How We REALLY Stop Fast Fashion
It was an April morning in Bangladesh when inspectors entered an eight-story building and found cracks. Cracks in columns, cracks in walls, and cracks in the floor. For years, this building housed a number of shops, banks, and, on the upper floors, garment factories. But the day the inspectors discovered this building was falling apart at the seams, they actually did their jobs and sent everyone home. Avoiding a potential disaster. Or, so it seemed that day. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end in smiles and relief, because this is the story of how the fashion industry has left deep scars on the world and continues to push environmental destruction and worker exploitation down our throats. This is the story of fashion. Why a poorly built building in Bangladesh reveals the horrors of the fashion industry. What Karl Marx has to do with Shein, and how this might offer a possible path away from our current clothing industry. This video is sponsored by Brilliant A People’s History of Fashion: The fashion industry that we know today didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. If we travel back in time from Instagram shopping, to malls, through catalogs, to storefronts, and all the way to the textile mills of England in the 18th and 19th century we can begin to understand that fashion is intimately intertwined with the emergence of fossil fuels, the birth of the industrial revolution and the spread of capitalism. Before the invention of the mechanized textile mill, clothing was produced on a much smaller and deliberate scale. Often, you knew the person who made your clothes or you made them yourself. But with the water-driven, and then later, coal driven textile mill, it became a lot easier to create immense amounts of clothes and cotton goods at scale. However, the invention of these technologies didn’t immediately lead to a boom in clothing production. That was facilitated by capitalists. The textile mills of the late 1700s and 1800s were perfect examples of capitalist exploitation. Over the course of those two centuries, former peasants of the English countryside were forced off their land by a number of decrees and policies, and had nowhere to go except into mills and cities. Landless and without work, these peasants looked toward the smokestacks of the textile factories for wages to survive, but this glut of workers meant factory owners could hand out meager wages and exploit their workers to high hell. Indeed, the conditions of Fredrich Engels father’s textile mills in 19th century England were part of what drove him together with Marx to draft the communist manifesto. It also spurred him into writing a book on the conditions of the working class in textile mills. In that book, Engels writes about one lacemaking factory that employs “a mass of young girls – there are said to be 15,000 of them in all – who sleep and eat on the premises,” going on to add that “working-hours, even in the best establishments, are fifteen, and, in very pressing cases, eighteen a day. ” The emerging fashion industry squeezed workers under gruesome conditions to continuously produce. Young English girls and women sucked in toxic fumes, lost fingers in machinery, and worked 100-hour weeks. While, across the Atlantic, enslaved Black people toiled for cotton plantation capitalists who fed the explosion of the English textile mills. This exploitation of factory workers and of enslaved people combined with new automatic loom technologies meant massive profits for factory and farm owners. Because, the lower these capitalists were able to drive wages, the more waste they could dump, and the more they could produce, the higher their profits. But this production had to go somewhere. It had to be sold and worn to actually make a profit for the factory owners. Thus clothing became fashion. A piece of cloth became so much more than just something to keep the sun off your back, it was a commodity that could display status, wealth, politics and more. Fashion, with its endless churning of seasons and trends, is a perfect example of how our economic system transforms something that was made for mere pennies into something that can be sold for riches. And let’s be clear, those riches never reach the pocket of the workers actually making the clothes. From Clothes to Fast Fashion: As production from textiles ramped up over the 19th and 20th century–both from mechanization and the exploitation of the working class–capitalists needed people to actually buy all the stuff they were producing. And while fashion trends have always existed, the wielding of fashion’s cyclical nature became that much more acute as industrial capitalism took hold of global markets. “Under capitalism” as author of the book Stitched Up, Tansy E. Hoskins, writes, “people are locked into a mindset where having is more important than being. We learn to value things only when we directly possess them rather than looking for happiness in ourselves, in labor, in society or in nature. ” So, because people are judged by their material worth under capitalism, if you attach exclusivity, belonging, wealth, and power onto a piece of clothing, it’s much more likely to sell. And that’s exactly what happened. Instead of highlighting durability or usefulness, fashion shows, catalogs and advertisements display what you could be if you just had that pair of pants. In a capitalist system where endless hours of meaningless or destructive work grind us into unhappiness, we look to consumption for a way to achieve pleasure, to belong, to give back, or to heal our planet. When these values are placed onto clothing, then, we are much more likely to pay top dollar. Our self worth and our image is tied to our clothing, so much so that a survey of 18- to 25-year-olds in London found that 41% of people felt pressure to wear a different outfit every time they went out. So, it’s in the best interests of the owners of clothing brands to not only attach as much desire onto their garments, but constantly change those clothes so that you always feel one step behind and need to continuously buy more to feel satisfied. Which, just so happens to be a foundational tactic of fast fashion.
