Clothing Catastrophe

The Perils of Excess and the Garment Industry

Valerie Harants

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a shopaholic. Just this weekend I had to buy more coat hangers because suddenly I had more clothes than space for them in my closet. My walk-in closet is stuffed, my shoe rack is full, my dresser drawers are overflowing, and yet I will not show any hesitation to go to Target and buy more clothes tomorrow. Has this situation arisen because I have bad judgment and little self-control? Partially, yes, but the main factor is that the consumerist culture I have grown up in deems this normal. Clothes are affordable—I, as a 22 year-old college student living on a tight budget can afford to go shopping and buy lots of clothes. Fast fashion stores provide me with the opportunity to dress fashionably without breaking the bank, which is why 90% of my closet comes from H&M, Forever 21, Target, Zara, and American Eagle. These stores have been staples of my identity for years and I have always looked forward to buying new garments from them, but I’ve never known about the damage they inflict on the world in producing their products. I never realized that these brands expose their workers to inhumane sweatshop conditions, use up millions of gallons of water, and play a significant role in the global climate crisis. I’ve never thought of these stores as anything but beneficial, but in reality the fast fashion industry is a menace to a sustainable future on this planet.

The Human Costs of Low Prices

While fast fashion stores have always improved my life as a consumer, they tragically fail to provide the same service to their employees. The fashion industry’s ever-increasing drive to move faster has given way to “unjust labor practices and catastrophic amounts of waste” (Idacavage, 2016). The main factor that fosters low retail prices within fast fashion stores is the brands’ exploitation of cheap labor overseas.  Paying workers with foreign currencies allows fast fashion brands to cut labor costs and produce their products at astronomically lower prices than they would face with domestic manufacturers. But while brands claim that their workers are always paid “legal wages” within their home countries, oftentimes that salary is abysmal, sometimes up to five times less than what is considered a livable wage in that country (What’s wrong, n.d.). It is also not uncommon for garment workers to be in conditions with “no ventilation, toxic substances, fiber dust, or in unsafe buildings,” and additionally face abuse within their workplace (What’s wrong, n.d.). One of the most recent catastrophic examples of the human damage caused by fast fashion labor is the destruction seen in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In November of 2012, one clothing warehouse caught fire and killed 112 people, and just six months later, the same building collapsed–killing over 100 people and injuring thousands (Manik & Yardley, 2013). This establishment employed garment workers for American and European brands including Walmart, Mango, and Primark, and after these disasters, investigators discovered that Rana Plaza was never structurally sound and violated health codes, yet no proactive measures were taken that could have saved hundreds of lives (Manik & Yardley, 2013). The actions of these brands represent those of the fast fashion industry in general–the pursuit of the cheapest labor costs, fastest production, and lowest retail price terrorizes those who produce for these brands without sympathy, regret, or humanity.

Collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 100 people. Published by Manik & Yardley, 2013.

While fashion brands do not hesitate to take advantage of cheap foreign labor, some American brands cultivate cheap labor at home too.  Not only is it common to find American fashion factories paying their garment workers salaries miles below the federal minimum wage , but to find these worker in conditions with “cockroaches living everywhere…rats, and…no toilets” (Cline, 2012, pg. 44). Better yet, the workers in these unsafe conditions are often undocumented immigrants who lack the legal right to fight for improved conditions (Cline, 2012, pg. 47). Collectively, we assume that products manufactured domestically come from more humane practices, however that “Made in America” tag doesn’t practice as much humanity as it preaches.

