(Collagraph print of Rana Plaza by Catherine Cartwright)

Rana Plaza (detail) | Catherine Cartwright | 2013, Collagraph print, 18”x14”, edition of 5.

We can’t get enough fast fashion. Globally, we consume more than 80 billion pieces of clothing each year, many of them hyper-trendy, low-cost items that move from runway to sale rack at breakneck speed. Fashion is a trillion-dollar-a-year industry that increasingly relies on rock-bottom retail prices. The amount of made-in-Canada clothing worn by Canadians has plummeted over the past 50 years. Clothing companies now outsource much of their manufacturing to factories in developing countries to keep prices low and trend-turnover high.

While our fast-fashion fling might seem cheap and fun, there are serious long-term social and environmental consequences.

What fuels our hunger for fast fashion? A love affair with clothes. A desire to be on-trend. The quick pick-me-up of a shopping trip. And of course, advertising and media. From short hems to long, and pointy toes to round, we’re under constant pressure to buy the latest look. Most of us can’t afford to follow fluctuating trends with expensive items, so we resort to “convenient” fast fashion. Those clothes won’t last as long as high-quality items – but if a t-shirt cost only $10 and is now considered out of style, back to the store we’ll go!

While our fast-fashion fling might seem cheap and fun, there are serious long-term social and environmental consequences.

Water and Carbon Footprints

A water footprint measures the amount of freshwater used and/or polluted during the production or supply of goods and services. The fashion industry has one of the highest water footprints among manufacturers. On average, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. That is enough water for one person for 900 days.

An estimated 17 to 20 percent of total industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment – and approximately 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. Many of those chemicals will be released into freshwater sources. For every one tonne of textiles produced, 200 tonnes of water are polluted. That’s the equivalent of 5,640,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water pollution from the textile industry every year.

Moreover, the average Canadian tosses 32 kilograms of textiles into landfills annually, most of which has not been reused or recycled (see “The Afterlife of Clothes,” page 26). Clothing in landfills leaches chemicals and dyes into groundwater, further polluting freshwater sources.

The carbon footprint of the fashion industry might also surprise you. By some estimates, the average t-shirt travels 35,000 kilometres, equivalent to one trip around the world, before landing on your back. How is this possible? Consider the many distribution points across the global apparel supply chain. Once grown and picked, cotton is sent to a ginning mill to be processed and compressed into bales. From there it is shipped to a factory – possibly in a different country – to be spun into thread. This factory may not be equipped for dyeing or weaving so the yarn is sent to another factory, often in yet another country. The fabric travels again to be cut and sewn into a garment and is finally shipped by plane, boat or truck to the retailer and then to us, the consumer. The end product spends less than half of its time with the consumer (48 percent). Each step of this supply chain involves burning fossil fuels and emitting harmful toxins into the atmosphere.

The Social Costs of Fashion

The environment is not the only victim of our fast-fashion frenzy. Many people who make our clothes have suffered immensely at the hands of rapid consumption.

Consider the situation in Bangladesh. In one of the most tragic industry disasters to date, more than 1,100 garment workers were killed and at least 2,000 injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on April 24, 2013. Many factors contributed to this devastating event, including changes in Canadian import regulations, lack of credible safety audits, extremely low wages for workers and the increasing pressure on manufacturers to reduce costs of garments.

In 2003, Canadian import duties and quotas on garments made in developing countries were lifted, fueling the race to the bottom.

In 2003, Canadian import duties and quotas on garments made in developing countries were lifted, fueling the race to the bottom and the rush for clothing “Made in Bangladesh.” As Bob Kirke of the Canadian Apparel Federation points out, “The t-shirt factories that used to exist in Toronto and Montreal shut down after Canada lifted tariffs.” In their mad dash to cut costs and improve margins, many North American brands set up shop or sourced from factories in Bangladesh, where the workers were paid even lower wages than those of factory workers in China, India or Cambodia.

In 2013, at the time of the Rana Plaza collapse, many clothing brands had little or no staff on the ground in Bangladesh to inspect the conditions of their factories. Brands therefore relied on third-party audits. Unfortunately, many of those audits proved incomplete and inaccurate. It has since been revealed that cracks in factory foundations, bars on the windows, blocked fire exits and other unsafe conditions were left out of third-party reports.

Unsustainable pricing for clothing is the reason many factories are not compliant with the laws around health, safety, labour, environmental and human rights issues.

According to Michael Lavergne, author of Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes, unsustainable pricing for clothing is the reason many factories are not compliant with the laws around health, safety, labour, environmental and human rights issues. “To be competitive, offshore factories will often cut corners on these infrastructure and management system costs,” states Lavergne.

Wages are extremely low in countries like Bangladesh, where the average garment worker earns the equivalent of $38 per month. In November 2013, the Bangladesh government agreed to raise the minimum wage by 77 percent – to $68 per month – for its four million garment workers. Recent reports indicate, however, that nearly 40 percent of factories are still not paying this new wage.

