Updated: Jul 16
Originally written for and published by The New Fashion Initiative, here.
Published in Bloom Magazine (I02: Golden). Pages 18-19.
Peers and professors alike at the International Relations department of St Andrews University in Scotland thought I was insane, vapid, or both. They were astounded that I would be writing about the environmental injustices of fashion for my dissertation. Their disbelief only further proved my point: fashion is trivialized, considered too inconsequential or frivolous to require any real thought or political regulation. So, I sought to prove them wrong.
My thesis makes two arguments. One, fast fashion is a form of environmental injustice against the Global South (GS). Two, like most other industries, the fashion industry must be politically and economically regulated.
My dissertation is far too long and densely packed with IR jargon for me to reasonably subject anyone to reading it. However, the message is important: the fashion industry inherently operates on global injustices and must be politically regulated.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fashion is the third largest industry in the world, employing one in six people on the planet, yet it is completely unregulated. In other words, it is utterly devoid of rules and beholden to no political or economic law.
Amancio Ortega Gaona, founder of Zara, recognized this lack of governance as an opportunity for limitless economic growth and developed ‘fast fashion:’ the imitation of high-end designs, mass produced with cheap fabrics and labor and to be sold at significantly lower prices.
Fast fashion is not a brand, but an exploitative business model with four defining characteristics: near-exclusive production in the Global South, supply chain secrecy, hyperconsumption and garment disposability. Fast fashion has also radically altered our perspective as consumers: garments are no longer investments, but expendable. The Global North (GN) purchases 400% more clothing today than 20 years ago, yet consumers keep their clothes for only half as long. We don’t value clothing the way we used to, which means all the environmental and social costs are virtually for nothing.
What is Environmental Justice?
When my sister and I had to share a cookie as kids my mom would make us split it. But there was a caveat: one of us had to divide it, the other got to choose which half she wanted. This is participatory equality; we were both involved in the decision-making process and ended up with identical halves of the cookie. This is distributive equality, or how to divvy stuff up fairly. Genius parenting. What’s crucial is that we only got equal shares because we both had a say.
If it were up to my sister alone, she’d take the cookie and run. Exclusive decision-making processes inevitably lead to unjust distribution.
The cookie in question is the world’s natural resources and our environment.
Environmental justice can only be established if participatory and distributive equality are met like this. Environmental justice means the communities of the world a) have their needs recognized and b) are able to participate in decision-making processes leading to a fair distribution of environmental benefits (hint: $$) and burdens (pollution). Capitalism is an inherently unjust economic system; no matter the remediations put in place, it will remain imperfect. However, policy is a crucial first step towards establishing global environmental justice in the fashion industry.
How is Fast Fashion Environmental Injustice?
Who Determines How the Cookie Crumbles?
The fast fashion industry is a baby version of the global economy. Colonial relationships of exploitation serve as the foundation for today’s unfair global economic structures. Colonies were forced to produce and export goods for the benefit of the colonizers, and that fundamental economic relationship persists today between the GS and GN.
Colonialism instituted unequal starting positions in the economic race, and that gap has only widened in today’s economy. Through foreign direct investment, preferential trade agreements, and market pricing, governments and companies of the GN still write the rules. This is the participatory injustice: the ecological needs of the GS aren’t recognized, and they aren’t included in economic decision-making processes.
To hearken back to my cookie analogy, the GN decides how the cookie crumbles. Literally.
The Unsurprising Outcome
Let’s look at the completely predictable outcome of this: the unjust distribution between the GN and GS of profit and environmental detriment.
Fifteen nations of the GS make 90% of the world’s textiles and 80% of the world’s clothing. Yet in 2019, 20 companies made 97% of the fashion industry’s economic profit. The vast majority of these companies, like Nike, LVMH and Zara, were European or North American. This is the distributive injustice: the GN faces almost none of the ecological detriment of fashion production firsthand yet reaps nearly all the economic profit.
Textile production creates 1.2 billion tons of CO₂ annually, more than the carbon footprints of air travel and maritime shipping combined. In fact, the global fashion and footwear industry accounts for a staggering 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions—about as much as the entire continent of Europe. Plus, the use of land and pesticides for fiber and textile production causes desertification, biodiversity loss, and deforestation.
Every ton of textiles produced requires 200 tons of water. The fashion industry consumes roughly 79 billion cubic meters of fresh water annually for fiber production, dyeing, finishing and washing processes. This leads to water scarcity in international production hubs, like India and China.
