Civil Society's Role in Breaking Down the Systemic Poverty of Fast Fashion

Workers in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Workers in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Copyright Tomas Munita for The New York Times.)

By Noorjahan Aktar, Lenna Georgiadis

Fast fashion is produced when retailers look at runways and fashion trends and quickly make those styles available for purchase at a cheap price. To make this model work, businesses constantly look at what’s in style and pump out new items almost every week. Quick and cheap fashion also means disposable fashion because most of these items don’t last in the consumer’s wardrobe for very long. For producers to outcompete competitors they produce clothing at unrealistically low prices and extremely fast paces. This comes at the expense of the quality of the clothing and most importantly has huge consequences for the environment, human rights, and local economies.

The problems start long before the items are sold. A 2016 report on sustainable fashion from Voguenotes that 150 billion garments are produced in the global fashion industry annually. Just to produce one item of clothing requires an enormous amount of water. For example, a GreenPeace article by Shuk-Wah Chungstated that producing 1 pair of jeans takes 7,000 liters of water, and around 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year. One t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water; that’s more than 2 years of drinking water for an average person. But the problem does not stop there: The same GreenPeace articlealso stated that in one year the dyeing process also utilizes 1.7 million tons of chemicals, including hazardous chemicals like PFCs that cause permanent damage to our environment. Considering all that goes into making a simple item of clothing, it is shocking to consider that “30% of clothes are never sold and more than 50% of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under one year,” according to a report by ShareCloth.

To understand the fast fashion industry we must first acknowledge how the global liberal economic system relies on the exploitation of cheap labor and the environmental degradation the fast fashion industry feverishly maintains. Fast fashion is made within sweatshops, mostly in developing countries that provide less than the bare minimum for workers and their families and that prevent any social or economic mobility. This perpetual cycle of poverty forfeits basic human rights of economic and social freedoms and the very right to development.

In Mohammed Bedjaoui’s 1991 book International Law: Achievements and Prospects, scholar Bedjaoui remarks on the reality of international development and poverty.

... the international dimension of the right to development is nothing other than the right to an equitable share in the economic and social well-being of the world. It reflects an essential demand of our time since four fifths of the world’s population no longer accept that the remaining fifth should continue to build its wealth on their poverty. (pg. 1182)

In theory, competition and consumer demands would drive free trade to ensure the quality of goods and services maintained by producers. However, growing research has found that globalization and the liberal economic order it maintains in fact exacerbates poverty (Kacowicz, 2007). The divide between the global north and south promises to be a growing issue in tracking poverty and wealth inequality throughout the world. The neo-liberal economic policies we rely on within our global governance system prevent global equity and development due to lack of regulation and transparency of the market and free trade policies.

Unregulated free trade policies are part of a globalized system that relies on inhuman labor laws and the exploitation of human capital and natural resources, while global corporations continue making more money.

The International Labor Organization (ILO)was created in 1919 and is now an agency of the United Nations promoting fundamental international labor standards. The ILO strives to ensure that social and economic protections are afforded to all workers. It is dedicated to promoting human rights through labor standards and conducting research to aid states in developing policy centered around decent work standards for all. To abolish fast-fashion, policy makers and consumers alike must look to the ILO for guidance and support.

You may believe yourself to have little influence in preventing exploitative labor, global poverty, or pollution; but don’t disregard the power within civil society to push for greater regulation on labor laws within the fashion industry. We as consumers need to utilize the power of our voices and our dollars to create an ethical and sustainable fashion culture. Here are some ideas for sustainability to combat fast fashion:

Buy Less: The Wall Street Journalstated “American shoppers snap up about five times more clothing now than they did in 1980. In 2018, that averaged 68 garments a year.” We live in a privileged society where it’s not uncommon to wear an outfit once for Instagram and not wear it again for a long time. Or we buy clothing items simply because they are on sale. Instead of buying a new piece of clothing, see if you can repair the old one rather than throwing it away. Some companies also let you return an item of clothing to be repaired, such as fixing a zipper. If you need to rejuvenate your wardrobe, rather than shopping do a clothes swap with some friends or neighbors. SustainableFashionMatterzis a website that provides sustainable fashion resources such as ethical clothing brand recommendations and online events on sustainable fashion consumption.

Think Through: We must think about how our consumption habits affect the world we live in. Do your research on ethical and sustainable fashion brands. The site good on youhas rated thousands of fashion brands on their working conditions, wages, and sustainability. Their website makes knowing the true cost of your clothing easy, they even provide guides on transitioning your wardrobe to be sustainable and ethical.

Act Now: On the international level, we as civil society must create and uphold universal values around labor standards. We have a moral responsibility to advocate for multilateral agreements and institutions centered around ensuring that basic economic and social rights are fulfilled within the fashion industry. This can be done through greater regulation mechanisms on free trade.

Free trade can be beneficial to all parties if we ensure all involved are held accountable to international standards and values involving fair labor laws for everyone.

To begin the conversation on sustainability and fair trade within the fashion industry, the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations will be hosting a virtual sustainable fashion show in February 2021 featuring an array of sustainable fashion pieces and designers at the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement. The event will also feature a panel of speakers discussing the economic perspectives of the fast fashion industry, as well as experts and activists in the sustainable fashion movement.

About the Authors

Noorjahan Aktar

Noorjahan Aktar is a UUA Office at the United Nations intern for the 2020-2021 academic year. Currently, Noorjahan is a senior at SUNY New Paltz pursuing a major in Political Science along with a minor in Studio Arts. She is passionate about fighting for human rights and learning more about...

Lenna Georgiadis

Lenna Georgiadis is a UUA Office at the United Nations intern for the 2020-2021 academic year. As an intern for the UU@UN Lenna is learning how to work within an NGO to raise awareness on human rights and to advocate for ways in which civil society can influence international politics. She's a...

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