What's The Real Cost of Fast Fashion?

In this week's Ethical Style column, we look at the reality behind that cheap price tag

Picture / AP

"If you want social justice, be a public servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair," Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld once famously said.

Spot on, isn't he?

I mean, why wear fake fur when you can don the real deal? Who cares about barbaric acts inflicted on farmed animals? If I wish to wear a coat born from the deaths of 40 factory-farmed foxes then I shall.

That's fashion, isn't it? Not giving a damn.

But let me ask you this, Karl. Skyrocketing suicide rates among Indian cotton farmers in Uzbekistan, an estimated 250 million children across Asia forced into child slave labour and Chinese garment factories creating around 3 billion tonnes of soot each year: is that chic?

How about a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsing and claiming 1138 lives, injuring twice as many and leaving more than 800 children orphaned?

No longer is it cool not to care, and it's increasingly harder to turn a blind eye to this baneful business: these recent events highlight how our consumer habits and actions have a consequence.

As consumers, we are presented with two options. We can choose not to engage with the glaringly obvious consequences, convince ourselves that we aren't contributing to the reality and supporting a slave trade economy, or we can take a look at the real cost on workers and the environment and take action.

The speed at which some clothes are made and the low prices we pay for them are directly linked to the low wages and poor working conditions of the people who make them.

Think about it.

Take a look at the real cost behind that cheap price tag:

• According to environmental journalist Lucy Siegle, every year around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide.
• Cheap garments are deliberately made to fall apart after a short period of time to ensure you buy more.
• Cambridge University claims the UK alone is throwing away roughly 1.8 million tonnes of clothing each year.

• Negative social impacts and human misery occur at almost every stage of a fast fashion production line, from the cotton farmers to the dyers and sewers.
• There are wide-scale factory-related deaths every single year.
Over 250 million children across Asia are forced into child labour to keep up with factory demands and support their families.
• Garment factory workers are extremely overworked, can earn as low as US.1 cent an hour and work up to 100 hours a week enduring abuse and sexual harassment in unstable, unsafe factories. In one factory I visited two years ago, workers were expected to sew one pocket onto a shirt every 30 seconds for 14 hours, 6 days a week with harsh consequences if demand was not met.
• If brands (and therefore shoppers) were prepared to pay around 15 cents more per garment, workers’ wages could increase and enable them to work in a stable, safe environment.
Doubling the salary of a worker would only increase the cost of an item by just under 2 per cent.

• A main river in the leather-production zone in Bangladesh has officially been declared ecologically dead. According to pureearth.org, the densely populated neighbourhoods on the banks of the river is a “smorgasbord of lethal chemicals, toxic fumes and the unmistakable taste of death”, with a World Health Organisation report claiming most of the workers will die before they reach 50 years of age.
• An estimated 8000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, most of which are released into fresh water sources.
It takes 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt, which is roughly how much one person would normally drink over a three year period.
• Fast fashion retailers brag about getting new lines at super speeds, but in getting them to stores by trucks, ships and aeroplanes an incredible amount of fossil fuel is burned.
• Each mill in China can use up to 200 tonnes of water for each single tonne of fabric it dyes.

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