Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

True Cost of Fast Fashion

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

Summer has been beautiful in Seattle this year – and I’ve been taking advantage of it.  My month turned into almost two months – I just couldn’t bring myself back to the computer.  But now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

We’ve often had people question why organic sofas cost “so much” – and I’ll address that next week.  This week let’s talk about what has become known as “fast fashion” – the idea of moving the newest trends from the catwalk to the store quickly to capture the newest design trends.  And the consumers are responding:   A Cambridge University study[1] found that  people were buying a third more clothes in 2006 than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980.  And they get

rid of a similar amount.   oscar-wilde-FAST-FASHION-quotes

Fast fashion is all about having trendy, cutting-edge looks NOW  – and at bargain prices.  Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where “fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.”[2]

So who’s paying for this fast fashion?

Turns out we all are.

Elizabeth Cline,  author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion, once described buying a pair of shoes at Kmart:  “I remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was.”[3]

The same thing happens to me when I pick up a cute whatever and then quickly put it down when I catch its chemical-y smell. What is the fast fashion we love actually made of?

Some really bad stuff, it turns out.

Greenpeace released a report entitled Toxic Threads[4] about the chemicals found in apparel produced by major brands (such as Gap, Levis, Mango, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M).  They tested 141 articles of clothing they bought in 29 different countries – and all the articles tested contained either phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) or azo dyes  –  and sometimes all three.  These chemicals are found in  clothing and are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin:

  • I think you know some of the health concerns regarding phthalates and hormone disruptors since there has been lots in the media about Bisphenol A (a synthetic estrogen) – surprisingly a component in textile processing.  A brand new study has linked phthalates to increased insulin resistance in teenagers, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.[5]
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of chemicals that mimic the human hormone estrogen.  NPEs are highly toxic to aquatic life, degrade into a long-lived chemical that builds up in the food chain, and may harm reproduction and development in humans.   Both the EU and Canada have passed laws regulating the use of NPEs.
  • And azo dyes can break down into amines which cause cancer – these too have been regulated in the EU and elsewhere around the world.

These chemicals were found in clothing we put on without a second thought, but they are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin – which is a permeable membrane.  Dermal contact is a major route of exposure for these chemicals.

On top of the effects to our personal health, the environment takes a beating too:  the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet, dumping untreated effluent (containing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals) into our groundwater.  And we’re all downstream.

Garment Workers 02a (Reuters)     Most consumers still buy their clothes without thinking about the workers. Sadly, the price of cheap fashion today is slave labor and inhumane working conditions.

“Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.”[6]

A Sri Lankan factory owner interviewed by Oxfam demonstrates the pressure they are now under: “Last year the deadlines were about 90 days… [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45… They have drastically come down.”[7]

The Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, describes similar instances with garment workers in China: “We have endless overtime in the peak season and we sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day.  It’s like this every day – we sew and sew without a break until our arms feel sore and stiff.”

The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in
Bangladesh in April, 2013 killed 1,129 people – and was the last in a long series of garment factory accidents that have killed over 2,000 garment workers since 2005[8].   Warnings not to use the building were ignored and workers were ordered to return or lose their jobs.  Even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:

“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour.”

The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. More clothing is shipped and flown from the Far East to Europe than ever before and the life cycle of these garments is decreasing.   National Geographic says that clothing represents 5% of total garbage in landfills [9]– and in North America, that’s about 68 lbs. of waste per household per year.  And if that clothing is made of synthetics, they’ll be around long, long after we’re gone, leaching their chemicals into our groundwater.  So one thing you can do to help the environment is to buy natural fibers.   Here’s a video produced by Icebreaker Merino, which shows what happens to a t-shirt made of Merino wool, after just 6 months:

The sad fact is that fast doesn’t mean free – and the costs are high.

[1] http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/well-dressed

[2] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[3] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion


[5] http://www.livescience.com/38970-bpa-phthalates-teen-health.html

[6] “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam,  2004; http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/rights.pdf

[7] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/20/world/asia/bangladesh-inside-garment-factory

[9] http://www.charterrecycling.com/recycling-facts

10 thoughts on “True Cost of Fast Fashion

  1. eremophila says:

    Reblogged this on Eremophila's Musings and commented:
    I simply cannot enter a K-Mart store anymore – I can smell the toxins well before the entrance and that’s sufficient warning for me. Start tuning in to your body and make better clothing choices please.

