The Dark Side of the Fashion Industry

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This essay will provide a sociological and criminological analysis of the fashion industry. More specifically, the social (macro and micro-scale) and environmental harms of fast fashion such as pollution, excessive water waste, poor working conditions and wages for workers, gender violence, overconsumption, and individuals’ mental health and beliefs. Fast fashion is a recent phenomenon that refers to the production and promotion of cheap and readily disposable clothes (Barn and Lea-Greenway, 2006 cited in Anguelov, 2015), which is made possible by exploitative labour practices and trends dictated and pushed by the industry. Despite fashion having numerous references to cultural norms, representations, consumption, social roles and demonstrating how the outside world shapes individual practice, it is often overlooked within the world of sociology (Jenss, 2015). However, fast fashion is relevant to criminology, especially green criminology, as the lines between social harm and crime have blurred within the discipline. Moreover, it is essential to consider harms generated through ‘legitimate’ markets and protected by law which, through the goods or services produced therein, are associated with consequences resembling those produced through acts or omissions that are criminalised (Canning, et al., 2021). For example, fast fashion impacts the mental health of its consumers depletes the Earth’s natural resources and upholds poverty and modern slavery within the third world. However, these violations are viewed as ‘legal’ due to local policies.

Firstly, we will delve into the social harms of the fast-fashion industry, focusing in on a micro approach, i.e., the promotion of fashion and how fast-fashion impacts consumers. Although discovering the ethical, social and environmental implications of the fast fashion industry has been easier due to globalisation and digitalisation. Most people still choose to partake in fast fashion, i.e., following the perpetual flow of trends, buying cheap clothing from large clothing corporations and throwing clothes away when these trends pass, or because the garment was not durable enough to last. So, it is important to consider the reasons behind this. Fast fashion would not be here today if not for the rise in consumerism in the 20th century. The 20th-century growth of capitalism, post-war economies of re-construction, and post-1950s expansionism were resource-hungry periods shaped by growth-oriented economic pressures and ideologies (Brisman and South, 2014). As the economy recovered in the post-war era, working-class lives were liberated from the back-breaking toil beset previous generations (Hall et al., 2020). Individuals had the means to invest in technological advancements, cosmetics and clothing, instead of focusing solely on necessities such as food. The media (magazine and TV advertising) was a formidable force in increasing sales because they constructed consumers’ needs and fed on anxieties and insecurities. This led to a shift in what success and the American Dream looked like – there was a newfound value placed on material items, as one could showcase their wealth and status through what they wore, drove and ate (Brisman and South, 2014). The digital revolution has allowed large clothing corporations such as H&M, Zara and Nike, to promote their brands through online advertising instead. In the past, industry platforms in the fashion world had developed around eight traditional ‘seasons’—Spring, Summer I, Summer II, Fall, Trans-seasonal, Winter I, Winter II, and Holiday (Birnbaum, 2005 cited in Anguelov, 2015) and distributed trends through fashion magazine such as Vogue. But, today, 24 distinct ‘seasons’ exist, and trends are distributed via Instagram instead. The notion of ‘latest trends’ is at the core of fast fashion, as well as the rate of production being fast, the customer’s decision to purchase is fast and fast delivery (Crumbie, 2021). We discover these trends during our leisure time, which is now spent using social media and watching TV instead of traditional activities. This links to Lloyd’s concept of ‘commodified leisure’, as our leisure time has become a place for consumption, which has been made possible due to changing work patterns and increased leisure time as a result. In 2019, Common Sense Media found that the average American teenager spent an astonishing 7 hours 22 minutes looking at screens, not including homework-related reasons (Rideout and Robb, 2019). So, we are encouraged to shop through clothing promotions and ads based on customers’ history during our leisure time. As well as the ease of online shopping and features such as Klarna, which allow you to ‘have it now, pay later. These advertising tactics and the velocity of fashion effectively encourage consumers to overconsume because humans have an innate desire and social pressure to conform to the herd. Cultivation Theory suggests how the media, cultivates the viewers’ mind over long periods, especially heavy media viewers. Gerbner et al., believed this was due to the repetitive nature of media messages and children’s susceptibility (1986, cited in Laughey, 2007). We are susceptible to these media messages because advertisers often draw on basic human needs, as well as false needs that have been constructed by cultural capital. Maslow’s theory of motivation examines five basic human needs, which include: physiological needs such as water, hunger and sex; safety needs such as a safe, predictable and organised environment; love needs such as affection and feeling of belongingness, esteem needs such as a stable firmly based high evaluation of ourselves, and finally, the need for self-actualisation (Maslow, 2019). For the most part, we subconsciously associate the general appearance of these fashion ads with ideals around happiness