The Ethics of Fast Fashion

Dr Andrew Brooks
Lecturer in Development Geography, Kings College London
Dr Andrew Brooks is a Lecturer in Development Geography at King’s College London. Andrew’s research investigates the changing geographies of the global economy. In early 2015, he completed a book Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second- hand Clothes which examines global clothing systems of provision. In other research interventions he is investigating the investment of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Mozambique and Zambia. We asked him about ‘Clothing Poverty’ and how fast fashion affects those in developing countries.
Fast fashion was a term first coined by retailers to encapsulate how fashion trends move rapidly from the catwalk to the store. There is a short turnaround time between designing garments and the production of new clothing collections. Manufacturing is quick and cheap and consumers in the Global North can easily take advantage of affordable and desirable clothes in the shops of high street brands with whom we are all familiar. Fast fashion garments are normally produced in the Global South, predominantly by low paid, female workers. Quick turnaround times place often overwhelming demands on these factory workers, one effect of which can be the manufacture of lower quality clothing. This can encourage the rapid consumption and disposal of cheap clothes after they have been worn only a few times, creating a very unsustainable sector.
Why do we know so little about where clothes come from and the global impacts their manufacturing has?
Clothing production is spread between different locations and therefore it is actually difficult to say where a garment is truly ‘made’. A lot of well known brands have headquarters in the Global North where the bulk of their design and advertising work takes place. A fibre plant such as cotton, for example, is grown around the world from Albania from Zimbabwe. A single garment like a pair of jeans (see the link below for more information) can contain threads of cotton from a number of different regions that have then been woven together. Manufacturing began moving away from the developed economies of North America and Europe in the 1960s. Factories were established in developing countries where wages were
lower. When we buy clothes they might have a ‘Made in China’ label, but that is only a small part of the story. Normally multiple countries are involved in, for instance, the design, cotton growing, manufacturing, advertising and retail. The veil of market-exchange hides the social and environmental relations and conceals the production process from consumers.
We should all question the ethics behind the label (Source: Flickr creative common user Malthrl)
You challenge the idea that charity clothing banks help poorer people in developing countries. Why might we need to think twice before using them?
It is a common misconception that some charitable organisations distribute second-hand clothes freely in the developing world. In fact they get sold onto traders who further sell them to street traders, who then sell them to members of the public. Across Africa clothing manufacturing industries were established in the 1960s as countries tried to modernise their economies. Many factories have since shut, but the import of second-hand clothing has boomed. Cheap imported clothes have flooded African markets and some workers in clothing factories have lost their jobs. One of the sad ironies of today’s globalised economy is that many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in countries such as Zambia are now too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand clothes from the West, whereas thirty or forty years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes. Stopping the trade of second-hand clothes alone will not enable the development of clothing industries in Africa, but old jeans and t-shirts are often unwittingly part of the problem.

Charity clothing banks may not always share their donations freely. (Source: Flickr creative commons user Phil Carlton)
Textile workers and second-hand clothes traders are players within the issue too. Should we see them as passive victims or do they have any agency for change themselves?
Textile workers have very little agency. The de-skilling of labour in the textile and clothing industries has concentrated power in the hands of management so it can be very difficult for workers to negotiate for improvements in wages and conditions. If there are labour disputes at a factory, it may just close and re- open elsewhere. The mobile and footloose nature of fast fashion production means that factories can easily and quickly relocate to new lower wage locations without any serious loss in production.
Street traders who sell second-hand clothing in Africa also have little influence over the trade. They are vulnerable to variations in the quality of the second-hand clothes they sell. If they buy a shipment with lots of torn or soiled clothes they will lose money. This makes their livelihoods very vulnerable.
Second hand clothing market in Mozambique (Source: Flickr creative commons user Ton Rulkens)

Is the social justice you call for just about educating people in developed countries to understand the need to pay more for their clothes (and perhaps throw fewer away) or are deeper processes needed?
I do not think individual voluntary action is the real solution to the problems of fast fashion and sustainability in the clothing sector. If we leave it to people to voluntarily ‘choose’ if they buy ethically produced goods or to recycle this will only result in partial improvements as many people will opt for cheaper or more convenient choices. I think more meaningful change may come about if the issue of living wage levels was addressed across the developing world. In the short term the most important thing to do is raise awareness of these issues, but ultimately a radical social change in politics is required. This would lead to a revaluing of our relationship with labour, consumption and the environment.
Should clothing carry recognised and regulated welfare standards similar to that found on food packaging labels in supermarkets?
This would be a step in the right direction, but I would support mandatory regulations and minimum welfare standards rather than voluntary mechanisms. It is also important that clothing collection charities and companies are also transparent about what happens to the donations they collect. Clothing banks should be labelled with this information clearly and leaflets produced to allow donators to make informed choices. I think most people are unaware of the hidden realities of the global second-hand clothing trade and many question the re-selling practices.
What can we, as consumers, do to reduce the human and environmental impacts of fashion retail?
To reduce the environmental impacts of fast fashion it is much better to slow the rate at which one consumes new clothes. This means buying fewer garments and ensuring those that are bought are of a higher quality. We can try to find clothes that are well made and will last, rather than low-quality things which will soon wear out. The human impacts are more challenging for individual consumers to address. The campaigning organisation ‘Labour Behind the Label’ (see link below) provides very good advice on how to change our shopping habits. They suggest supporting ethical products, buying from popular brands which are improving workers’ rights and shopping for second-hand clothes, but most importantly emphasise the benefit of taking direct action.
What was the thing you found that surprised you most as you undertook your research into fast fashion?
When I started this project I did not realise quite how important the clothing industry has been in the world’s economic history. Cotton was traded throughout the British Empire in the colonial era. Clothing factories launched the industrial revolution. American fashions and patterns of dress spread through the twentieth century. China’s recent development began with clothing industries. At the same time some areas of the world which have remained poor, such as sub-Saharan Africa, have not been able to successfully integrate themselves into clothing trade networks. The clothing sector alone cannot explain world economic inequality, but it offers an excellent vantage point from which to understand the process of uneven development across both time and space.

 

 

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