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Why Fast Fashion is a Human Rights Issue — And What We Can Do About It

By: Claire Armstrong

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is defined as “cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity, and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears.” Due to the unsafe working conditions and the environmental ramifications of the fast fashion industry, it is the cause of a score of human rights issues that we as consumers must take a stand against.

Hazardous working conditions

Fast fashion clothing is inexpensive largely because the employees who produce it are working long hours under hazardous conditions for very little pay. The majority of these employees are women; in China 75% of garment workers are women; in Bangladesh, 85%; and in Cambodia, 90%. Garment workers are typically expected to work between 60 and 140 hours per week, usually without breaks or overtime pay, and pregnant workers are refused maternity leave. To make matters worse, the conditions they work under are often unsafe — many workers develop breathing problems resulting from the fabric fibres in the air, and the International Labour Rights Forum has reported that at least 1,800 workers have been killed in factory accidents in Bangladesh alone since 2005. In addition, child labor, which is widely outlawed but still occurs in some of the world’s poorest nations, is often used in the fast fashion industry. According to a UNICEF-sponsored article from The Guardian, “Child labour is a particular issue for fashion because much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour and some tasks are even better suited to children than adults. In cotton picking, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.”

Brands to avoid

Good On You is a website and app that rates the ethics of clothing brands based on their environmental, animal, and labour practices. They have compiled a list of fast fashion brands to avoid. The following brands reportedly use sweatshops and child labor and should be avoided. These brands include Missguided, Fashion Nova, SHIEN, Romwe, and Nasty Gal. Minimalism Made Simple offers a more comprehensive list that includes Uniqlo, TopShop, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, and more. 

Where should I get my clothes from?

After you start doing some research on fast fashion and realize just how many brands are engaging in unethical practices, it might seem impossible to avoid supporting them. And while it is impossible not to have any negative impact as a consumer, there are steps we can take to mitigate that impact to the best of our ability. Perhaps the best option is shop secondhand. The fashion industry has been so prolific for so long that there are already far more clothes on this earth than any of us need. Shopping secondhand means that no resources or labor are wasted to produce anything new. Thrift stores are a great resource for shopping secondhand, and have the smallest environmental impact because items are purchased in store, meaning there is no energy required to ship them. However, online secondhand shopping is a great option, too. ThredUp is a huge online thrift store with tons of options, and online marketplaces like Depop and Poshmark allow individuals to sell their unwanted clothing. If you have to buy something new, use a resource like Good On You to find a sustainable brand for whatever you’re looking for. 

UC Davis Zero Waste and Sustainability Club’s flowchart for conscious shopping

UC Davis Zero Waste and Sustainability Club Co-President Nikki Yang has developed a flowchart with steps to help consumers shop more responsibly.

Step 1. Make a wish list.

Step 2. Evaluate what you already own — shop your closet first.

Step 3. Remove items from your wish list based on what you already have.

Step 4: Separate wants from needs.

Step 5: Rank priority, taking into consideration the value of needs vs. wants.

Step 6. Research and evaluate how you will purchase these items.

Step 7: Can you buy what you need secondhand?

Step 8. If not, is it economically feasible to buy it ethically?

Step 9: If it is not feasible to purchase secondhand or from an ethical brand, try to shop with quality over quantity in mind (i.e. purchase something that you will wear for years to come).

Don’t lose hope

It’s hard to become a more conscious consumer. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. The most important thing is not to give up. Money makes the world go round, and we as consumers have the opportunity to vote with our dollar and show the fashion industry what we are and aren’t willing to accept. Brands engage in unethical practices because they are cost-effective, but if we refuse to support them, these practices won’t be lucrative anymore, and brands will have to make a change. The fast fashion industry is cruel and unsustainable. Let’s show the industry that we aren’t willing to accept that.