The Environmental Costs of Low Prices

Ok so the fast fashion industry is atrocious to its workers, but that has to be its biggest crime, right? Oh, if only . If only the fashion industry wasn’t responsible for “20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions”; if only textile dyeing wasn’t “the second largest polluter of water” worldwide; and if only it didn’t take “2,000 gallons of water” to produce a single pair of jeans (Putting the brakes, 2018). The fashion industry capitalizes on the halo effect to distract us from the damage it causes. We typically assume that beautiful things are good and do notA single pair of jeans takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce.  bring evil, so we will never automatically associate beautiful, bright shopping malls with the same amount of environmental damage as we associate with smokestacks, smog, and car exhaust—even though their environmental impacts are equivalent. However, as the practices of the fashion industry are being uncovered and becoming more mainstream, our perceptions of fast fashion are beginning to change. Unlike even two years ago, now my Twitter feed regularly shows me how much water is tainted in textile mills, how dismal sweatshop working conditions are, and what really goes on behind the scenes in the production of the clothes I wear. As this information becomes more mainstream and accessible to the younger generations, fashion brands are feeling the pressure to change their ways, because “if nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget” (Putting the brakes, 2018).  While these statistics feel new and shocking to some of us, they have developed from centuries of toxicity and ingrained patterns of pollution. These established supply chain patterns have paved the way for countries like Bangladesh to feel the fatal effects of climate change more immediately than some other nations. Because Bangladesh is one of the largest hubs for textile dyeing, the color of its largest canal changes by the day depending on the color of the dyes the factories are using, rice paddies and fish stocks are regularly swamped with wastewater, and small waterways the nation depends on are filled with garbage and waste  (Yardley, 2013).

Bangladesh’s canal colored by textile dye. Published by Yardley, 2013.

The real-world impacts seen in Bangladesh are representative of the global climate crisis caused by fashion practices and though these effects may only be felt by countries distantly talked about on the news today, they’ll be coming for places closer to home like Florida, New York, and South Carolina by 2050 (These, 2017). While climate-concerned citizens have (rightfully) been on the cases of oil companies, car manufacturers, and fossil fuel plants, we also need to put that pressure on fast fashion companies if we want to see significant improvement in the health of our planet and our people.

The Cleanup Costs of Low Prices

Even though the production of clothes is a toxic and damaging process, we often think that the harm caused by fast fashion is reversible because clothes can be donated and reused. While this is true to an extent, once our discarded goods leave our closets, it is a miracle if they even end up on the racks at a secondhand store. Each year, Americans throw away “12.7 million tons of textiles, 1.6 million tons of which could be reused” (Cline, 2012, pg. 122). While Americans clearly do not show much hesitation to throw out our old belongings, when it comes to clothes some of us feel too much guilt to toss them directly into the dumpster, so we opt to drop them off at a charity and walk away with a clean conscience. However this behavior has led to “charities [becoming] our dumpsters” (Cline, 2012, pg. 132). In her research, Elizabeth Cline discovered that one Salvation Army distribution center processes “five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year and much more during the holiday season,” and that these charities never feel a shortage of clothing because the pace of donations they receive is non-stop One Salvation Army center processes “five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year.” Elizabeth Cline, 2012(Cline, 2012, pg. 120). These outrageous numbers force workers in these distribution centers to put in ungodly hours sorting through every donation and deciding which pieces are of high enough quality to make it to the sales floor. And while the sales floor is a better fate than jumping straight to the dumpster, these clothes have a narrow window to be sold. At Goodwill, pieces normally only have about three to five weeks to sell before the employees must discard them to make room for new inventory (Cline, 2012, pg. 126).

Salvation Army donations in Buffalo, NY. Published by Christmann, 2018.