Fast Fashion’s Reign Let’s head back to that building in Bangladesh. On April 24, 2013, textile workers filed into the structure to start yet another grueling day of producing cheap clothes for massively wealthy corporations like Walmart and Primark. But this wasn’t a normal day of work. The day before, inspectors had discovered cracks in the foundation of Rana Plaza, a building housing various garment factories, shops and banks. Once the inspectors discovered the shoddiness of the foundation, they evacuated the building, shutting down the garment factories for the rest of the day. But the owners of those factories were eager for profits and production. The very next day, workers were forced back into the building to continue churning out clothing. Or as one worker describes: “It makes me so angry, because if the owners knew something was wrong with the fifth floor of the building, the didn’t close down the factory, they even told us: ‘this building will stand for another 10 years and nothing will happen to it. ” An hour later Rana Plaza collapsed under the weight of extra floors, too much machinery, and too many people. 1,132 workers died, 2,500 people were injured. Echoing the many fires and deaths of early industrial capitalism, Rana Plaza revealed to the world that the exploitation of textile workers didn’t end with the meager reforms in imperial core countries over the course of the 20th century. Instead the conditions and the environmental pollution of fashion production, have just been exported to the imperial periphery. The current ultra-fast fashion economy is able to thrive because companies squeeze workers under deadly conditions and push the inevitable waste onto the environment. Online fashion juggernauts like Shein and ASOS are the epitome of this industrial hyper-production. They release thousands of styles onto their store every day. Much like mechanized looms and the exploitation of women and enslaved people by English textile mill owners, modern fashion brands wield the quick turn-around of the internet and the oppression of the textile working class in countries like Bangladesh to constantly create new trends and sell evermore clothing. The state of the textile industry is a dark one–driven by a constant desire to gain more and more profits. Indeed, the former COO of Timberland writes that “While serving as an executive in the industry, never once did a CFO ask me if the business could contract… Nor did I ever hear from a Wall Street analyst making a pitch for Timberland to prioritize resilience ahead of revenue growth. ” So, under the glitz and glamor of advertisements and the sterilized ease of online shopping lies the reality of brutal working hours, dismal wages, millions of tons of waste and carbon pollution, injuries, and death. Around 40 million people work in the textile industry. The majority of whom are women and children of color toiling in the imperial periphery. Investigative pieces like this, and this, reveal that the collapse of Rana Plaza wasn’t just mere fluke. Factory disasters to stole the lives of workers before and after the Plaza collapsed. A 2017 report from Global Fashion Agenda roughly estimated that 1. 4 million textile workers suffer workplace injuries every year. The true price of our clothes, especially cheap ones, are pushed on those stitching everything together in factories. These laborers must endure these conditions for terrible pay. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that the average garment laborer receives just 0. 6% of a piece of clothing’s retail price. And while millions of workers get scraps, the barons of fashion like the owner of Zara and the owner of Louis Vouiton have become some of the wealthiest men in the world. The business model of fast fashion companies is the inevitable conclusion of all companies under capitalism: expanding profits by minimizing labor costs, exporting pollution and maximizing production in order to outcompete other companies. All of this production not only means long hours on the factory floor, but it also leads to pretty dismal consequences for the planet. The planetary cost of fast fashion: In the denim capital of world Xintang in China, a river runs an iridescent blue. Chemicals pouring out of the denim factories surrounding its banks let dyes run through the river to such an extent that the waterway can at times look like a vat of toxic chemicals. This river gives us a small glimpse into the environmental destruction of the textile industry. The constant churn of new clothes has created a massive footprint. Estimates put the total carbon emissions pouring out of the textile industry every year to be in the range of 2-8% of total global emissions. That is a substantial amount for just a single industry. Indeed, the world of fashion produces roughly 92 million metric tonnes of waste and uses an estimated 79 trillion liters of water a year. And while fashion burns through resources, consumers churn through clothes. The average American purchases a piece of clothing every 5. 5 days, and from 1996 to 2012 the rate of fashion purchases increased by 40% in Europe. The pants and shirts produced in the imperial periphery satiate the demand for new trends in the imperial core. But when it comes to clothing, all too often the environmental burden and indeed the burden of capitalist exploitation of workers gets placed on the consumer. Much like BP’s devious invention of the carbon footprint to distract us from their polluting practices, we’ve somehow embraced a narrative that fast fashion is our problem. So, we buy ethical brands, or used clothing in order to change this massive industry. I want to make something clear, we can’t shop our way out of fast fashion.
