Over the last 15 years, the fast fashion industry has become an exploitation machine, associated with doubling clothing production. Consumers moved away from the knowledge that people (mostly women) produce clothes, and this system, which includes fast cycles, has also started to cause consequences such as environmental pollution.
Clothing defined as fast fashion consists of cheap and mass-produced clothing that imitates the pop culture and high fashion designs seen on the podiums during fashion weeks. Fashion retailers deliver these products to the stores in a short time so that they can be consumed as soon as possible. Especially with the industrial revolution in the 1800s, material supply, production and sales with new technologies began to change the fashion industry. With the introduction of sewing and textile machines to the industry, more products became available for consumption in a shorter time. Thus, the clothing became standard and a new creation for each season began to be released. To describe this new era in fashion, The New York Times used the term “Fast Fashion” when describing ZARA’s first store in New York in 1989.
Labor exploitation in fast fashion
Fewer than 2% of workers in the fast fashion industry earn a living wage. As might be expected, working conditions in many textile factories are quite bad. Generally, major fast fashion brands outsource their production through small workplaces and factories similar to these. This makes it difficult to monitor supply chains, monitor workers’ conditions, and leave many workers vulnerable to exploitation. Over the last 15 years, the fast fashion industry has become an exploitation machine, associated with doubling clothing production. Consumers moved away from the knowledge that people (mostly women) produce clothes, and this system, which includes fast cycles, has also started to cause consequences such as environmental pollution.
The fast fashion industry, most of which is included in Western capital, is built on the exploitation and labor of the disadvantaged classes and within them especially women. The majority of ready-made clothing factories were established in Southeast Asian and African countries such as India, Bangladesh and Ghana, which provide cheap labor, and in these factories mostly women are working. 85% of the clothing industry consists of women between the ages of 18-24. These women earn less than $3 a day. An hourly production quota is determined for the workers working in the ready-made clothing industry for each working day. If workers cannot meet this quota, they cannot get paid. This is a problem that can be encountered in every workplace, like an unwritten rule of the industry.
Due to the lack of monitorability of working conditions and the problems that come with it, the health and lives of workers are often in danger. In Bangladesh, 1132 textile workers are known to have died when an eight-storey building (Rana Plaza), housing a number of textile factories, collapsed in April 2013.
Fast fashion brands are also complicit in maintaining the gender inequality and gender-based violence and harassment on which the industry is built. In Bangladesh, more than 60% of fast fashion workers report that they are intimidated with violence or feel in danger at work. While in Cambodia, 68% of female workers said they felt uncomfortable or unsafe at work, in Vietnam, 34% of female workers disclosed that they had been subjected to physical harassment, such as kissing, touching or hitting. Women working in fast fashion factories state that they are exposed to harassment and violence while commuting. Women workers also say they have really feared about reporting abuse, knowing that their predominantly male bosses will not be punished.
Both the global Western media and local media are ignoring the protests of women who are constantly striking and unionizing for higher wages, better and safer working conditions in places like India, Bangladesh and Ghana. Women are trying to show the realities of the fast fashion industry by unionizing in order to unite against the problems they experience in the textile factories. However, big problems in working conditions are hidden by brands.
Textile wastes generated during the production of clothing and second-hand clothing waste generated after consuming fast fashion products are stored in countries such as Ghana and Chile. In Ghana, one of the world’s largest waste importers, millions of people work in the second-hand clothing supply chain and have to cope with the huge waste crisis created by the waste of this chain and the countries of the Global North. Kayayei, a forewoman in the second-hand supply chain in Kantamanto, Ghana, states that she carries bales of second-hand clothing weighing at least 55 kg every day. Workers transporting the clothing earn between $0.30 and $1 per transport. These bales are so heavy that workers are risking their health for a wage with which they can barely live on. Serious injuries, long-term health problems, and sometimes deaths are known to occur during the transportation of bales of clothing.
As in Ghana – Kantamanto, second-hand clothing trade is made heavily in Chile, too. Traders often import unwanted clothing (such as junked clothing) from Europe and the United States to sell to locals and other Latin American countries. But more than half of the 60,000 tones of clothing imported each year are dumped in illegal desert dumps, with disastrous consequences for the environment and the local community. In the Atamaka Desert of Chile, a large clothing cemetery has formed.
Both the production and consumption of fast fashion is a feminist issue. 85% of women in the US shop, constantly being influenced about following the changing trends in the blink of an eye. Women are forced to adapt to societal pressures to look a certain way and fit into the “standard” sizes for clothing. Women who produce and consume fast fashion products are affected by being at the center of both sides of a rights issue.
In Bangladesh, it takes an average of four days for major fashion brand CEOs, mostly men, to earn a lifetime wage of a female clothing worker. That’s why before we buy products from fast fashion brands, we need to be aware of what we support. We might have to think twice before buying the fast fashion brand’s t-shirt that says “Feminism – Smash the Patriarchy” or “Sustainable Lifestyle”.
What is paid for the clothes we buy is not only the money for the clothes, but also the price paid by millions of textile workers.
Anne-Marie Schiro – Fashion; Two New Stores That Cruise Fashion’s Fast Lane, The New York Times December 31, 1989, Section 1, Page 46
Clean Clothes Campaign – Pay Your Workers https://cleanclothes.org/campaigns/pay-your-workers
Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, 2019, Penguin Press
Danny Ashton, Fast Fashion: Downing in clothes, NeoMam Studios, 20 April 2020
Dead White Man’s Clothes https://deadwhitemansclothes.org/
Elizabeth Reichart & Deborah Drew – By the Numbers: The Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts of “Fast Fashion” World Resources Institute January 10, 2019
Fashion Revolution – Who Made My Clothes https://www.fashionrevolution.org/tag/who-made-my-clothes/
Fast Fashion’s Final Stop, Apparel Insider, 25th February 2021 https://apparelinsider.com/fast-fashions-final-stop/
Gaia Rattazzi – Why fast fashion is a feminist issue? Attire, July 4, 2020
Human Rights – The True Coost Movie https://truecostmovie.com/learn-more/human-rights/
Labour Behind the Label https://labourbehindthelabel.org/
Violence In The Garment Industry: Infographic https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/what-we-do/voice/campaigns/working-for-justice/garment-industry-violence-infographic/
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan