Check your label. Chances are you’re wearing something made somewhere else. That’s because so-called “fast fashion” has outsourced the $3 trillion a year apparel industry to countries like Bangladesh and China, which underpays its workers and allow some of the most dangerous, toxic—and least expensive—means of production in order to provide the American consumer with cheap and disposable goods.
A garment factory building fire that killed more than 900 people in Bangladesh has the industry calling for better regulation of fast fashion. Yet as of today, GAP is still refusing to sign a safety agreement that would require companies to conduct fire and building safety inspections and make the findings public.
When it comes to the environmental and social impact of fast fashion, America is downwind.
Why does fast fashion matter? Economically, it’s bad business: Government statistics show that since 2002, China’s textile and apparel imports to the United States have increased 263 percent while the textile sector in the U.S. lost 433,000 jobs. According to Save the Garment Center, less than five percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is made here, compared with 95% in 1960.
Environmentally, it’s worse. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, when it comes to environmental pollutants in our air and water, the United States is directly in China’s line of fire.
“Scientists estimate that thirty percent of California’s particulate air pollution comes from across the Pacific,” said Linda Greer, director of the Health Program at NRDC and creator of its Clean by Design program. “China’s textile industry’s contribution to this soot is more than three billion tons per year [causing] cities across America to be in violation of air quality standards.
In addition, “more than half the mercury contaminating the fish that we catch off our shores and in our freshwater lakes comes from China,” she said. When it comes to the environmental impact of our biggest trade partner, “America is, unfortunately, downwind.”
Greer’s Clean by Design has set its sights on cleaning up the Chinese fast fashion industry by establishing business practices that reduce water pollution and energy use to help plants run more efficiently.
The logic behind this program, as well as the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act, is that if multi-national companies such as Walmart, H&M, Gap, Levi and Nike—all participating in Clean by Design—won’t pull out, then manufacturing in China must become more like that which takes place in the United States, with accurate currency valuation, fair wages for workers and environmentally conscious manufacturing. By enforcing these practices, the cost of doing business in China becomes more competitive. And manufacturing starts to come home.
What can you do in the mean time about fast fashion? Think slow. Just like the slow food movement, slow fashion is about buying clothing made in a sustainable way—typically, these designers are working locally to produce smaller quantities of goods. And look for fair trade manufacturers who typically work in third-world countries to forge economic partnerships that can alleviate poverty, reduce inequality, and create opportunities for farmers and artisans.
Finally, think long and hard before you purchase. If you really love something, go for it. But if you just want a shopping fix, try swapping or thrifting—and make that fast fashion last.