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The global environmental injustice of fast fashion

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Abstract

Fast fashion, inexpensive and widely available of-the-moment garments, has changed the way people buy and dispose of clothing. By selling large quantities of clothing at cheap prices, fast fashion has emerged as a dominant business model, causing garment consumption to skyrocket. While this transition is sometimes heralded as the “democratization” of fashion in which the latest styles are available to all classes of consumers, the human and environmental health risks associated with inexpensive clothing are hidden throughout the lifecycle of each garment. From the growth of water-intensive cotton, to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to worker’s low wages and poor working conditions; the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread. In this paper, we posit that negative externalities at each step of the fast fashion supply chain have created a global environmental justice dilemma. While fast fashion offers consumers an opportunity to buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile manufacturing facilities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards. Furthermore, increased consumption patterns have also created millions of tons of textile waste in landfills and unregulated settings. This is particularly applicable to low and middle-income countries (LMICs) as much of this waste ends up in second-hand clothing markets. These LMICs often lack the supports and resources necessary to develop and enforce environmental and occupational safeguards to protect human health. We discuss the role of industry, policymakers, consumers, and scientists in promoting sustainable production and ethical consumption in an equitable manner.
C O M M E N T A R Y Open Access
The global environmental injustice of fast
fashion
Rachel Bick
, Erika Halsey
and Christine C. Ekenga
*
Abstract
Fast fashion, inexpensive and widely available of-the-moment garments, has changed the way people buy and
dispose of clothing. By selling large quantities of clothing at cheap prices, fast fashion has emerged as a dominant
business model, causing garment consumption to skyrocket. While this transition is sometimes heralded as the
democratizationof fashion in which the latest styles are available to all classes of consumers, the human
and environmental health risks associated with inexpensive clothing are hidden throughout the lifecycle of
each garment. From the growth of water-intensive cotton, to the release of untreated dyes into local water
sources, to workers low wages and poor working conditions; the environmental and social costs involved in
textile manufacturing are widespread.
In this paper, we posit that negative externalities at each step of the fast fashion supply chain have created a
global environmental justice dilemma. While fast fashion offers consumers an opportunity to buy more clothes for
less, those who work in or live near textile manufacturing facilities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental
health hazards. Furthermore, increased consumption patterns have also created millions of tons of textile waste in
landfills and unregulated settings. This is particularly applicable to low and middle-income countries (LMICs) as much
of this waste ends up in second-hand clothing markets. These LMICs often lack the supports and resources necessary
to develop and enforce environmental and occupational safeguards to protect human health. We discuss the role of
industry, policymakers, consumers, and scientists in promoting sustainable production and ethical consumption in an
equitable manner.
Keywords: Environmental health, Occupational health, Global health, Environmental justice, Sustainability, Fast fashion
Background
Fast fashion is a term used to describe the readily avail-
able, inexpensively made fashion of today. The word
fastdescribes how quickly retailers can move designs
from the catwalk to stores, keeping pace with constant
demand for more and different styles. With the rise of
globalization and growth of a global economy, supply
chains have become international, shifting the growth of
fibers, the manufacturing of textiles, and the construc-
tion of garments to areas with cheaper labor. Increased
consumption drives the production of inexpensive cloth-
ing, and prices are kept down by outsourcing production
to low and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Globally, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are pur-
chased each year, translating to $1.2 trillion annually for
the global fashion industry. The majority of these prod-
ucts are assembled in China and Bangladesh while the
United States consumes more clothing and textiles than
any other nation in the world [1]. Approximately 85
% of the clothing Americans consume, nearly 3.8 bil-
lion pounds annually, is sent to landfills as solid
waste, amounting to nearly 80 pounds per American
per year [2,3].
The global health costs associated with the production
of cheap clothing are substantial. While industrial disas-
ters such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
have led to improved occupational protections and work
standards in the United States, the same cannot be said
for LMICs. The hazardous working conditions that
attracted regulatory attention in the United States and
European Union have not been eliminated, but merely
* Correspondence: ekengac@wustl.edu
Rachel Bick and Erika Halsey contributed equally to this work.
Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1196, One
Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA
© The Author(s). 2018 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to
the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver
(http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
Bick et al. Environmental Health (2018) 17:92
https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
shifted overseas. The social costs associated with the glo-
bal textile and garment industry are significant as well.
Defined as all direct and indirect losses sustained by
third persons or the general public as a result of unre-
strained economic activities,the social costs involved in
the production of fast fashion include damages to the
environment, human health, and human rights at each
step along the production chain [4].
