The Fast Fashion Crisis: A Conversation with British Activist Fezile Sibanda
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Ayesha Khan| Toronto, Canada
Made in Bangladesh. Made in China. Made in Vietnam. Made in India. The tags on our shirts give us a single piece of information; where our clothing was made. I, and I assume many others, have grown up with these tags printed in tiny letters on the inside of my clothing. As a child, I would think that these countries written on my clothing tags were hubs of ingenuity and incredible technology. I thought that the immense amount of clothing that came from China and Bangladesh must mean that they have a truly innovative system to make clothes. As I write this, I realize how much of an oversimplification clothing tags are. They can tell us everything and nothing; it all depends on how willing you are to see beyond the piece of cloth and connect with the horrifying stories of the people who made your clothes.
Once you see how exploitative the fast fashion industry is, you begin to see what truly lies beneath your clothes. Beneath the economic appeal of the clothes you bought at Forever 21 or Urban Outfitters is the slave-like labour of the woman who made your clothes and earns little to nothing to support herself. Beneath the cute jeans you bought is 1800 gallons of water used in its production. Beneath a clothing brand’s commitment to 'representation' and 'diversity' is the exploitation of people of colour in developing countries.
At the World with MNR, we focus our advocacy in 3 main areas: climate justice, gender equality and inclusivity. Fast fashion is a problem that impacts each of these three areas in devastating ways. When we look at this problem through an intersectional lens, we can see how fast fashion is more than just an environmental issue; it is also a feminist and racial issue.
To understand this issue from an intersectional lens, I spoke to Fezile Sibanda, an intersectional activist based in Brighton, UK who received a Master of Arts in Social Justice and Education. She runs an Instagram page called @sustainablesundayz through which she advocates for sustainable living and intersectional environmentalism by making various educational resources. You can watch the interview down below.
What is Fast Fashion?
“The fast fashion industry makes garments that have a short production-to-shelf life. Clothes are conceptualized, made, shipped and sold in a matter of weeks. This process has many detriments to the environment because the way that these garments are developed and sourced prioritizes consumerism over the environment and people’s wellbeing. A lot of the garment makers live in countries that have smaller economies and are ex-colonies, which I find interesting because it is a perpetuation of western consumerism and capitalism.”
Fast fashion brands often engage in unethical practices during the clothing-making process simply in order to capitalize on current trends. Most of our clothes are made in developing countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, China, Indonesia, India and China where garment workers are employed on extremely small wages and work in unsafe conditions. Brands like Topshop, Urban Outfitters and Primark are some of the popular fast fashion brands that have been accused of abusing their garment workers. One of the most tragic events in fast fashion history has been the Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. 1,134 people workers were killed and over 2000 were injured. The event highlights the incredibly unsafe condition of garment factories.
The Environmental Impacts.
Due to the cheap and delicate nature of fast fashion clothing, most consumers buy clothes in large numbers and dispose of the same clothes quickly. Most of our clothing (85% according to Business Insider) ends up in landfills. While this is already a concerning figure, most of the environmental degradation caused by fast fashion occurs during production. Carbon dioxide emissions from garment factories are at an all-time high and the industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. Water is used and contaminated in large quantities, with chemicals often ending up in streams and water sources.
“One of the biggest ways this is hurting the planet is how it’s affecting the environments of developing countries, particularly remote areas of the world where Black and Indigenous people live. Many rely on their agriculture in these places. If their animals are being poisoned because of the chemicals that end up in rivers due to garment factories, the effect on their community is profound. Small things truly affect their community because if you’re living in an agricultural community you rely on the land. If that’s been taken away because of pollution, now there is no food and no means to live."
"It’s easy to talk about the statistics, but statistics take away from the individual. If you think about somebody who relied on their cows to work, give back to their community and feed their children and suddenly their cows are dying due to pollution, it actually makes you think, is a shirt worth all of that?”
The Exploitation of Women.
The majority of your clothes are made by women, particularly young women. They can earn less than 3 dollars a day (Forbes). Working as a garment worker traps them in a never-ending cycle of poverty. Children are put into factories at a young age by their mothers who are also garment workers. Often, children grow up in factories and know no other way of life or work. Generation upon generation of women grow up ingrained with the idea that the only realistic way they can make any money is by working intense labour in garment factories. They are harassed, sexually-assaulted, and exposed to harmful chemicals, 1 in 4 Bangladeshi garment workers have reported some form of abuse while working (Good On You).