and success. So, we believe that material items will fill our void and make us happy, which only contributes to the cycle of fast fashion and the culture of overconsumption. Drawing on human desire and insecurity explains how the global fashion industry draws in $3 trillion annually (Morgan, 2015). This links to the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption, as individuals buy trending clothes to appear fashionable, wealthy, and avoid judgement from others (Bagwell et al., 1996). We see how the fast-fashion industry has been harmful to individuals for multiple reasons. For example, constant inward surveillance and comparison to others, unrealistic body ideals presented by fashion models and heavily edited advertisements can cause mental health, body and self-esteem issues. The fast-fashion industry perpetuates a cycle of unrealistic body ideals, as Instagram influencers and microcelebrities are paid to promote clothing brands and often conform to contemporary body ideals that are usually achieved through cosmetic surgery. Due to how often Instagram’s algorithm shows us these images and Instagram influencers seeming more like us than highfashion models, individual’s, especially young women, are more likely to compare their bodies and lives to those they see online. This would be in line with social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954) which suggests that individuals have a higher tendency to compare themselves to someone if they feel they are perceived to be more like themselves and if the body ideal is perceived as personally more attainable (Bauer, 2020). One fast-fashion brand that has been criticised for its unrealistic body and beauty ideals is the American brand Fashion Nova. Images on their website portray models with characteristics such as curves, flat stomach, large breasts, light skin, no body hair and big lips, which were most likely achieved through heavy editing and cosmetic surgery. A lot of the time, women compare themselves to these images despite knowing what they see is not real. However, some are people are more impressionable and may resort to disordered eating behaviours or cosmetic surgery to achieve this ‘thin-ideal’. According to a study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there were 12,000 more liposuction procedures performed in 2018 than in 2017, while breast augmentations increased by 4% (Powell, 2019). Furthermore, according to Google keyword data, ‘BBL’ (Brazilian Butt Lift) was searched roughly 200,000 times per month between January and May 2021, despite having the highest mortality rate across all cosmetic surgeries (Ellin, 2021). This shows the number of people unhappy with their bodies and prepared to do anything to live up to the ideals reinforced through fast fashion company advertising. Other brands such as Forever 21 have been praised for their expansive plus size range and representation of diverse body types. However, in 2019 they were accused of body shaming and encouraging eating disorders when they sent Atkins meal replacement bars alongside their online orders (Fieldstadt, 2019). Despite the social harms that fast fashion can cause on the consumer. Social media can be a platform to spread awareness and online activism, such as the Fashion Revolution Instagram page. They aim to inform people on sustainable and ethical fashion practices and value the worker and environment over financial profit (Instagram, 2022).

Now, let us move on to how the fast-fashion industry is causing harm on a macro scale, particular the social harm caused to women and children within garment industries in Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Major western fastfashion retailers like H&M and Primark manufacture their clothing in sweatshops in developing countries such as Bangladesh to keep their prices low, give consumers cheap versions of what they see on the runway and make a mass profit. This is possible as there are over 40 million garment factory workers globally – 4 million of whom work in Bangladesh (Morgan, 2015). Although, giving jobs to those in developing countries can benefit individuals through building skills and is usually the ‘better’ alternative and benefitting the economy. There are many ethical and human rights issues within this industry that do not justify its continuation and are often hidden from customers due to legal loopholes. For example, sweatshops have unsafe and unhygienic working conditions, low wages as little as $2 a day, child workers, long hours with no breaks, and local governments may not follow labour laws such as minimum wages and working hours because they are desperate to keep export revenue from multinational retailers (Morgan, 2015). There have been many disasters caused within the garment industry. For example, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013 collapsed due to structural unsafety. As factory owners ignored orders to evacuate and forced workers to continue working. The total death count was 1,134, leaving many more injured, which is the price that garment workers are paying for cheap clothing in the West (Morgan, 2015). This disaster was reported worldwide and became one of the first phenomenon’s that exposed the dangerous labour conditions within the garment industry. Despite this, little action has been taken by fast-fashion brands to push for better working conditions and living wages for their workers, as companies outsource their guilt by saying they are not responsible for conditions within the spinning mills and garment factories since they do not officially own the factories or employ workers (Morgan, 2015). We have seen resistance to the inhumane working conditions within sweatshops from workers worldwide, such as through strikes, protests and unions. For example, the Cambodian protests of 2014 – textile workers protested for higher minimum wages but were met with the police