Clothing Waste and the Unethical Working Conditions Behind Fast Fashion

Think about your wardrobe. Think about the clothing brands you typically buy from. Think about how many times you typically wear each garment hanging in your closet. Think about what happens to your garments once you're done with them. 

Photo: tonlé: Fashion Justice

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there was 1.7 millions tons of clothing and footwear recycled in 2018 alone

This sounds like a good thing, right? Recycled clothing is better for the environment than landfilled clothing. Well, not exactly. 

How much of the generated clothing ends up in landfills? Let's break it down a little bit and put it into perspective. 

The EPA reported in 2018 nearly 13 thousand tons of clothing and footwear were generated in the US. The same year, over 9 thousand tons of clothing and footwear were landfilled

The World Resources Institute says one garbage truck of clothes are burned and landfilled every second

The fashion industry and society as a general whole is all about out with the old, in with the new. According to Planet Aid, as recently as 15 years ago, clothing was more of an investment. Quality garments made for seasonality purposes could be worn year after year. Now clothing is disposed of after seven to ten wears on average

In order to keep up with the linear economy and revolving fashion trends, the fashion industry aims to mass produce products at the lowest possible cost. How can mass production and consumer costs remain so low? Well, not only is the quality of the product questionable, but the exploitative nature of the workers plays a role in low cost as well. 

Photo: War on Want: Garment Workers

The World Resources Institute reported that a 2018 a U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in over 9 countries including Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. 

Many times workers are overworked, underpaid and forced to work in unhealthy conditions. In the Global Labor Justice's H&M report, a woman testified that her employer would not grant lunch breaks unless urgent pieces or projects were finished. In Bangladesh, garment workers make around $96 per month, according to the World Resources Institute. The government's wage board suggests that a worker needs 3.5 times this amount to live a "decent life with basic facilities."

Refinery29 published that 70% of garment workers in China are women, in Bangladesh the number rises to 85%, and in Cambodia it is as high as 90%. These women work an excessive amount in unstable conditions for wages that do not support the basic necessities. 

What can I do?

The Center for EcoTechnology reminds us that the order of the waste hierarchy matters: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, landfill. Reduce what you use before you start to reuse. Reuse what you have before you recycle. Here's a simple, yet effective list to get you started:

1. Unsubscribe from clothing store newsletters. 

2. Fix-up and recycle garments before giving up on them.

3. When buying new, buy garments made from recycled materials and make sure it is something you will want and use for years after purchase. Do your research and assure the businesses you support, genuinely support their workers. 

As we work toward a more circular economy where products and materials are kept at high value and utilization, get creative when it comes to utilizing resources and reducing waste. One way HPH likes to reduce clothing consumption is by hosting a clothing swap. This is an event that encourages sustainable fashion in a fun way instead of always buying new garments!