Main text
Fast fashion as a global environmental justice issue
Environmental justice is defined by the United States
Environmental Protection Agency, as the fair treatment
and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of
race, color national origin, or income, with respect to
the development, implementation, and enforcement of
environmental laws, regulations and policies[5]. In the
United States, this concept has primarily been used in
the scientific literature and in practice to describe the
disproportionate placement of superfund sites (hazardous
waste sites) in or near communities of color. However, en-
vironmental justice, as it has been defined, is not limited
to the United States and need not be constrained by geo-
political boundaries. The textile and garment industries,
for example, shift the environmental and occupational
burdens associated with mass production and disposal
from high income countries to the under-resourced (e.g.
low income, low-wage workers, women) communities in
LMICs. Extending the environmental justice framework
to encompass the disproportionate impact experienced by
those who produce and dispose of our clothing is essential
to understanding the magnitude of global injustice perpet-
uated through the consumption of cheap clothing. In the
context of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 which
calls for sustainable consumption and production as part
of national and sectoral plans, sustainable business prac-
tices, consumer behavior, and the reduction and elimin-
ation of fast fashion should all be a target of global
environmental justice advocates.
Environmental hazards during production
The first step in the global textile supply chain is textile
production, the process by which both natural and syn-
thetic fibers are made. Approximately 90 % of clothing
sold in the United States is made with cotton or polyes-
ter, both associated with significant health impacts from
the manufacturing and production processes [6]. Polyester,
a synthetic textile, is derived from oil, while cotton requires
large amounts of water and pesticides to grow. Tex-
tile dyeing results in additional hazards as untreated
wastewater from dyes are often discharged into local
water systems, releasing heavy metals and other toxi-
cants that can adversely impact the health of animals
in addition to nearby residents [6].
Occupational hazards during production
Garment assembly, the next step in the global textile
supply chain, employs 40 million workers around the
world [7]. LMICs produce 90% of the worlds clothing.
Occupational and safety standards in these LMICs are
often not enforced due to poor political infrastructure
and organizational management [8]. The result is a myr-
iad of occupational hazards, including respiratory haz-
ards due to poor ventilation such as cotton dust and
synthetic air particulates, and musculoskeletal hazards
from repetitive motion tasks. The health hazards that
prompted the creation of textile labor unions in the
United States and the United Kingdom in the early
1900s have now shifted to work settings in LMICs. In
LMICs, reported health outcomes include debilitating
and life-threatening conditions such as lung disease and
cancer, damage to endocrine function, adverse repro-
ductive and fetal outcomes, accidental injuries, overuse
injuries and death [911]. Periodic reports of inter-
national disasters, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory
collapse which killed 1134 Bangladeshi workers, are
stark reminders of the health hazards faced by garment
workers. These disasters, however, have not demonstrably
changed safety standards for workers in LMICs [12].
Textile waste
While getting finished garments to consumers in the
high-income countries is seen as the end of the line for
the fashion industry, environmental injustices continue
long after the garment is sold. The fast fashion model
encourages consumers to view clothing as disposable. In
fact, the average American throws away approximately
80 pounds of clothing and textiles annually, occupying
nearly 5% of landfill space [3]. Clothing not sent directly
to the landfill often ends up in the second-hand clothing
trade. Approximately 500,000 tons of used clothing are
exported abroad from the United States each year, the
majority ending up in LMICs [8]. In 2015, the United
States exported more than $700 million worth of used
clothing [13]. Second-hand clothing not sold in the
United States market is compressed into 1000-pound
bales and exported overseas to be graded(sorted, cate-
gorized and re-baled) by low-wage workers in LMICs
and sold in second-hand markets. Clothing not sold in
markets becomes solid waste, clogging rivers, greenways,
and parks, and creating the potential for additional en-
vironmental health hazards in LMICs lacking robust
municipal waste systems.
Solutions, innovation, and social justice
Ensuring environmental justice at each stage in the glo-
bal supply chain remains a challenge. Global environ-
mental justice will be dependent upon innovations in
Bick et al. Environmental Health (2018) 17:92 Page 2 of 4
textile development, corporate sustainability, trade pol-
icy, and consumer habits.
Sustainable fibers
The sustainability of a fiber refers to the practices and pol-
icies that reduce environmental pollution and minimize
the exploitation of people or natural resources in meeting
lifestyle needs. Across the board, natural cellulosic and
protein fibers are thought to be better for the environment
and for human health, but in some cases manufactured fi-
bers are thought to be more sustainable. Fabrics such as
Lyocell, made from the cellulose of bamboo, are made in
a closed loop production cycle in which 99% of the chemi-
cals used to develop fabric fibers are recycled. The use of
sustainable fibers will be key in minimizing the environ-
mental impact of textile production.