While the collapse of Rana Plaza captured news headlines, it is only one example of the human cost of fast fashion. Negative social impacts occur at every stage of clothing manufacture, from the farmers who grow cotton, to those who stitch the logos.

Consider the cotton farmer who works at a small operation in West Africa, India or Guatemala. Pesticides are often sprayed by hand on these farms, and in many cases the equipment used is faulty. The farm workers might not be given protective clothing or adequate training in how to use, store or dispose of the pesticides. Women who spend hours in the field picking cotton breathe in these toxic chemicals, often with their infants strapped to their backs.

Child labour in the apparel industry still exists in many countries, despite efforts over the past 20 years to eradicate this human rights violation. The Bangladesh garment industry is a large employer of children, with many working long hours in unsafe factories. Child labourers in Pakistan, Egypt and Central Asia working in the cotton fields either during or following the spraying season are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning. Often the proximity of family homes to cotton fields is enough to pose a health risk.

Key Industry Initiatives

The Rana Plaza tragedy revealed the underside of the fast-fashion industry. While many of the above problems persist, in recent years collaboration among several major clothing brands, non-profit groups and industry organizations have reduced use of toxic chemicals in garment manufacture and the volume of freshwater polluted, and have improved wages and working conditions in factories. As Michael Lavergne says, “What has evolved out of Bangladesh might help point the way towards dealing with Cambodia, Vietnam and soon Myanmar,” other major garment-producing countries.

The following are key initiatives toward a more responsible fashion industry.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed on May 15, 2013, is a five-year, legally binding agreement between clothing brands and trade unions aimed at safe working conditions for the Bangladesh garment industry. To date, the accord includes 1,600 factories and 190 brands (such as Loblaw’s Joe Fresh and H&M), which affect more than two million garment workers. As of September 2014, more than 1,000 factories had been inspected, and over 500 Corrective Action Plans had been approved and published on the Accord website.

The Better Cotton Initiative, established in 2005, takes a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production, working with farmers in a number of countries to improve cotton farming through better management, training, farm assessments, agrochemical use and other techniques.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an organization consisting of retailers, manufacturers, governmental and non-governmental organizations and academic experts representing more than 33 percent of the global trade in the apparel and footwear market. The coalition is working around the world to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry using the Higg Index, which offers industry a suite of assessment tools to standardize the measurement of impacts across product life cycles and throughout the supply chain.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is a global alliance of companies, non-profit groups and trade unions that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the world. Founded in 1998, ETI defines best practices in ethical trade, assists workers in asserting their rights and builds alliances among industry players.

Better Work is a partnership of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation. Since 2007, Better Work has helped garment-industry workers understand their rights and has improved relationships between workers and employers.

In addition to these initiatives, more companies are voluntarily providing a behind-the-scenes look at how their products are made. For example, Patagonia launched its Footprint Chronicles in 2007, which sparked not only a new approach to clothing manufacture, but also to supply-chain transparency and brand-to-customer communication. New York-based Zady.com, an increasingly popular e-commerce site, specializes in socially responsible and transparently produced fashion and accessories. Their .01 The Sweater, created entirely in the United States, comes with photos and video footage of every step of the manufacturing process.

Not only does this shift toward transparency help industry by sharing resources and inspiring other businesses to follow suit, it helps consumers better understand the people and processes behind the clothes we buy. See “Big Brands That Are Leading The Way” on page 38 for more groundbreaking initiatives.

What Can You Do?

While these industry changes are positive, consumers also influence the social and environmental cost of fashion. Simple resolutions, such as washing and tumble drying less often, can reduce the water and carbon footprint of our clothes. Consumers can also put pressure on brands to be more transparent about their social and environmental policies. (See “Strut Lightly” on page 34 for ways to reduce your impact.)

Of course, the most important of the three “Rs” is “reduce.” We need to curb our hunger for fast fashion. Some people propose that a personal or public boycott of clothing from a specific brand or country will help boost corporate responsibility. However, boycotting companies that manufacture in Bangladesh, for example, would not lead to better working conditions. According to the Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety, a boycott would simply put people out of a job. We should continue to buy clothing made in Bangladesh and other countries overseas, but support companies that participate in the initiatives listed above and are transparent about their sourcing and manufacturing processes.

Consumers can also make their voices heard in other ways. For example, Fashion Revolution Day was first held on April 24, 2014, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, and is now an annual event. Roughly 70 countries participated in Fashion Revolution Day this year and last, with Canada as one of the leading countries. The event aims to raise awareness of the fast-fashion industry by encouraging consumers to “reveal their label.” Wearing your clothes inside-out on April 24 – or any day – will spur conversation around the water cooler, on your commute or across social media and urge more consumers to ask: Who made my clothes?

Kelly Drennan is the founder of Fashion Takes Action (FTA), Canada’s only non-profit organization devoted to sustainability in the fashion industry. She has received Treehugger’s Best in Green Award and been called one of the “30 most influential Canadian women to watch” by FLARE magazine.

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