force, which resulted in three dead and several injured (BBC News, 2014). Resistance to these oppressive harms is often unsuccessful because the underlying capitalist ideologies are firmly rooted in our social paradigm and ultimately, building the economy means more to the bourgeoisie than human life. This is reinforced through the failed protests because half a million Cambodians work in the garment industry, a significant part of the national income (BBC News, 2014). So, multinational retailers take advantage of this, knowing that developing countries have no other option but to keep wages low and ignore local labour laws (Morgan, 2015). This is known as globalised production, as the production of most goods have been sourced to lowcost economies where wages are low, so those at the top of the value chain can choose where their products are made and switch if they find somewhere cheaper (Morgan, 2015), which continues the cycle of fast fashion. Within the fast-fashion industry, we see the interconnection between many harms such as global inequality, poverty, modern slavery, gender violence and reinforcement of the Caste system within South Asia. Firstly, let’s focus on gender inequality and violence. Women and girls take up the majority demographic within the garment industry and often work unpaid overtime and under extreme pressure if they do not meet unreasonable production deadlines (Hodal, 2018). It is not uncommon for women and girls to receive daily verbal, sexual and physical assault – one anonymous woman stated, “[My] batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling, ‘You are not meeting your target production.’ He pulled me out of the chair, and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again [and] kicked me” (Hodal, 2018). Furthermore, there are 14.2 million slaves in India and 2.05 million in Pakistan (Global Slavery Index, 2020). A lot of which are women from a lower caste (Dalits and Shudras) who are subjected to modern slavery within the garment industry. Caste differentiation in Southern Asian countries is a form of social stratification that is ascribed intergenerationally and maintained through marriage and is still very much in place today (Jodhka, 2016). The fast-fashion industry reinforces this hidden apartheid by producing garments in sweatshops in developing countries, despite knowing how unethical it is. We see how the social harms related to fast fashion are organised and distributed unequally across the globe. For example, the bourgeoisie are perpetrators of these harms, but the third world suffers the consequences, highlighting the global divide between the North and South and East with West. This links to the risk society thesis because the nature of risks has changed – they are now socially mediated (manufactured by man instead of nature). They are often risks we cannot perceive in the present moment, i.e., the harms and risks associated with fast fashion can be hidden from the rest of the globe and often are. Alternatively, are projections of future risks such as depletion of natural resources (Beck, 1992). However, because the allocation of risk is unequal, there is still an overlap between the risk society and class society.

Finally, let us discuss the environmental and physical harms associated with fast fashion and the links to green criminology and crime. The fast-fashion industry has had a detrimental impact on the environment at every stage, from production, to transportation, packaging and ending with excessive piles of clothes in landfills. Fast fashion is depleting the earth’s natural resources by excessive water use, contributing to increased gas emissions, impacting soil and air clarity and leading to habitat degradation. However, weaving cotton into fabric is the most ecologically damaging industrial production link because of the chemical pollutants expelled in the liquid effluents that result from the runoff processes during textile manufacturing (Anguelov, 2015). Furthermore, the ecological damage from chemical pollution adds to a large global carbon footprint of high direct fuel costs and their indirect pollution impact in the form of CO2 emissions and, ultimately, climate change in the long term (Anguelov, 2015). In this section, I will focus on a few examples, such as the impact of the cotton industry, use of pesticides, chemicals and clothing waste, as we will not be able to cover the true extent of environmental harms caused by the fast-fashion industry in detail here. Cotton is often viewed as a sustainable material, but at the rate of production and due to mixing with synthetic materials, that is not always the case. America is the largest cotton exporter in the world – they send the bales of cotton to India to be processed into fabric, then sewn into garments in China and re-imported back to America (Anguelov, 2015). In India, most of the cotton is grown within the Punjab region, which is the largest user of pesticides in India. Dr Pritpal Singh’s reports show how these pesticides also impact communities and public health (Morgan, 2015). For example, his reports showed a rise in congenital disabilities, mental disabilities and illness, cancers and stomach ailments within the Punjab region, which shows a correlation between the use of pesticides with negative impacts on physical health and how the environmental and health harms associated with fast fashion are also impacting those around the globe unequally. Textile processing consists of three major steps – pinning, weaving, then spinning. However, the most serious environmental problems are associated with the wet-finishing processes, which are bleaching, mercerising, and dyeing and produce liquid effluent with varying waste composition (Anguelov, 2015) be toxic for air, soil and water quality. Kanpur is the leather capital in India – the chemicals used to treat the leather flow into local farming and