Corporate sustainability
Oversight and certification organizations such as Fair
Trade America and the National Council of Textiles
Organization offer evaluation and auditing tools for fair
trade and production standards. While some companies
do elect to get certified in one or more of these inde-
pendent accrediting programs, others are engaged in the
process of greenwashing.Capitalizing on the emotional
appeal of eco-friendly and fair trade goods, compan-
ies market their products as greenwithout adher-
ing to any criteria [14]. To combat these practices,
industry-wide adoption of internationally recognized
certification criteria should be adopted to encourage
eco-friendly practices that promote health and safety
across the supply chain.
Trade policy
While fair trade companies can attempt to compete with
fast fashion retailers, markets for fair trade and
eco-friendly textile manufacturing remain small, and
ethically and environmentally sound supply chains are
difficult and expensive to audit. High income countries
can promote occupational safety and environmental
health through trade policy and regulations. Although
occupational and environmental regulations are often
only enforceable within a countrys borders, there are
several ways in which policymakers can mitigate the glo-
bal environmental health hazards associated with fast
fashion. The United States, for example, could increase
import taxes for garments and textiles or place caps on
annual weight or quantities imported from LMICs. At
the other end of the clothing lifecycle, some LMICs have
begun to regulate the import of used clothing. The
United Nations Council for African Renewal, for ex-
ample, recently released a report citing that Rwanda,
Tanzania and Uganda are raising taxes on secondhand
clothes imports and at the same time offering incentives
to local manufacturers[15].
The role of the consumer
Trade policies and regulations will be the most effective
solutions in bringing about large-scale change to the fast
fashion industry. However, consumers in high income
countries have a role to play in supporting companies
and practices that minimize their negative impact on
humans and the environment. While certifications at-
tempt to raise industry standards, consumers must be
aware of greenwashing and be critical in assessing which
companies actually ensure a high level of standards ver-
sus those that make broad, sweeping claims about their
social and sustainable practices [14]. The fast fashion
model thrives on the idea of more for less, but the
age-old adage less in moremust be adopted by con-
sumers if environmental justice issues in the fashion in-
dustry are to be addressed. The United Nations SDG 12,
Ensure sustainable consumption and production pat-
terns,seeks to redress the injustices caused by unfet-
tered materialism. Consumers in high income countries
can do their part to promote global environmental just-
ice by buying high-quality clothing that lasts longer,
shopping at second-hand stores, repairing clothing they
already own, and purchasing from retailers with trans-
parent supply chains.
Conclusions
In the two decades since the fast fashion business model
became the norm for big name fashion brands, increased
demand for large amounts of inexpensive clothing has
resulted in environmental and social degradation along
each step of the supply chain. The environmental and
human health consequences of fast fashion have largely
been missing from the scientific literature, research, and
discussions surrounding environmental justice. The
breadth and depth of social and environmental abuses in
fast fashion warrants its classification as an issue of glo-
bal environmental justice.
Environmental health scientists play a key role in sup-
porting evidence-based public health. Similar to histor-
ical cases of environmental injustice in the United
States, the unequal distribution of environmental expo-
sures disproportionally impact communities in LMICs.
There is an emerging need for research that examines
the adverse health outcomes associated with fast fashion
at each stage of the supply chain and post-consumer
process, particularly in LMICs. Advancing work in this
area will inform the translation of research findings to
public health policies and practices that lead to sustain-
able production and ethical consumption.
Bick et al. Environmental Health (2018) 17:92 Page 3 of 4
Abbreviations
LMICs: Low and middle-income countries; SDG: Sustainable Development Goal
Acknowledgements
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Funding
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Availability of data and materials
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Authorscontributions
All authors were involved the conception of the work. RB and EH drafted the
manuscript, and CE revised the manuscript critically and approved the final
version for submission. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Authorsinformation
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Consent for publication
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Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
PublishersNote
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in
published maps and institutional affiliations.
Received: 21 August 2018 Accepted: 28 November 2018
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Bick et al. Environmental Health (2018) 17:92 Page 4 of 4
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Purpose – This paper seeks to examine the various actors responsible for the recent tragedy at a clothing factory in Bangladesh. Rather than focusing on the actual factory owner, it evaluates the broader structural and institutional factors, plus a particular Western retailer strategy of fast fashion, that together explain the practical inevitability of such tragedies. Design/methodology/approach – As a case study of a particular incident, it presents data from newspaper accounts and descriptive statistics to evaluate the broader context of an industrial accident. Findings – By examining the full context of the incident, it becomes apparent that there were systemic issues that effectively encouraged many parties to engage in workplace policies that almost inevitably can lead to accidents or at least labor abuses. Finally, blame is apportioned to Western consumers whose insatiable appetite for “fashionable” goods merely feeds a retail system that was set up to resolve earlier supply chain problems and ended up taking advantage of changing international trade regimes. Originality/value – The paper takes a much broader examination and analysis of institutional factors that shape work conditions than studies that focus merely on labor-management issues.
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