Most consumers feel a sense of pride at finding great deals. But as we celebrate the success in the value we got for our money, we are also vaguely aware of the sacrifices we made in quality.
So when we don’t pay the full price of an item, how exactly does it cost us?
Today, it only takes two weeks to get the latest trend from the runway to the racks. Fast Fashion is characterized by low-priced clothing, with up to 12 collections released in one year to encourage consumers to check out new styles and buy more to keep up with the trend.
Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of Fashion, a traveling exhibit curated by Dr. Claudia Banz of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, exposes the price paid by society and by the planet in that short two-week process. Here are some key takeaways:
- Poor working conditions. Bangladesh built their economy on the textile industry. To encourage the industry’s growth, the government relaxed on tax and minimum wage policies. Manifested in April 2013, when the textile factory Rana Plaza collapsed, taking with it 1134 lives. Similar conditions are found in China and India.
- Harmful practices. Developed Western countries have placed health and safety standards in their production practices but the developing countries are kept in the dark. Jeans are sandblasted to produce the “used” look but the silica dust from the sand embeds into the lungs of the workers, causing the incurable Silicosis. Others use toxic pesticides for cotton farming and dye textiles with poisonous chemicals.
- Dehydration of the Aral Sea, the 4th largest landlocked water mass. Used to irrigate the cotton plantations in Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has been reduced to one-third of its original size. A 250-gram T-shirt uses 2,500-12,000 liters of water to produce.
- Overpowering of local textile industries. In America, Germany, and other countries, clothes donated to charitable organizations are sold to wholesalers in bales, which are then retailed to poorer countries like Haiti and Tanzania. Because it is cheaper to buy secondhand clothing, business for their local textile industries die.
- Health threat. Clothing is in contact with human skin all day, all year round. However, the chemicals used in clothing pose a threat to our health. Many dyes, including 4,000 azo dyes and pigments of the Color Index, can easily be absorbed through the skin — its carcinogenic and allergenic properties permeating our bodies.
- Environmental degradation. Dyes turn China’s rivers into the most fashionable colors. 90% of the chemicals used are rinsed off in production and laundry, making their way to our waterways and drinking water.
The supply chain is heavily shrouded by the complexity and extensiveness of its network. Let’s take a pair of jeans as an example. Its life spans 40,000 kilometers, starting with design in the Netherlands and cotton production in Uzbekistan to spinning and weaving in India, dyeing in China, sewing in Bangladesh, finishing in Turkey, sale in Germany to disposal in Zambia.
With garments crossing so many borders and passing through so many hands, it is difficult, if not practically impossible, to place social and environmental accountability in every single step of the process.
Despite the difficulty, however, many multi-stakeholder initiatives have taken form to change this system like government legislations and eco-fashion innovations and designs. Clean Clothes Campaign works with 250 unions and labor rights organizations across 17 European countries to ensure that there is just compensation and fair treatment in the global garment industry.
As consumers, we also have the power and responsibility to ensure that the brands we support manufacture their products responsibly. We must be conscious of our purchase decisions, not only in which stores to shop but also in determining which purchases to make.
Discussions led by Prof. Friedrike von Wedel-Parlow, Director of EDMOD Berlin International University of Art for Fashion, following the Fast Fashion exhibit opening, also redefined our understanding of quality. We are familiar with production, economic, and aesthetic quality.
The first encompasses the material and functional properties of a garment — durability and longevity. The second answers whether there is a demand for it. The third speaks for itself. But there are other types of quality which we seldom consider and they are ecological, social and cultural.
How does it affect the environment and the society? How does it represent the culture and heritage of the people?
While the exhibit shed light on some of the unknown areas of fashion. It also served to make us ask even more questions about how we, as both consumers and producers, can contribute to a more just, ethical, and transparent fashion industry.
Check out the exhibit of Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of Fashion, running from October 10 to November 25, 2016, at the Bulwagan ng Dangal in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines.
Mina Yu is an inquisitor, writer and entrepreneur who takes environmental degradation as a personal and professional challenge. She inherited her mom’s sewing subcontracting company and is hustling to grow it into an ethical fashion label. When not preoccupied with this, she also explores minimalism, sustainable living, and the inner workings of her puppy’s brain.