Let’s take a quick quiz: Do you contribute to consumer culture? Do you often use single-use plastics, even if there is an alternative available? Do you buy outfits for a specific occasion and then never wear them again? Do you frequent stores like Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Target?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you are a proponent of consumer culture. The bad news is that the majority of people partake in these detrimental habits on a daily basis. The good news is that so many of these are quick fixes if you care just a little bit more about your daily habits.
The bad news is still pretty bad, though.
We all know that our wasteful habits are contributing to the degradation of the planet. We all have that little twinge of guilt, anxiety, and helplessness over the part we’re playing in the destruction of the Earth. But we look at this through a lens mainly of single-use plastics, long showers, and airplane travel. And while those things are important, we flat-out ignore one of the largest contributors to pollution.
The fast fashion industry has obscene environmental and humanitarian implications, and most of us completely look the other way.
You guessed it: The fashion industry is one of the top causes of pollution and one of the most labor-dependent industries, and garment workers are some of the most poorly treated in the world.
Andrew Morgan’s documentary The True Cost articulates the environmental and humanitarian impacts of this industry deeply and articulately. It first explains the global transition to fast fashion. As consumerism grew around the world grew, people wanted cheap clothing, and companies found a way to easily make cheap clothing: exploiting garment workers. Outsourcing labor has become more common in recent years, allowing manufacturers to drive down prices of clothes. As recently as the 1960s, around 95% of our clothes were made domestically. Today, less than 5% of it is. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed over a thousand people and made international news. But people kept feeding into this industry that disregards the basic rights of workers. The fashion industry generates trillions of dollars —yet its workers are underpaid, mistreated, and exploited.
If the factory collapses isn’t enough to horrify you, in India there is a deadly intersection between environmental and human problems caused by the fast fashion industry. Indian cotton farmers in the Punjab region are pressured to produce more than ever before. Farmers use Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton seed that produces more yield but requires more pesticides and is expensive. These farmers have no way out of the cycle of buying pesticides to control their genetically modified seeds and then buying those same seeds that will grow in pesticide-ridden soil. Unable to pay the debt they have racked up buying seeds and pesticides, their land gets taken and they lose their livelihood. The hopelessness of the situation leads them to commit suicide, creating the largest suicide wave in history. The loss of these farmers is felt in their families and communities, and the effects of this process go beyond the farmers. The pesticides and chemicals used in the Punjab region also cause birth defects in children, leaving them severely mentally and physically disabled.
Are you angry yet? You should be.
We are used to the notion that we can reduce our impact on the earth by using metal straws, reusable cups, tote bags, and a multitude of alternatives to single-use items. All of that is great, but in order to actually do something about the climate crisis and combat the fatal consequences people are facing around the world right now, we must be much more conscious about our consumption in all areas, especially our clothes.
Fashion has become a disposable item. Cheap prices are valued above high quality, and in some cases that is necessary (of course, not everyone can afford high-quality clothes). But think about this: one expensive piece of clothing is classier and lasts longer than many cheap items. In many countries this quality-over-quantity mentality is accepted, but in the highly individualistic and materialistic Western culture, we equate clothes with happiness and believe they’re positively correlated. News flash: We will never be satisfied in this pursuit, and all it does is harm our own psyche and the lives of countless others.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you are exempt from this condemnation because you donate your frequently bought outfits when they are no longer in style or when you are bored of them. The majority of clothes donated to Goodwill don’t get sold in the store and instead get sold to developing countries in bulk, encouraging the production of cheap clothing and obliterating the domestic clothing industries of those countries.
The best solution in sight is to reduce our consumption in the first place. Challenge yourself to not buy something for a week, a month, a year. If you do shop, buy used from a thrift store or website like Depop or Poshmark, or find a sustainable and ethical brand. Boycotting fast fashion is the way to go. But again, nothing beats the decision to simply refrain from buying. Remember, as the consumer, you have control, especially if it is in your financial means to buy from almost any type of brand. There is no fast fashion industry without each and every one of us. “Us” includes me, as well. I am not going to pretend that nothing in my closet is from a fast fashion brand, but over the last year or two I’ve adjusted my mindset and my habits, something that we all need to do if we want even the slightest chance at saving our planet and its inhabitants.