Trends of ethical and sustainable consumption have been trying to do that for last 25 years and have barely moved the needle. That’s because the problems of environmental and worker exploitation stem from the point of production and not consumption. This is not the problem of the individual consumer. The few clothing conglomerates like OTB, VF and LVMH are producing these goods and manipulating our world and our wants so that we continue to buy them. In order to move the needle, in order to transform the fashion industry, we need to change the conditions within the factory. We need to change the way we produce clothes. How we end fast fashion: The current environmental and human exploitation of the fashion industry will not end by going to the thrift store or buying so called ethical or sustainable clothing. These things do help in a small way, but they are ultimately just chipping away at the edges. This might feel a little defeatist–like there’s nothing we can do except cross our fingers and hope that the capitalist class will see the flaws in their ways and change. If that’s what you’re waiting for, unfortunately, the profit-model and competition of capitalism makes that hope impossible. BUT, if we know that true environmental and ethical change has to come from the point of production, that means that the very workers in sweatshops, in textile mills, and in garment factories, have immense power. These workers have the ability to disrupt or even outright end the dual exploitation of people and planet at the hands of fashion capitalists. Indeed, some of the biggest gains in worker liberation and environmental justice didn’t stem from sustainable clothing hauls or choosing to buy less. They came from textile workers agitating for change. From the 20,000 women going on strike across New York City in 1909 to demand better working conditions, to the Lawrence Textile Mill Strike, to the 400,000 strong textile strike all over the U. S. in 1934, to the collective efforts of hundreds of textile unions after the Rana Plaza collapse that forced major clothing brands into a legally binding accord demanding more humane conditions and better pay for factory workers. When textile workers collectivize, and consumers show solidarity by boycotting and divesting, they are remarkably successful at disrupting the flow of profits into capitalist wallets. But these are just small stitches in a much larger tapestry of change. Because fashion is so intertwined with capitalism, we need to end capitalism in order to end fast fashion. Future Fashion: There are many paths towards more ethical and environmentally sound clothing practices. A future with clothing not reliant on worker exploitation, pollution, or waste is one in which the workers laboring in textile factories communally own that textile factory and decide democratically what gets made. A factory where the designers are the workers and the workers are the designers. In this economic model, production is not based on how much we can make and sell, but instead on how much we need to feel comfortable and happy. As Tansy Hoskins notes “Socially organized production would end over-production because no one not reliant on wages is going to vote to work 15-hour days seven days a week on an assembly line to produce 20 billion pieces of clothing. The only people that need such vast quantities of clothing are the people that sell them at a profit; under collective ownership their role would have ceased. ” In addition, collective ownership means an end to disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse, because no worker is going to vote to work in deadly conditions. In short, the model of socialism would put an end to the waste, pollution, and exploitation that is crucial to fashion under capitalism. But revolutionizing our economic system won’t happen overnight. Workers need to build power, we need to organize and we need to build networks of solidarity across industries. While we build that power we can implement methods that reduce the harm of the current industry. This might look like prioritizing hemp fibers in production over synthetic, fossil-fuel-based materials, raising wages, making and buying more durable clothes that last ten years instead of ten days, or even finding ways to continue to use fabrics after they’ve ripped or torn. But for all of these harm-reduction strategies to actually come to fruition we’ll need tons of engineers, mathematicians and critical thinkers. Which is why I love recommending Brilliant. It’s a website and app that uses interactivity to build the next generation of problem solvers. If you’re anything like me, math and science maybe aren’t your strong suit, but Brilliant manages to make difficult to understand concepts like quantum mechanics actually fun to learn. Their courses are laid out like a story, and broken down into awesome visual pieces and interactive puzzles so that you can tackle them a little bit at a time. Take, for example, Brilliant’s wonderful course on scientific thinking. Understanding the foundations of the scientific method is crucial to everything from physics to building strong arguments, and Brilliant has made grasping these crucial concepts intuitive and fun. This little interactive pressure puzzle displays the importance of experimentation and drawing conclusions. By changing the height of the spout, we can begin to understand that gravity is a driving force in water pressure. This type of interactivity is peppered all throughout Brilliant’s courses, and there’s something for everybody — whether you want to brush up on the basics of algebra, learn programming, or learn about cutting-edge topics like Neural Networks. So, to get started for free, visit to brilliant. org/OCC or click on the link in the description, and the first 200 of you will get 20% off Brilliant's annual premium subscription. Hey everyone, Charlie here. This video, as always, was made possible by my patreon supporters. They donate a couple of dollars each month to help me grow and build this channel so it
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