Not only does the industry consume unsustainable amounts of water, but textile dyeing and treatment accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution. The lack of regulation means that toxic wastewater is dumped directly into waterways. For example, the 3,000 denim factories in Xintang, China dump dye wastewater directly into the East River. Greenpeace reported high levels of cadmium, copper and lead in its riverbed, killing off aquatic life and causing serious health hazards for local populations (skin disorders, lung infections and infertility).
To use another baked goods analogy: this is like my sister paying me .20 cents to bake a cake, using my ingredients and leaving my kitchen a mess, that she then sells for $20. I’m left with the mess and a tiny fraction of the money she’s made, but there’s not much I can do. I need that 20 cents to survive... and there’s no parent present to stop her behavior.
So, What Are We Going To Do About It?
The Treaty for Just Fashion and Ecological Space Overconsumption Tax
The industry won’t change as drastically as we need it to until it faces some kind of political and economic regulation. Here’s an abridged version of the policy I think we need to see.
Step 1: Blockchain
Governments in the GN must make supply chain transparency legally mandatory. This is downright doable with blockchain: a system for data collection, storage, and management that is essentially un-mess-with-able. Industries like pharmaceuticals, banking, and food are already adopting tech like this, so it's more than possible for fashion to do the same.
Fast fashion corporations could finally be held accountable for how much damage they do in garment-producing countries. Transparency is the first step to achieve justice; ecological destruction must first be brought to light before punitive measures can be fairly applied.
Step 2: International Treaty for Just Fashion
Next, we must establish a globally common framework of environmental, social and governance standards under an international “Treaty for Just Fashion.” If the fashion industry is the Lord of the Flies-esque, parentless anarchy I’ve described, the Treaty for Just Fashion would be everyone coming together to establish some ground rules.
This Treaty would enable fair decision-making processes in which all nations along the fashion supply chain would have a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion. The golden rule these nations would establish under the Treaty is the maximum amount of environmental damage garment-manufacturing nations of the GS are willing to withstand. Signatories (the countries that say, ‘count me in!’) would commit to regulating the fast fashion conglomerates within their borders according to this group-constructed standard. So that addresses the participatory injustices of fast fashion.
But what happens if they do go over those limits?
Step 3: Ecological Space Overconsumption Tax
Lucky for us, systems for measuring the economic cost of a company’s environmental impact already exist. Kering developed the environmental profit and loss system (EP&L) that analyzes a company’s carbon emissions, water use, water pollution, land use, air pollution, and waste. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition similarly developed the Higg Index, a standardized method of measuring a company’s environmental and social sustainability. These systems convert ecological damage into economic terms.
These metrics would be the foundation for the “Ecological Space Over Consumption Tax,” or the tax nations would place on fashion companies that exceed the pollution limit. Each nation would have the power to determine how much to tax (in accordance with the established baseline) and how to collect the tax.
You might be thinking, “well this is cute, but countries don’t tend to act out of sheer altruism, why would the GN agree to this?” The simplest answer is that by participating in the Treaty, the governments of the GN would make money by taxing fashion corporations that inevitably exceed pollution limits. And they can charge as much as they want.
Having offshored 90% of production across the GS, fashion companies are dependent on the manufacturing infrastructure scattered around the GS and the exploitation of the GS’s ecology. The Treaty and tax would allow the GS to economically revalue their ecologies as a rapidly depleting commodity in high demand. What the GN was previously stealing becomes a precious resource necessary for fashion production. This rebalances the scales of economic power in the fashion industry, redistributing the economic benefits of ecological degradation.
By eliminating supply chain secrecy, limitless consumption of the GS’s ecological space, and adjusting too-low market prices, the Treaty and tax destabilize the pillars of injustice upholding fast fashion.
Wait! But won’t clothes be more expensive?
Maybe. I don’t mean to be insensitive to the fact that fast fashion has made the industry more accessible for lower income families. Sustainability is a privilege, and our current global system makes it significantly easier and cheaper to buy fast fashion than it is to buy fair trade. However, there is too much social and ecological damage that happens along the fashion supply chain to justify disposable clothing.
Around the world, people buy 80 billion garments annually. And on average, around the world, each piece will be worn only seven times before getting thrown away. Higher prices would encourage consumers to buy fewer items and wear them more often. I truly believe there are far better ways to democratize the industry than low prices; mending our clothes, buying second hand, and renting must be the future of fashion.
The fashion industry must no longer be trivialized, considered too inconsequential or frivolous to require any political regulation: it is not just fashion.