While we can agree that the literal tons of donated clothing currently cycling through our secondhand stores are more than these organizations should have to handle–clearly they are finding a way to make it work. To take a closer look at the mechanics behind donation processing, I visited my local Goodwill and was able to speak with one employee about what this process looks like through her eyes. I noticed she was taking clothes off the rack, so I asked her if she was looking for clothes that had run their course and what protocol she had to follow. She told me that on a regular basis, she scopes the racks for pieces with damage, and any ones she finds will be taken off the rack and tossed. Each item on their sales floor is tagged with a specific color to mark when it entered the inventory and each week, clothes tagged with the oldest color will be significantly discounted as a final push to sell before they will be removed. Since yellow tags were discounted the day I went, this employee told me that after the store closed, she would go through and remove any items left on the racks with yellow tags and put them in what they call a salvage bin in the back of the store. Clothes in that bin could then either be donated to charities or taken to an outlet store, where people could buy items in bulk. She said the people who purchase from the outlet typically either buy items to restore and resell them, or to buy them in bulk for repurposing (Anonymous, personal communication, November 17, 2019). This methodical approach ensures that the store’s inventory is constantly cycling so that it can move clothes out at a rate similar to that of new donations coming in so that the location doesn’t experience a debilitating backup in inventory.  Goodwill’s stringent inventory protocol demonstrates the stress and constant workload that cheap goods and excessive discarding puts on secondhand stores caught in the middle of fast fashion’s waste cycle. I had never learned about this cycle before, and this employee did not know what happened to garments after they left the outlet store, but chances are most of them wound up being shipped across the world instead of being recycled, as “61% of reusable and recyclable textiles are exported to other countries” (Leblanc, 2019). The transport of these pieces only further pollutes our oceans and our planet and once these clothes reach their international destination, if they are not immediately put to use, they face even slimmer chances of being recycled.61% of reusable and recyclable textiles are exported to other countries 

This investigation opened my eyes and shattered my perception of the fate of my clothing. Like the majority of people who donate to organizations like Goodwill, I have always assumed that by donating, I was doing the right thing and that the clothes I no longer wanted were given to someone poor and needy in my community. I always dropped off my bags of clothing at a donation center and never thought twice about what happened to my things after I drove away–why would I? Why would I have any reason to wonder if my items were given to someone in need? Or if they were responsibly recycled? Or if they remained stateside? I, like many Americans, have always trusted that my discarded things were recycled responsibly. While this doesn’t seem to have been the case historically, we can work to make it the truth in the future.

Is There Anything I Can Do?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably cursing to yourself about all the global damage you’ve unknowingly perpetuated with your spending habits and now feel overwhelmed with guilt anytime you buy anything. Like you, I never knew the life cycle of my clothing impacted the lives of a countless number of other people, because I never had a reason to question the production of my clothes. Buying cheap has given us the economic freedom to buy in excess and discard what we don’t use without care. Buying cheap goods and finding economic value has always been the lifeblood of the American consumerist mentality, however the value I have found in cheap goods has come at the expense of others that I never would have wanted to inflict. Now when I look in my closet full of unworn pieces or enter a fully-stocked Goodwill, I can’t help but wonder how much damage was done to fill the racks full of discarded clothes, just for them to be left unwanted and unworn. How much wastewater flowed into waterways to dye the sweaters we hardly wear in our closets? How many hours did someone endure in horrendous sweatshop conditions to make our shoes? Are our clothes worth all the damage that was done to produce them?

Most consumers would answer with a resounding no. And while we should want to change our consumption levels to foster positive outcomes, we should not hate ourselves for buying clothes. The production of clothes is a necessity that will remain, however we can refute the current damages and restructure the system of production to minimize the global damage that results from our production. We can vote with our dollars to demand clothing produced in more sustainable manners; we can invest in longer-lasting pieces from smaller retailers; we can donate the excess we do have to local charities and textile recycling mills to ensure they help someone in need; we can stop buying clothing in excess in an effort to slow the catastrophic rate of damage done to our planet because of fast fashion.

At our core, we want to be responsible consumers and do the right thing. Acknowledging that we have previously benefitted from the fast fashion industry (and subsequently the global harm it’s caused) is a hard pill to swallow. But the cognitive dissonance this discussion sparks within us motivates us to find ways to change this system. This research inspires me to reduce my consumption from fast fashion brands, learn how to more responsibly recycle my clothes, and to tell the world about what I’ve learned in the hope that others will want to do the same. Now that we know the truths about fast fashion, we have the power to foster the change we want to see–a sustainable future is not just a pipe dream.


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Food, Fiber, and Fashion Quarterly Copyright © by Valerie Harants. All Rights Reserved.

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