22 million tonnes
79 trillion litres/ 20 trillion gallons
More than 2,500 litres (660 gallons)
These are pretty high numbers, aren’t they? Wondering what they are?
The fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water every year- which is enough for five million people and to meet their consumption needs.
It is estimated that between the years 2015-2050, 22 millions tonnes of microfibres will be added to the ocean. This is due to synthetic clothing.
In the present scenario, about 1,90,000 tonnes of microplastics, which is about 35% of the total microplastics that are found in the ocean is attributed to the fashion industry.
51% of textile production is traced back to synthetic polyester- which is made by a chemical reaction that involves petroleum and coal.
92 million tonnes- an amount that would fill up more than sixteen times the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the amount of textile waste that is dumped in a landfill or burned.
Burberry, the famous British fashion brand, either burned or destroyed more than 110 million dollars worth of clothes, perfumes and accessories that were unsold, between the years 2013 and 2018. They stated that they would rather dump their products than sell them at a discount and devalue their brand.
Every year, 79 trillion litres, which approximates to nearly 20 trillion gallons of water is used by the fashion industry and their supply chain. Cotton is a crop that uses water extensively; growing cotton for one pair of jeans takes more than 2,500 liters which equates to 660 gallons of water. This water could quench the thirst of one person for about 3.5 years. This amount is only for normal jeans, distressed jeans need even more water.
Not only this, the labours of this industry, who majorly consist of women and children, are overworked and underpaid. Their working environment is not safe, they are prone to numerous health hazards. Not only this, In Ethiopia, for example, laborers earn a minimum wage of 26 dollars per month where the minimum wage is 100 dollars per month. Some of the top brands that are involved in forced labour and child labour scandals are H&M, Zara, GAP and Forever 21. Evidence of forced labor and child labour in the countries- India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Bangladesh, Argentina and Vietnam have been reported by the US Department of Labour.
A tragic incident in Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, where Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than 1000 garment workers is a cruel example of this. The building produced more than 25 major brands and was poorly maintained- this shows the disastrous working conditions of garment workers.
Fashion industries outsource their production to other countries to cut corners and save up. They also usually pick countries where there are no environmental regulations and there is no need for mitigating of waste disposal technology. This pollutes the local area where the factory is placed and puts the health of the workers at risk.
The amount of pollution caused by an industry that is, if I might boldly add, just an accessory and not a necessity is absurdly alarming. Clothes are a need, yes; but at what point do we say that I’ve had enough clothes that can last for at least 4 years, I don’t have to buy any more?
Research has found that millennials consider an outfit old if they’ve worn it 2-3 times. At this rate, we don’t need other industries to destroy our planet, the fashion industry is more than enough.
So, now one might ask, what is the solution to this? At a global level, for the issue pertaining to pollution, stricter laws on waste control, water consumption control could be introduced. At the organisational level, pertaining to the conditions of the workers, the labels need to take stricter actions. The garment manufacture happens in developing countries and not developed countries or the countries where the brand is based- it is outsourced. In India, a majority of these factories are set up in the southern part. Most of the workers there are women and sometimes children. They are often, I should say, always underpaid and are put in a terrible working environment which includes but not limited to verbal abuse- swearing, limited or no bathroom or water breaks, they are also made to work overtime in which case, they sometimes have to sleep on the factory floor. They go to bed at 3 AM and wake up at 5 AM for a full day’s work. Even after enduring all this, they get paid an average monthly wage of two to five thousand.
Labour Rights Organisations say that these workers should be paid 4 times more the amount they are getting paid now. BBC identified that the workers are getting paid as little as two pounds a day when the clothes they were making, costs hundreds of pounds. BBC interviewed these workers of the international companies, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's, and the fashion brand Ralph Lauren and found out about the terrible working conditions they are put through. According to the Asian Floor Wage Alliance organisation, the minimum wage of these workers should be about 18,700 a month. According to the BBC investigations, none of the brands appear to be paying as much as they should. A worker also said that they barely get any time to eat lunch; these workers have a manager who would stand behind them in the canteen and blow a whistle for them to get back.
The structure is such that these brands have no direct contact to the factories in India, they have a middle man- the clothing supplier. A clothing supplier told BBC that if brands want to sell cheaper clothes, he has no choice but to cut corners, this in turn puts the workers in distress with lower wages and overtime.
One owner also mentioned that factory audits are a sham- the factories know that an audit is coming up and they change it according to the same, after the audit is done, things go back to normal- the workers are put under terrible working conditions. They are threatened of getting fired if they oppose the “rules”. These brands are all members of the Ethical Trading Initiative which means that the working hours are well under the law and the overtime is not forced and completely voluntary. This also ensures that the workers are not subjected to verbal abuse.
When Ralph Lauren was asked about the allegations put forth by BBC, they said that they were deeply concerned and put out a statement saying "we require all of our suppliers to meet strict operating standards to ensure a safe, healthy and ethical workplace, and we conduct regular third-party audits at all factories."
The supermarkets were also shocked to hear the reports and said that they would look into the matter. Here are individual statements put out by the companies-
Sainsbury's said that it was "insisting on a number of actions the supplier must take in order for us to continue to work with them", including "immediate actions and ongoing commitments the supplier must make while we continue to closely monitor the site".
Tesco in their statement said, "we don't tolerate any abuse of workers' rights and fully investigated these allegations as soon as we were made aware. We were deeply troubled with what we found."
Tesco’s plan included "prohibiting excessive overtime, strengthening grievance procedures" and ensuring that its workers were "fully compensated at the correct rates for hours they've worked".
In the wake of the claims, Marks & Spencer said that it "undertook an immediate unannounced audit" and that "identified overtime working practices that are not acceptable". Although, it disputed the worker’s accounts about access to toilet breaks and water. The company also said it had a "robust" plan in place and would be "undertaking regular unannounced audits to ensure its implementation".
At an individual level, making a few lifestyle tweaks can immensely help. This includes reducing the number of clothes we buy, reusing clothes as much as you can, donating clothes instead of throwing them away, buying clothes at a second-hand store and making people aware of what the big brands are doing to their products- to name a few. It might be difficult to make a sudden change in your lifestyle. However, you can still make a fashion statement while inculcating these practices. What Gemma Styles, an influencer, suggests is that you buy clothes that you think will be in fashion in the next coming years and clothes that you’re comfortable in.
I think that making this choice is a great first step toward protecting the environment is the smallest way possible.
By: Samritha Ramanathan