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"Fast Fashion" an evil machine that exploits consumers, the planet’s resources and garment workers

Wednesday, 25 February 2015 05:00 GMT

An employee works on a mannequin at a factory in Kuala Lumpur July 10, 2010. REUTERS/Samsul Said

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Each year across the world, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories

The UK Modern Slavery Bill’s clause that requires companies to report on what they have done to ensure their supply chains are “slavery-free” is fundamental, but unfortunately most companies in the fashion business have very little transparency on their supply chain.  Most times they delegate responsibilities on factory owners so that they don’t have to be in charge directly, which is what has allowed modern day slavery to be so widespread.  

A living wage is a human right. Yet it is becoming more and more rare that this human right is guaranteed. Take fashion for example:  “the scandalous truth is that the majority of workers in the global fashion industry cannot afford to live with dignity, and earn no more than £5 a day in an industry worth over £28 billion across Europe”. (From “Tailored Wages UK”, a report by Labour Behind the Label published in March this year)

Fast fashion is hugely responsible for this –these brands have caught us all, as consumers, in an absurd circle of micro trends. Think about it.  Around two mini seasons a week in stores. Disposable clothes that stay in a woman’s closet for an average of just five weeks, before being thrown out - all in the name of the democratization of fashion.

In reality, this evil machine is exploiting everyone and everything: the consumer, the planet’s resources and the people who produce them. Each year across the world, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories. These are predominantly made in countries described by the UN as the world’s least developed. All in all, the garment and textile industry is estimated to be worth some $3 trillion. And the bulk of that goes into the pockets of the owners of those fast fashion brands.

It's a complicated mess we are in…

Fast fashion corporations have outsourced production to poor countries. In the process, they enslave them by addicting them to the idea of enrichment and start driving production costs down with volumes. 

Like any good pusher, they offer their potential clients a great deal, only to get them addicted. Once they’ve succeeded, they’re in the driving seat. In the case of poor economies, they addict them to the idea of lifting their people out of poverty. In fact, they’re like the big bad wolf, lying in wait for the dependency to start.  And their citizens get enslaved in the same machine.

At the same time, they operate as distributors and addict consumers to the idea of always faster, ever cheaper fashion, despite the human and environmental cost. It’s the old problem. Out of sight, out of mind. It happens far away and so we don’t see it. Today the consumer is completely detached from the clothes he/she wears and from who makes them.

Yet the solution is very simple. Buy less and get more ‘fashion mileage’ out of each piece. Buy heritage pieces that will last. Become an active citizen through your wardrobe.

Hopefully consumers are becoming more intelligent and in charge – the Rana Plaza collapse two years ago has showed many of us the true cost of buying so cheaply and so fast.

This is why I love fashion. It truly empowers you. But only when it allows you to carry beautiful stories woven into stunning clothes. And above all, we need to buy clothes that we love. Clothes that will sustain our wardrobe for years to come.

Livia Firth is the creative director of Eco-Age, the sustainability brand consultancy and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge. 

As an Oxfam Global Ambassador, Livia has travelled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Bangladesh and Zambia, connecting with the people at the beginning of the supply chain. She is also a founding member of Annie Lennox’s ‘The Circle’, a powerful women’s advocacy group.

Livia is a UN Leader of Change and has also been recognised with the UN Fashion 4 Development Award.

In 2014, Livia was awarded the Rainforest Alliance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sustainability and the Honorary Award of the National German Sustainability Foundation.

Livia currently resides in London with her husband Colin, two children, one cat and four fish.