The human cost of ‘fast fashion’

| January 15, 2020

The fashion industry employs one in every six workers worldwide and is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than airline flights and merchant shipping combined.

Globalisation has spread the industry and its supply chains to just about every corner of the earth, creating some significant human impacts in this overwhelmingly feminized sector. The following article explores how this affects women across the global north/south divide.

The Globalisation of the Fashion Industry

It is undeniable that the global state of the fashion industry is far more homogenous and interconnected in the post-industrial revolution era, the current epoch of fashion has benefitted from technological and economic waves of globalisation, especially the liberation of free market economies which has allowed fashion to flourish in previously closed markets such as China.

Globalising processes have led to the democratisation of fashion and we now live in an era where consumers have an endless choice of affordable and trendy styles – albeit at the cost of the future sustainability of the planet. This fast-fashion model has guaranteed exponential profits to companies largely originating in the Global North, at direct cost to both the environment and marginalised workers in the Global South.

The model relies on impossibly long supply chains, outsourced again and again by conglomerates who prefer to keep traceability muddled and ambiguous. It is important to consider the human cost of this economic model and to understand how it functions to empower and oppress women on a Global North/ Global South divide.

Female Consumers in the Global North

The globalisation of the fashion industry has enabled more women in the Global North than at any previous point in history to participate in fashion as a form of self-expression and empowerment.

More recently, fashion’s globalisation has enabled themes of diversity and inclusion to begin to permeate the industry at an executive level, consequently influencing the erasure of racial, social and gender divides. The democratization of fashion has afforded the average female consumer in the Global North the ability to self-express and gain a certain degree of autonomy and empowerment through her participation in fashion.

The industry’s business relationship with social media has also enabled themes of female liberation and progressed notions of Western feminism in the Global North. Social media has given rise to innovative ways of doing business and strengthened notions of enterprising femininity, the rise of influencer culture, contested as it may be, is an emulation of this.

In the Global North diversity and inclusion have permeated the cultural and corporate zeitgeist of the fashion industry, to the extent that respected industry giants, such as Gucci and Chanel have recently appointed diversity, equity and inclusion officers on their executive teams.

The industry notorious for outright discrimination against bodies that fall short of hegemonic beauty ideals is also beginning to empower women who do not fit traditionally normative standards of beauty. This is evident through respected designers such as Michael Kors and Sies Marjan using models who do not fit traditional industry expectations in their catwalk presentations and other marketing.

Sarah Kent of the Business of Fashion notes that “the fashion industry is facing a perfect storm of political consciousness, consumer activism and social-media penetration that is putting intense pressure on brands to show they are stepping up efforts to operate more inclusively”.

Despite the above, that the globalisation of the fashion industry is complicit in the oppression of female consumers in the Global North is hardly a surprising statement. Much scholarship has documented the insidious nature of media advertising, of which fashion is inextricably linked to, and the detrimental effect it has on engraining unattainable and oppressive standards of beauty on the women who are exposed to it.

The industry’s hyper-skinny ideal places immense anxiety on the average consumer, tasked with the almost impossible job of self-acceptance in an environment that is inundated with patriarchal messages of conformity, sexual objectification and submission.

The unattainable standard of beauty that the industry proliferates also has racially exclusive parameters, fashion glamorises the white, thin ideal and in this way perpetuates the hegemonic dominance of Eurocentrism. The industry’s proliferation of patriarchal oppression and notions of Eurocentrism make female consumers of the Global North victims to fashion in many ways.

Female Workers in the Global South

Although the globalisation of the fashion industry cannot be claimed to have offered significant benefits to the woman of the Global South, it can be stated that the industry’s fetishizing of female characteristics for work, e.g. passivity and slight fingers has enabled a populous of women in the Global South to gain employment in cases in which there are limited opportunities for both men and women.

Of course, this benefit does not exist without problematic contradictions. One must also consider that it is often only migrant communities of women from the Global South who relocate to the Global North that benefit from this systematic construct. It is largely at the cost and peril of oppressed female workers in the Global South that women in the Global North can empower themselves through fashion, and the beneficiaries in more developed markets can reap profit.

The following outlines three channels through which the globalised fashion industry oppresses women of the Global South:

1 – Devaluation of Labour

The business model of the globalised fashion industry is utterly dependant upon both patterns of inconspicuous consumption in the Global North and exploitative and devalued labour practices in the Global South.

Patterns of material excess and inconspicuous consumption in wealthier societies reinforce exploitative labour practices and the devaluation of labour, a systematic construct that allows companies to remain commercially competitively in saturated markets.

It is also common practice for emerging economies to keep wage growth stagnant to attract foreign investment. As long as the industry perpetuates the suffering of its female work force in the Global South in the name of profit, colonialism continues to function as an insidious and oppressive force.

2 – Physical and Mental Abuse

Oppressive practices are rife in the factories of the Global South, Oxfam Australia states that aside from earning less remuneration than men, female workers often fall victim to intense physical and mental abuse including sexual abuse. The garment industry’s precarious regulations in the Global South and in situations involving contractual outwork in the Global North leave its mostly female workforce in a highly vulnerable position.

3 – Environmental and Health Impacts

Fashion’s business model has encouraged insatiable appetites for consumption in the Global North, at great environmental and human cost. Louise Crewe argues that the way in which the negative environmental and human impacts of fashion’s supply-chains are hidden from consumers in the Global North is “a spatial construction that has suited big business well…masking the global inequalities that lie at the heart of the international fashion industry”.

Fashion is the second most polluting industry globally and is a key contributor to the acceleration of the climate crisis. In a cruel twist of fate, it is the garment workers from countries in the Asian region who are most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, climate displacement is one such effect.

Whilst the globalisation of the fashion industry has led to a certain degree of empowerment and autonomy for women in the Global North and Global South, it is clear that the aspects of empowerment the industry facilitates for women in the Global North come at the cost of women in the Global South, without transferring any benefits neither economic nor social to those women.

The industry is a mirror of capitalism and neoliberal policies, a stunning example of the gross inequalities that these systems and ideologies produce. Where they are beneficiaries someone along the value chain is being exploited and that victim is often the most marginalised populous.