The Dangers of The Fashion Industry: How a $1 trillion Industry is Damaging People and The Planet

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

By Kavi Mehan - Geography student @ St John's College, Cambridge

Picture this. Thousands of workers crammed into a structurally insecure building with no health and safety regulations, toiling away in the sweltering heat for 80 hours a week, only to be paid $10. For millions of workers across Third World countries, these precarious and exploitative working environments are a grim reality. The dangers of this ‘sweatshop labour’ is best highlighted by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. This was the deadliest structural failure and garment-factory accident in modern history, whereby an eight-storey commercial building - manufacturing clothes for companies such as Walmart, Primark and Matalan - collapsed, leading to 1,134 fatalities and over 2500 life-changing injuries. This disaster is just one example of what happens when companies become influenced by the dangerous logic of capitalism and its quest for profit accumulation.

The emergence of sweatshops coincided with the birth of neoliberalism - a theory of political and economic practices which places market fundamentalism and the retreat of the welfare state at the core of its philosophy. Owing to forces of globalisation and a deregulated environment (also termed ‘footloose’), competition grew between fashion companies to reduce prices. An efficient method of cutting costs for these companies was to subcontract labour to Third world countries in a vertically disintegrated supply chain which would enable the production of garments in the cheapest places possible with no labour regulations. The extreme result of these high-level trends is a violent redistribution of wealth away from labour and the return of modern day slavery as a mechanism to ensure high corporate profitability. It’s ultimately the force of neoliberal globalisation which has to be held accountable for disasters such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

Besides sweatshop labour, the clothing industry is also responsible for severe environmental degradation across every part of its supply chain. Starting from the cultivation of cotton crops, cotton is grown with pesticides to deter insects, and as a result, is part of an industry responsible for 300,000 deaths each year due to chemical poisoning. More shockingly, 11,000 litres of water is used for every kg of cotton (that’s roughly 2000 litres per cotton t-shirt), causing chronic water shortages in tropical and semi-arid environments. There’s a reason why the Aral Sea has dried up: the draining of the water is the result of the appropriation of water being used to irrigate Uzbekistan’s 1.47 million hectares of cotton. Moving further along the supply chain into the factories, the situation is even worse. For example, to produce 1 pair of jeans requires 920 gallons of water, 400 mJ of energy and expels 32 kg of carbon dioxide; this is this equivalent of leaving a garden hose running for 106 minutes or driving 78 miles. The industry also has the lowest rates of water recycling. It has been estimated that one large fashion brand uses the equivalent of 43,000 Olympic sized swimming pools in one year and the textile industry as a whole uses 3.2% of all water available to the human race each year. These garments are then shipped worldwide using inefficient transportation systems, such as air freight and cargo ships which emit vast quantities of CO2. It is clear, therefore, that the whole supply chain has a heavy carbon footprint - one which is driven by the impulsive and hyper-individualistic consumption patterns of consumers in the global north.

The overarching reason for this environmental degradation can be explained through capitalism’s inner logic - which is quite complex, so I have tried to simplify this where possible. The expansionary logic underpinning capitalism and its relentless need for accumulation and profit generation has condemned the Earth’s ecological systems into a perpetual state of decline. Under capitalism, nature is understood through the lens of Cartesian dualism: as a separate entity from human beings which is there to be exploited and degraded. Yet, this logic causes capitalism to sow the seeds of its own destruction. Ecological Marxism (a school of thought which uses Karl Marx’s theories to show how capitalism damages nature) discusses how capitalism creates a ‘metabolic rift’, in which the pursuit of profit and capital accumulation degrades the ‘universal metabolism of nature’ (cycles and processes within our physical world that produce and regenerate the ecological conditions of existence - for example, the carbon cycle or water cycle) – a touchstone upon which capitalism needs to survive. Similarly, capitalism has also been implicitly theorised by Allan Schnaiberg as a ‘treadmill of production’, whereby in a profit maximising socio-economic system, production must continually expand, creating a production cycle that always increases inputs (natural resource extraction) and outputs (pollution). It is clear therefore, that under capitalism, you cannot preserve the environment whilst pursuing high rates of economic growth. In the case of the fashion industry, this motivation for profit has severely undermined the ecological conditions of existence.

The current state of the fashion industry is not great. With the recent allegations of modern day slavery in Leicester coupled with spiralling environmental issues across India, China and Bangladesh, more needs to be done to address the industry’s social and environmental issues. Solutions have emerged in recent years, for example the slow fashion movement and ethical consumerism, which offer progressive alternatives to the rapidly expanding industry of fast fashion. However, it is clear that genuine change will only come about through an overhaul of the capitalist economic system and the subsequent establishment of a less exploitative and egalitarian system which puts people and the planet first.

Further Reading List:

  1. Hoskins, T. (2014) Stitched up: The Anti-capitalist Book of Fashion

  2. Anguelov, N. (2015) The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry: Fast Fashion and Its Negative Impact on Environment and Society.

  3. Brook, A. (2015). Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes. Zed Books. London.

  4. Thomas, D. (2019). Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Penguin Press. London.

  5. O'Connor, J. (1998) Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism.