A 13-year-old works in a textile factory in Bangladesh.

G.M.B. Akash/Panos Pictures

The High Cost of Fast Fashion

The latest trends have never been more affordable—but all those cheap clothes come at a price for impoverished workers around the world

Young women hunch over sewing machines in a windowless workroom in the Asian nation of Bangladesh. Elbow to elbow in the stifling heat, they assemble jackets. Together, the women must sew hundreds of jackets an hour, more than 1,000 a day. They are paid less than $3 a day for their work.

Just a week or two later, these same jackets will be fall’s hottest back-to-school item, selling to teens for $14.99 each across the United States.

Young women hunch over sewing machines to make jackets. They are packed into a hot workroom in the Asian nation of Bangladesh. Together, the women must sew hundreds of jackets an hour. That is more than 1,000 a day. They are paid less than $3 a day for their work.

Just a week or two later, these same jackets will be fall’s hottest back-to-school item. They will sell to teens for $14.99 each across the U.S.

The jackets are just one example of what is known as fast fashion: trendy clothes that are designed and manufactured as quickly as possible, then sold to consumers at extremely low prices.

New fast fashion looks arrive in stores weekly or even daily. They cost so little that many people can afford to fill their closets with new outfits several times a year—then toss them the minute they go out of style.

Clothing chains such as H&M and Zara first popularized fast fashion in the early 2000s. The retail model has since spread throughout the entire fashion industry. As a result, global clothing production has more than tripled since 2000. The fashion industry now churns out more than 150 billion garments annually.

Fast fashion items may not cost you much at the cash register, but they do come at a serious price: Every day, tens of millions of people in developing countries, some of them just children, work long hours in dangerous conditions to make them.

The trend also hurts the environment. From manufacturing garments with toxic chemicals to the fuel burned to transport the clothing around the globe, the fashion industry has become the world’s second-largest polluter, after the oil industry. Plus, millions of tons of discarded clothing pile up in landfills each year.

“A lot of what we’re throwing away hasn’t even been worn that many times,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “Clothing has become a really cheap form of entertainment.”

The jackets are an example of fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to trendy clothes designed and made as quickly as possible. These items are then sold to consumers at very low prices.

New fast fashion arrives in stores weekly or daily. It costs so little that many people can afford to fill their closets with new outfits several times a year. People then toss the clothes the minute they go out of style.

Clothing chains such as H&M and Zara first made fast fashion popular in the early 2000s. The retail model has since spread throughout the fashion industry. As a result, global clothing production has more than tripled since 2000. The fashion industry now makes more than 150 billion garments each year.

Fast fashion items may not cost much money, but they come at a serious price to workers. Tens of millions of people in developing countries work long hours in dangerous conditions to make them. Some of these workers include children.

The trend also hurts the environment. Garments are made with toxic chemicals. Also, fuel is burned to transport the clothing around the globe. As a result, the fashion industry has become the world’s second-largest polluter, after the oil industry. Plus, millions of tons of trashed clothing pile up in landfills yearly.

“A lot of what we’re throwing away hasn’t even been worn that many times,” says Elizabeth Cline. Cline is the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “Clothing has become a really cheap form of entertainment.”

A CHANGING INDUSTRY

Until the 1970s, most apparel worn by Americans was made in the U.S. That’s when clothing production, like a lot of manufacturing (including cars and electronics), began moving overseas, where labor costs were lower. As recently as 1990, half the clothing sold in the U.S. was made here. Today, just 2 percent is.
 
Most American clothing companies now manufacture their merchandise overseas, mainly in developing countries in Asia (see map, “Where Your Clothes Come From,” below ). Workers there earn a fraction of what U.S. workers make—and have fewer protections. The lower labor costs translate to lower prices for shoppers (who then buy more clothing) and higher profits for retailers. That has helped make fashion a $3 trillion global industry.

Until the 1970s, most apparel worn by Americans was made in the U.S. That is when a lot of manufacturing moved overseas due to lower labor costs. As recently as 1990, half the clothing sold in the U.S. was made here. Today, just 2 percent is.

Most American clothing companies now manufacture their merchandise overseas. They mainly do so in developing countries in Asia (see map, “Where Your Clothes Come From,” below). Workers there earn a lot less than what U.S. workers make. They also have fewer protections. The lower labor costs mean lower prices for shoppers. Shoppers then buy more clothing. This leads to higher profits for retailers. This cycle has helped make fashion a $3 trillion global industry.

DEADLY CONDITIONS

Today, many of the world’s 75 million garment workers live in China and Bangladesh, two of the top producers of ready-made garments. Most workers are females in their teens or younger. “They’re sometimes the first one in their families to have a real job, so the family is eager to get them into the factories as quickly as they can,” says Michael Posner, an ethics professor at New York University. “It’s a very tough existence.”

Indeed, garment workers often toil in poorly ventilated rooms that are thick with fumes from the chemicals used to manufacture and dye clothes. Workers earn barely enough to survive. And if they dare miss a day because they are sick, they risk being fired.