drinking water, which is very harmful to humans and animals in the surrounding areas (Morgan, 2015). We see how major western retailers can profit from sourcing cheap materials in low cost economies while avoiding the environmental harm associated with fast fashion and accountability for the growing cost to human health. If we skip forward to the end process of the fast-fashion cycle, the average American throws away 82lbs of textile waste each year, which is more than 11 tonnes annually from the US alone (Morgan, 2015). This harms the environment because most fast-fashion garments are synthetic and non-biodegradable materials. So, they sit in landfills for 200+ years while releasing greenhouse gas emissions such as methane. One way to combat this cycle of overconsumption and waste is by only buying clothing you need or donating clothes you do not want to charity. However, this is not always effective because a lot of clothes donated to charity are dumped in third world countries such as Haiti, and only 10% of donated clothes are re-sold in third stores (Morgan, 2015), which showcases how the fast-fashion model is built on careless production and endless consumption (Morgan, 2015). Another example is the report on the mountains of discarded clothing that ended up in Chile’s Atacama Desert – a total of 59,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing is said to arrive each year from Europe, US and Asia (Crumbie, 2021), which shows how those upholding the fast-fashion industry are both causing the initial harms, avoiding responsibility and the consequences. The environmental harms associated with fast fashion are relevant to criminology because green criminology aims to re-examine the definition of crime to include environmentally harmful acts but still lawful (Lynch and Stretesky, 2017), which can include dumping of clothing waste, chemicals and pesticides in third world countries. The contribution of green criminology is to frame these kinds of general issues in terms of transgressions against humans, eco-systems and animals, and more broadly in the context of global economic and political pursuits (White and Heckenberg, 2014). This critical approach to the harmful nature of fast fashion alongside the digital revolution that has eased the spread of this information has contributed to a generation that acknowledges how harmful fast fashion is and aims to incorporate more environmentally friendly practices into their lives such as minimalism, thrift shopping and avoiding over-consuming and unethical/unsustainable brands. However, we need collective action from large Western retailers and the government in order to make meaningful changes. This topic is useful to criminology because it will inspire future generations of students to take up the issues, research lawful but awful environmental harms, and demand a different future, one that embraces the study of environmental crimes and seeks out innovative solutions (White and Heckenberg, 2014). Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the environmental harms of fast fashion are socially mediated – for example, more than half of methane production comes from human activity (IPCC, 2001). So, the solution needs to be socially mediated. Also, it seems like progress to see large retailer companies such as H&M introducing ‘sustainable’ fashion lines. This is more likely to appeal to the ‘ecoconscious’ consumer and gain sales, as the company still participates in unethical and unsustainable practices for the rest of their lines. Furthermore, the responsibility to be sustainable is usually put on the consumer in the end stage and removed from the production players, such as Levi’s ‘no-wash jeans’ (Anguelov, 2015), which only takes place from the true perpetrators of the harms associated with fast-fashion.

In conclusion, throughout this essay, we have investigated the social, ethical, physical and environmental harms associated with the fast-fashion industry, which include pollution, climate change, gender violence, inhumane working conditions for garment workers, as well as body image issues due to fast-fashion marketing and advertisements and feeling of inadequacy if one cannot conform to trends due to spatial and financial issues. We have also analysed fast fashion in relation to environmental crime and harms and how they are relevant to one another. However, we have mainly focused on the fashion industry’s dark side. It is essential to acknowledge the efforts some brands have taken to move in a sustainable and ethical direction, as well as the rise in fair trade companies such as People Tree, founded in 1995 (Morgan, 2015). As well as platforms such as the Fashion Revolution that contribute to online activism by informing their audience of the social and negative harms associated with the clothing they wear and ways they can move towards ‘slow fashion’ such as through minimalism and thrift shopping. Furthermore, it is useful to acknowledge the positives of the fashion industry. For example, fashion is an excellent tool for self-expression, identity building and building a community with people around you. Fashion can also tell us about language/codes, social/political and cultural contexts. Furthermore, trends are continuously renewed from the past, which is helpful for those who do not want to throw clothes away but want to stay trendy (Jenss, 2015). Finally, considering this topic concerning social harm and criminology is useful. It contributes to the existing literature, which can help us develop practical solutions to the harms the fast-fashion industry has caused—for example, increasing the living wage for garment workers, opaque and fair policies are not hidden by legal loopholes, avoidance of cheap and synthetic materials in garment making, as well as limiting the distribution of ‘latest trends’. Word count: 3651


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