  2. linda says:

    Great post!
    But there is an error:
    Bisphenols and phthalates are different classes of chemicals, BPA is NOT a phthalate.
    BPA is often used in hard plastics, and a variety of other things, while phthalates are used in soft plastics like PVC/vinyl, most fragrances and fragranced products to make them last longer and absorb more, time released medications, and more.
    Both are classes of chemicals being linked to some serious problems, and both are almost impossible to avoid these days as they are used in so many everyday products and materials.

    1. Thanks so much for the correction. BPA is so often linked with phthalates that I was snookered.

      Leigh Anne

      1. Scoob Edoo says:

        Why not fix your text to correct this error? And by the way, “links” to and “associations” to various and sundry effects mean very little scientifically. Note that most of the studies you read about concerning BPA, phthalates, and other chemicals, are not studies so much as examinations of extant data looking for such links and associations without performing any actual science or toxicology. Actual studies looking for these links and associations (what scientists call causation) tells a quite different story from the press releases of these meta-studies: in the case of BPA, several regulatory agencies globally have stated repeatedly that there is no concern with its use in approved applications. The scaremongering of various NGOs and grant-seekers is just a scare tactic for fundraising (in both cases). Getting people to write about it only serves to scare more people and raise more money for more scaremongering. Science (and safety and health) is not served.

        1. Thanks for the comment – I took your advice and revised the text to correct the erroneous reference to bisphenol A as a phthalate. And I agree that there is far from a consensus about the precise effects of BPA and phthalates – it’s the nature of regulatory agencies to work slowly, often lagging behind the most recent studies. Just as BPA and phthalates are being regulated, along comes some new studies that suggest that perhaps we’re jumping the gun. And I agree that certainly it’s to the benefit of those doing the studies to drum up money to fund their research. But then again, who are we to believe? We think that there is ample evidence to support the belief that chemicals contribute to human illness – and because of the nature of new findings in toxicology (such as that low doses – which previously nobody ever thought to check) can sometimes cause catastrophic health events at some point in life, or the idea of synergy (that chemicals react to each other, something with unknown and unintended consequences) – our chemical environment should be evaluated carefully. You never get a prescription from a doctor before she quizzes you on your current medications – yet we expose ourselves every day to a wide range of chemicals which can act synergistically and wreak havoc in our systems. We think it’s critical that people being to question all the chemicals found in the products we live with. These new studies which disprove the “link” between BPA and health issues – have they evaluated this over time, like 30 or 40 years? What about for infants vs. adults? What about those who say that exposure levels have not been specified below which BPA is considered safe? We simply feel that people should be aware of the questions they need to ask.

  3. linda says:

    It’s like we all need to become chemists to figure out what is making us sick these days!

    I had to do the research when I noticed that my kid’s friends laundry products would stick to the couch for days after they had sat there, and I’d get headaches for days whenever I went in the living room after they visited.

    The “forever fresh” laundry products, air “fresheners”, and many other fragranced products have phthalates in them, so 2nd and 3rd hand exposures can be just as harmful when one is made ill or disabled by them.

    Phthalates are used in so many products and materials these days it’s insane. BPA too. There probably isn’t a human being alive who doesn’t have these chemicals in the blood now, as they are in the air and water too.

    Did we consent to being polluted like this?

    As far as textiles and clothing, phthalates are usually in vinyl materials and printing inks.

    Oh, both BPA and phthalates are now found in over 90% of foods tested from supermarkets too.

    And, the search term most commonly used to reach my blog is “chemical free clothing”. There is obviously a demand all over the world for clothing that does not harm us or the environment.

  4. REBLOGGING ON: http://sondasmcschatter.wordpress.com
    I suffer from MCS– And being able to buy shoes or clothes with out toxic chemcials is a real problems for everyone– just many people have not realized the toxic chemicals are what has & is distroying their health!!!

  5. Reblogged this on The Toadstool and commented:
    Reblog of my favourite Eco Textiles Blog. As I have worked in high end fashion industry previously http://www.brunopieters.com and http://www.honestby.com I have followed this blog for many many years. Today they wrote an article which is accessible for everyone as there is less technical or chemical terms used. They mention Phthalates and BPA (Bispenal A) chemicals in cheap clothing and how you can smell the harmfull chemicals whenever walking into a certain shop. The stores they mention are all international or US based, however I believe a few UK retail chains fit this description perfectly. Do you pay attention to the ‘smell’ whenever you enter a shop? Mainstream Toy Shops smell just as chemical.

  6. Great Post and understandable for non fashion industry involved people. We reblogged on our Toy Related Blog. Love reading you blog!

  7. Denim jeans says:

    Welcome back, Informative post, quite happy to read this informative post written for fashion industry.

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