Today, many of the world’s 75 million garment workers live in China and Bangladesh. Those nations are two of the top producers of ready-made garments. Most workers are females in their teens or younger. “They’re sometimes the first one in their families to have a real job, so the family is eager to get them into the factories as quickly as they can,” says Michael Posner. Posner is an ethics professor at New York University. “It’s a very tough existence.”

Indeed, garment workers face harsh conditions, such as poorly ventilated workrooms that are filled with fumes from chemicals used to make and dye clothes. Workers earn barely enough money to survive. If they dare miss a day because they are sick, they risk being fired.

20 billion:
The number of garments
Americans buy in a year
 

For Taslima Aktar, that wasn’t an option. The 23-year-old couldn’t afford to lose her job at the Windy Apparels factory in Bangladesh. So when her manager refused to give her time off to see a doctor last year about a persistent fever and cough, she accepted it.

Weeks later, Aktar passed out at work. After she was revived, her boss sent her back to her sewing machine. Shortly afterward, Aktar’s heart stopped and she died.
 
“We know the same thing can happen any day, to any of us,” says one of Aktar’s co-workers, who told her story to the news website Slate.

For Taslima Aktar, that was not an option. The 23-year-old could not afford to lose her job at the Windy Apparels factory in Bangladesh. She got sick last year, but her manager would not give her time off. So she kept working.

Weeks later, Aktar passed out in the factory. After she was revived, her boss sent her back to her sewing machine. Shortly afterward, Aktar’s heart stopped and she died.

“We know the same thing can happen any day, to any of us,” one of Aktar’s co-workers told Slate, a news website.

A TRAGEDY SPARKS AWARENESS

Many people didn’t give much thought to how or where their clothing was made until April 24, 2013. That’s when Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory building collapsed. The deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry, it killed 1,100 workers and injured 2,500 others. The building’s factories had been making clothing for global brands including Benetton, Joe Fresh, and Mango.

After the accident, many big brands pledged to improve garment factory conditions. About 200 major clothing companies partnered to create factory oversight programs in Bangladesh. In recent years, these programs have trained about 2 million workers in safety procedures. The companies have also hired engineers to inspect the garment factories that produce their clothes.

In southern China too, many factories now offer safer conditions and better wages than they did a decade ago. In some areas, the monthly minimum wage for garment workers reached $312 last year. That’s a 42 percent increase over the previous year’s minimum wage.

Many people did not give much thought to how or where their clothing was made until April 24, 2013. That is when Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory building collapsed. It killed 1,100 workers and injured 2,500 others. It is the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. The building’s factories had been making clothing for global brands like Benetton, Joe Fresh, and Mango.

After the accident, many big brands promised to improve factory conditions. About 200 major clothing companies partnered to create factory oversight programs in Bangladesh. In recent years, these programs have trained about 2 million workers in safety procedures. The companies have also hired engineers to inspect the factories.

In southern China too, many factories now offer safer conditions and better wages than they did a decade ago. In some areas, the monthly minimum wage for garment workers reached $312 last year. That is a 42 percent increase over the previous year’s minimum wage.

SLOW IMPROVEMENTS

Better working conditions and wages come at a price, however. Some factories in Bangladesh have had to reduce how much they produce per day to afford higher pay for employees and building repairs. That means the factories are less able to fill the often-massive orders from big brands. As a result, some experts say, these clothing companies may eventually shift their production to even poorer countries with fewer regulations.

Other factories can’t afford to make the major structural upgrades needed for them to be safe. (Of the 2,000 Bangladeshi factories that have been inspected so far, only 79 had passed final inspection as of March 2017.)

That’s one reason unsafe working conditions persist. Last year, a garment factory fire in India killed 13 people. Another fire this past June injured more than 20 knitwear factory workers in Bangladesh. Some jumped out of third-story windows to escape.

Better working conditions and wages come at a price. In order to afford higher pay for employees and building repairs, some factories in Bangladesh have had to reduce how much they produce per day. That means the factories are less able to fill the orders they receive from big brands. Experts predict that these clothing companies may shift their production to poorer countries. There, they will have fewer regulations, so they can make more clothing.

Other factories cannot afford to make the major structural upgrades needed for them to be safe. (Of the 2,000 Bangladeshi factories that have been inspected so far, only 79 had passed final inspection as of March 2017.)

That is one reason unsafe working conditions still exist. Last year, a garment factory fire in India killed 13 people. Another fire this past June injured more than 20 knitwear factory workers in Bangladesh. Some jumped out of third-story windows to escape.

32 cents:
The hourly minimum wage
in Bangladesh
 

And even if the buildings do pass inspection, the improvements often do little to change daily life for the people who labor in them.

“We still don’t have any security in our lives,” a garment worker in Bangladesh told Slate. “Even if I am on my deathbed, they will ask me to finish making two more pieces before I die. We are nothing but machines to them.”

In Bangladesh, workers who have banded together to demand better treatment have suffered severe consequences. Last December, 1,500 workers were fired or suspended after taking part in protests. Dozens more were arrested during the demonstrations.

