry has a massive impact on people, animals, and the planet. It's the second-largest polluter globally after the oil industry.
The world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, as exposed in The True Cost documentary film. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago.
Read more on the impact of our wardrobe in my other article on what's the problem with fast fashion.
The overproduction and overconsumption of cheaply made clothing create massive amounts of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. It also kills people and animals each year. Here is how.
Unsafe garment factories
The large majority of fast fashion pieces are produced in the world's poorest countries, like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The global textile and apparel industry employs more than 300 million people all over the world, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But it does so in unfair and unsafe working conditions that cause the death of thousands of people in catastrophic accidents, such as the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.
In Dhaka Bangladesh and due to a structural failure, the building collapse caused the death of 1,134 people and about 2,500 more injured back in 2013. Fast fashion brands and retailers put pressure on clothing manufacturers to keep labor extremely cheap resulting in disastrous death tolls.
"Virtually every major brand that we shop at is producing in Bangladesh. I would say the problems at Rana Plaza are not specific to that building, and they're not just specific to the brands operating in that building"
- Elizabeth Cline, author, journalist, and expert on consumer culture, fast fashion, sustainability, and labor rights
Check my article on why you should quit fast fashion for more reasons to move away from cheap and disposable clothing.
Fast fashion provokes suicides
Fast fashion gives jobs and a way to earn a living to underserved populations in poor nations but also in Western countries. Unfortunately, it also exploits and abuses farmers and workers to keep production costs low.
Low wages, long work hours, unsafe conditions, sexual abuse, and physical assaults are very common in the global textile and apparel industry.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2015 report exposes consistent violations of worker's rights in the fashion world. Research with workers from numerous factories in Bangladesh found violations such as verbal abuse, forced overtime, dirty drinking water, and pressure not to use the bathroom.
Clothing manufacturing conditions in East Asian developing countries are typically terrible. Workers sometimes don't even receive their wages after working for more than 100 hours every week, according to the global labor and social organization Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
Many fast fashion brands and retailers practice child labor and modern slavery in cotton farms and garment factories in their supply chain.
Inhumane manufacturing practices and human rights violations are illegal. Local authorities are trying to enforce fair clothing production methods but fail to do so.
Many sweatshops manage to run illegally. Garment manufacturers force employees to do crazy amounts of work and drive hundreds of people to suicide every year.
In Tirupur, a garment manufacturing boomtown in south India, close to a thousand garment workers, their spouses, or children committed suicide in 2009 to 2010 alone, as reported by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS).
“With the meager wages we get, we do not have enough funds for the most basic requirements for our families. We work long hours, usually 12, 16, and sometimes 24 hours a day to earn more. Because of this, we do not have any time to spend with our families or to play with our children. [...] We are nothing but slaves. Many people here have lost their lives because they could not afford to go to a private clinic or a private hospital. [...] Whichever political party comes to power in the state or at the center they will provide no solution to our misery."
- Ibrahim, a 27-year-old cutter at a Tirupur garment factory
Check out my list of fashion brands that still use sweatshops to learn more about how farmers and workers are poorly treated due to fast fashion.
Toxic chemicals threaten human lives
Textile and apparel manufacturing involves chemical-intensive processes such as farming, washing, bleaching, dying, and treatment. The massive use of hazardous chemicals for fast fashion endangers human health and ecosystems.
Toxic chemicals in dyes, fertilizers, and pesticides pollute the air, land, and oceans. They are highly damaging to the skin and health of farmers and workers in the garment-producing factories.
Cotton is the most used natural fiber for clothing globally. But cotton farming requires tons of chemicals that pollute nearby environments. Up to 3 kilograms of chemicals are required to produce 1 kilogram of raw cotton fibers.
The Global Fashion Agenda reports that cotton farming utilizes 4% of worldwide of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, 16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in an excess of 250,000 deaths. This terrible death toll accounts for a large portion of the nearly 900,000 people globally who die by suicide each year.
