Editorial: Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Fast Fashion Fuels the Climate Crisis in the Global South
It is no secret that the fast fashion industry is rooted in the exploitation of the Global South, in order to satisfy the material greed of the Global North. With employees forced to work inhumane hours, in dangerous conditions, for an unlivable wage, the human cost for those in the nations creating the clothes is abundantly clear.
The global structure through which fast fashion operates, is reliant upon the majority of demand coming from the Global North, whilst the bulk of production is carried out in the Global South. These are nations under desperate financial strain that has been historically caused by the Global North’s exploitation of their resources, raw materials and peoples. Now, as fast fashion powerhouses, like H&M, Primark, and the Boohoo franchise, seek to mass produce clothing for the lowest possible prices, they capitalise upon the vulnerable position of the Global South.
Yet the horrific ramifications of fast fashion are not limited to the humanitarian cost. The nations producing the garments also bear the brunt of the industry’s environmental destruction, despite it being fuelled by the mass materialistic consumption of the Global North.
The fast fashion industry creates advertising that pressures consumers to repeatedly invest in their pieces, but with the current influence of social media, this encouragement to partake in mass consumption has skyrocketed. ‘Aesthetic’ trends seen on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok change so rapidly that those engaging with this content must make a constant stream of purchases in order to keep up. And these fast fashion brands entice the customer to do just that, offering deals on already extremely cheap clothing, and in the case of Pretty Little Thing, even going as far as to run 99% off sales.
These clothes are designed to be discarded. Operating through this business model, fast fashion companies rake in profit as consumers become hooked on the latest trend, quickly discarding their previous purchases. In recent years, Shein has dominated the global fast fashion market, now reportedly producing up to 10,000 new products every day. With tops from just $3 (US) and shoes starting at $5, before even considering items on sale, Shein’s prices are lowered to such an extent that the customer is encouraged to justify buying clothing for a single wear.
Because the exploitation, both human and environmental, is concentrated in the Global South, customers can fund this business model without concerning themselves with its detrimental effects. One narrative that is consistently perpetuated to absolve consumer guilt is what I shall call the ‘charity shop solution’. The Global North upholds the narrative that quickly discarding fast fashion is not an issue, provided one donates it to a charity shop.
Yet this line of logic is entirely flawed. The garments are so cheaply made that they cannot withstand long-term wear. The commonly used cheap materials, like polyester, can take more than 200 years to decompose, but the garments themselves will not only rapidly go out of demand when trends change, but will also cease being wearable as they become damaged or fall apart, long before their materials could decompose.
An estimated 10-30% of clothes donated to charity shops are resold within the same country, then a small percentage are recycled or downcycled. This leaves more than half of all donated clothes unaccounted for. Rather than take responsibility for the masses of textile waste created by consumer greed, countries in the Global North export the unwanted clothes to less wealthy nations. Disgracefully, a saviour narrative is put forward here, as these wealthy nations depict their dumping of material waste as ‘donating’ clothes. In reality, these poorly-made clothes end up in landfill, polluting the land of the very same people who were exploited to create them.
A Greenpeace investigation in Kenya, one of the major recipients of unwanted garments, uncovered that “nearly half of the clothes are unusable and have no market value: their quality is too poor, or they are broken or soiled and are nothing more than textile waste.” The consequences of textile waste caused by Global North greed are thus forcibly shouldered onto the Global South, despite these nations typically having little to no infrastructure to handle this problem. Without the facilities to manage the waste, clothes end up being burnt, releasing toxic fumes, or overflowing into the natural landscape, including into bodies of water.
The textile industry is responsible for approximately 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as approximately 20% of global freshwater pollution. This is primarily the result of the combination of the aforementioned dumped textile waste and the pollution created in this process of producing the clothes, both factors which have devastating impacts on the Global South, but remain out of sight and thus out of mind to the Global North consumers.
The process of producing fast fashion clothing and shoes is rife with toxic chemicals. The process of dying garments is particularly harmful, as toxic chemicals including lead and mercury are used, which can then contaminate water and soil. These water sources can be used for washing or even drinking, leading to the risk of chemical poisoning, whilst the soil is often agricultural land desperately needed to produce food. Furthermore, wildlife in these waters can be killed by the toxic chemicals released through the production of fast fashion.
Not only does fast fashion contaminate bodies of water, but the garment production process also uses staggering amounts of water: we require nearly 3,000 litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt. And the effects of this demand are being felt already: the Aral Sea, which sits between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once the fourth biggest lake in the world. Now it has dried up, as a consequence of mass cotton farming for the hungry demand of the fashion industry. This exploitation of resources in the Global South has echoes of Empire, and its history of stealing other nations’ natural resources for its own material benefit.
Fast fashion’s exploitation of the people and the environment in these Global South nations is clearly evidenced. Yet there is a distinct lack of legislation in place to combat the problem. In the past 30 years, the UK has proposed just 5 strategies and 19 policies to tackle fast fashion. Only 32% of these policies relate to direct action, as opposed to simply ‘raising awareness’, and only 5% went as far as to contain budgeting for implementation, reflecting that the vast majority of these meagre few policy proposals were merely performative. To put this into perspective, research undertaken by Cambridge University in 2021 found 689 Government policies to tackle obesity in the UK. It remains abundantly clear that the UK Government has no intention of taking accountability for the nation’s role in enabling the fast fashion industry.
When considered alongside the dismal display of UK policies on fast fashion, EU policy is vastly superior. Earlier this year, EU commissioner, Frans Timmermans stated: “We want sustainable products to become the norm on the European market”, as the EU announced that fast fashion companies will be held accountable for the quality of their clothing, toxic chemicals released and the waste that the industry produces. This year, it became the first region in the world to formally identify the correlation between fast fashion and increased fossil fuel emissions.
The body has announced plans for a ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ scheme, to be implemented across all EU nations. Provisional plans outline that fast fashion brands will be required to pay a ‘waste fee’ for every item sold, with the fee amount being dependent on how ecological the item is deemed. The EU has called for an end to fast fashion by 2030, demanded company transparency on the amount of unsold stock sent to landfill, and promoted a vision for a circular economy for fashion.
Yet, whilst the EU’s progress far exceeds Britain’s embarrassing absence of action, the reality is that nobody is doing enough. The ambition and targets of the EU are refreshing to see, but they are still missing two crucial elements. Firstly, the proposals fail to properly acknowledge the disproportionate impacts of fast fashion’s environmental destruction of the Global South, which is reflective of the Global North’s resistance to face accountability for its role as the driving force of this disaster. Secondly, there remains a lack of explanation for how the EU will reach the goals it sets out, leaving us to wonder the extent to which this legislation may be performative. It is imperative that the Global North looks beyond its own greedy, selfish motives and moves rapidly to clear up its own mess, rather than continuing to push it out of sight and out of mind, by forcing the problem onto those already exploited by the industry.