Even if the buildings do pass inspection, the improvements often do little to change daily life for the workers.

“We still don’t have any security in our lives,” a garment worker in Bangladesh told Slate. “Even if I am on my deathbed, they will ask me to finish making two more pieces before I die. We are nothing but machines to them.”

In Bangladesh, workers came together to demand better treatment. But they faced serious consequences. Last December, 1,500 workers were fired or suspended after taking part in protests. Dozens of others were arrested during the demonstrations.

ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS

Humans aren’t the only ones suffering for fast fashion. It also takes a toll on the environment. For example, the industry consumes huge amounts of water and other natural resources. Producing enough cotton for one pair of jeans requires roughly 1,800 gallons of water. That’s the equivalent of about 106 showers.

Fast fashion also causes pollution. Take polyester, the most widely used synthetic fiber, which is made from petroleum. Manufacturing it releases dangerous gases into the air. Meanwhile, farming cotton accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the U.S. (Our nation sends about 70 percent of the cotton it grows overseas, where it’s turned into clothing.) Some of those pesticides can cause asthma and other health problems. The chemicals also pollute freshwater and wells near farms.

Humans are not the only ones suffering for fast fashion. It also hurts the environment. For example, the industry uses huge amounts of water and other natural resources. Producing enough cotton for one pair of jeans requires roughly 1,800 gallons of water. That is the same as about 106 showers.

Fast fashion also causes pollution. For example, polyester is the most widely used synthetic fiber. It is made from petroleum. Manufacturing polyester releases dangerous gases into the air. Meanwhile, farming cotton accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the U.S. Some of those pesticides can cause asthma and other health problems. The chemicals also pollute fresh water and wells near farms.

The damage doesn’t end once clothing has been made. The average American trashes about 76 pounds of clothes and shoes every year. Most of that is burned or piled in landfills, where polyester and other synthetic fibers can take hundreds of years to break down. Discarded clothing can also contain chemicals left over from the manufacturing process, which can spread into groundwater.

“A lot of the problems in the fashion industry are things that are happening in other places: air and water pollution in China, poverty and low wages in Bangladesh,” notes Cline. “[But] the waste is happening in our own backyard.”

The damage does not end once clothing has been made. The average American trashes about 76 pounds of clothes and shoes yearly. Most of that is burned or piled in landfills. In these landfills, polyester and other synthetic fibers can take hundreds of years to break down. Trashed clothing can also contain chemicals left over from the manufacturing process. These chemicals can spread into groundwater.

“A lot of the problems in the fashion industry are things that are happening in other places: air and water pollution in China, poverty and low wages in Bangladesh,” notes Cline. “[But] the waste is happening in our own backyard.”

MOVING FASHION FORWARD

As more people have become aware of the ugly side of fast fashion, the push for ethically made, sustainable clothing has grown.

In the U.S., hundreds of new businesses are creating garments out of recycled or organic fabrics. These companies get their materials from American factories, where they can better monitor working conditions.

Big brands are trying to be more eco-conscious as well. H&M, for example, offers store credit to customers who recycle their unwanted clothing at its retail locations.

For now, though, eco-friendly and ethically made garments are often harder to find and more costly than other fashions. That won’t be the case for long, Cline predicts. “I think we’re going to see big brands become leaders in sustainable clothes and make them accessible and more affordable,” she says.

But experts agree it will take more than just efforts by clothing companies to remedy the problems of fast fashion. Local factory owners, global retailers, and Western governments all must play a part, says Posner: “You need a shared model where everybody’s pitching in.”

That includes teen consumers, to whom much of fast fashion is marketed. If young shoppers educate themselves about where and how their clothes are made, and think carefully about how much they buy, it can make a real difference, experts say (see “How to Help,” below).

“It’s everybody’s problem,” says Posner. “And it’s everybody’s responsibility to come together and solve it.”

More people are becoming aware of the ugly side of fast fashion. As a result, the push for ethically made, sustainable clothing has grown.

In the U.S., hundreds of new businesses are creating garments out of recycled or organic fabrics. These companies get their materials from American factories, where they can better monitor working conditions.

Big brands are trying to be more eco-conscious as well. For example, H&M offers store credit to customers who recycle their unwanted clothing at its retail locations.

However, eco-friendly and ethically made garments are often harder to find and more costly than other fashions. That will not be the case for long, Cline predicts. “I think we’re going to see big brands become leaders in sustainable clothes and make them accessible and more affordable,” she says.

But experts agree it will take more than just efforts by clothing companies to solve the problems of fast fashion. Local factory owners, global retailers, and Western governments all must play a part, says Posner. “You need a shared model where everybody’s pitching in.”

That includes teen consumers, to whom much of fast fashion is marketed. If young shoppers educate themselves, it can make a huge difference. Young shoppers can learn where and how their clothes are made. They can also think carefully about how much they buy (see “How to Help”).

“It’s everybody’s problem,” says Posner. “And it’s everybody’s responsibility to come together and solve it.”

CORE QUESTION: What is being done to solve the problems created by fast fashion? Cite evidence from the text in your answer.

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