"An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources. Worse: the industry is rampant with players that don't respect the citizen's right to safe water."
- Pamela Ravasio, Corporate Responsibility Executive and Shirahime Founder
Read up my article on fast fashion abusive water consumption to learn more about how the textile and apparel industry affects the global water scarcity crisis.
Plastic microfibers kill humans and wildlife
More and more plastic is produced every year and dumped into the oceans. Plastic waste collection and ocean cleaning are necessary to protect the environment, communities, and wildlife.
More than 300 million tons of plastics are produced every year, as reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean. Only less than 10% of all plastic is recycled.
Plastic waste has a disastrous impact not only on the environment but also on people and animals. By polluting the air, water, and entire food chain, plastic microfibers threaten human health, wildlife, and the planet.
Even washing most synthetic clothes made from rayon, polyester, or nylon at home releases plastic microfibers into waterways that end up in the oceans and threaten marine life.
They escape through our plumbing and sewage systems. The water expelled from our washing machines transports these fibers to rivers, lakes, and oceans. The volume of textile microfibers entering the world's oceans is increasing at an alarming rate.
About 60% of synthetic fabrics are made of fossil fuels. Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is leaking into our oceans every minute of every day of the year, according to the report The New Plastic Economy by World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey and Company (2016).
People are exposed to harmful pollutants contained in microplastics by drinking polluted water and eating contaminated seafood. People working in garment factories, wastewater treatment facilities, cruise ships, and fish farming industries are particularly endangered.
Microplastics cause burns, vomiting, diarrhea, reproductive disorders, immune-system disruption, endocrine disruption, impaired nervous system function, development of certain cancers, drowsiness, or death.
Check out my article on should we boycott fast fashion to learn more about what's wrong with the fashion industry.
Billions of animals killed for fashion
Fast fashion kills billions of animals each year. It threatens wildlife and puts endangered species at risk. Our fast fashion addiction is responsible for the massive trapping, farming, and skinning of animals to make clothing and accessories.
Many consumers buy fast fashion items made from animal products and byproducts such as wool sweaters, fur coats, leather jackets, shoes, belts, and silk dresses.
The cruel and harsh slaughtering of animals occurs too regularly in the fast fashion industry to make fur, wool, leather, silk, cashmere, mohair, goose down, or down feathers.
Fast fashion commonly enslaves, exploits, and kills animals such as cows, calves, buffalos, sheep, goats, pigs, minks, foxes, wolves, rabbits, and even cats and dogs for their skins.
The apparel industry also threatens many wildlife species with extinction such as reptiles, kangaroos, ostriches, beavers, wild cats, bears, antelopes, and seals.
Animals suffer immense pain, being trapped, caged, and often skinned alive to make textiles all over the world.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reports cruelty in the wool industry where sheep often die prematurely from dehydration, exhaustion, infection, starvation, injury, lack of shelter, exposure, or neglect.
Billions of animals are poorly treated, beaten, or electrocuted to make clothes each year. Fur farming, leather tanning, wool production, and silk exploitation have not only a very negative environmental impact but are also cruel and unethical.
About 245 mink farms in 22 states across the United States alone produce around 3.1 million pelts annually, according to the Fur Commission.
Wool production rose to 1.155 million kg in 2018, made from 1.177 billion sheep around the world, according to the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO).
2.29 billion cows, calves, buffaloes, goats, and pigs were killed for their hide and skin to make leather in 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Read up my article on how fast fashion affects animals to learn more about animal cruelty happening daily in the textile and apparel industry.
Ultimately, fashion brands and retailers must take massive action to reduce their impact. It's time to care about the people involved in supply chains more than profits.
As consumers, we must choose fashion products that are ethically made, fairly traded, and cruelty-free. A lot of certification standards ensure that the clothing pieces we buy were produced according to the highest standards.
Check out my guides on how to check if a fashion brand is ethical and how to tell if a fashion brand is cruelty-free to understand what to look for.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.