“Clothing companies in the West like Misguided do empower women in their workspaces. It's nice to see women working and progress to the top in corporate settings. But how can they say that they’re empowering women while the way that they’re making money within these companies is disempowering women in other countries?"
The Advancement of Racial Injustice.
“These brands are racist and we need to challenge them and their practices. They think they are superior to people of colour because they believe people of colour can work for no wage, be put in unsafe conditions and be harassed for their profit.”
The fast fashion industry is rooted in systemic racism. This industry uses practices that are adapted from colonial structures of the past (Remake). Rich, White CEOs in developed nations profit off Black and Brown individuals' labour-intensive work in developing nations. This is modern-day slavery deemed ‘legal’ by the biggest corporations.
While it may seem like clothing brands are becoming more 'representative' through diversity in their advertising and modelling, we cannot forget that the same companies have purposely put garment factories in developing nations where people of colour need to work under unethical conditions to make a living.
What you can do about it.
A Systemic Issue
“Boycotting brands and not buying fast fashion is important, but this is a systemic issue that needs to be challenged systematically. You can take your money away from them, but fast fashion companies will find ways to make more money and continue doing what they do.
On a macro-level, we need to be challenging and holding institutions, brands and governments accountable for what they're doing."
The fast fashion problem won't disappear when some people start boycotting unethical brands. Real change starts when big brands are held accountable and pledge to create safer working conditions, give better wages and become more sustainable. Systematic problems cannot be the fault of the individual consumer (although we should try to consume sustainably and ethically) but rather the weight of this problem falls onto the shoulders of people in power. Our responsibility lies in pressuring them into creating policies that eliminate this problem.
Recognize Autonomy of Garment Workers
“These women have become disempowered, but it doesn’t mean they have no autonomy. There shouldn’t be a White saviour narrative when we approach this issue, we need to use our power and privilege to enable these women to say what they want. We shouldn't impose what we think they want on them."
As beautifully said by Fezile, it is so important to listen before we talk. When the Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapsed, female garment workers fiercely took to the streets to protest the injustice. Some were put in prison while others were being shot at. While the media documented these protests, many outlets failed to listen to these women and ask them their story. Listen to the stories of garment workers. Listen to activists advocating for this issue. Make use of whatever privilege you have to allow their voices to be heard.
Living sustainably is still important. Here are some tips:
INVEST & MINIMIZE: Cheap clothes fall apart fast ( fast fashion is "fast" in every sense of the word) and unfortunately we have a tendency to buy more than what we need if we see it's on sale. Instead of buying many clothes that will end up in landfills, invest in a few high-quality pieces of clothing that you like and can wear at least 30 times.
SHOP SECONDHAND: Brands that call themselves sustainable can be ridiculously expensive, so if you can't afford these brands shop for your clothes in thrift/charity/vintage shops.
To systematically end this problem, here's what you can do.
SIGN PETITIONS: There are countless petitions available directed at governments or brands. Here are some you can sign right now: Primark, Anthropologie, C&A #PayUp, Tell Fast Fashion Companies to Stop Harming Their Customers, Textile Workers, and the Earth
EMAIL: Email your favourite brand and ask them how their clothes are made and demand changes to current working conditions. Click here for an email template created by Fashion Revolution.
TAKE A FASHION REVOLUTION COURSE: Fashion revolution is a well-known non-profit organization tackling problems related to fast fashion. This free course dives into the problems with the industry, responsible production and ethical consumption.
DONATE: Use your money and put it into the hands of garment workers during COVID-19 and people working to end this problem. Click on the names of funds/non-profits to see how to donate: Remake, Fashion Revolution, Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, LostStock directly supports garment workers with each purchase.
Instagram is an great resource if you want quick facts and figures. Here are some accounts that I follow to educate myself about this issue: @ssustainability_ @fash_rev @intersectionalenvironmentalist and of course @sustainabilitysundayz! Fashion Revolution and Remake have resources on their website to empower you to fight for the rights of garment workers and protect the environment.
Fezile has also made amazing resources on topics covering anti-racism environmentalism, sustainable fashion and sustainable menstruation.