by Caleigh Harris, Blog Editor, University of Cincinnati Law Review
Behind the oil industry, the fashion industry accounts for the second highest levels of pollution worldwide.1 Fashion is a three trillion-dollar industry riddled with forced labor, extreme poverty pay, and damning environmental costs.2 The fashion industry’s sins have only been compounded by the advent of fast fashion and its exponential growth in popularity. Fast fashion is a sector of the fashion industry that emphasizes creating quick trends available at cheap prices.3
While the low-cost of fast fashion is alluring, a look behind the scenes reveals an insidious industry that utilizes blood, sweat, and tears to get consumers their new favorite crop top. Although everyday consumers cannot reasonably afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a clothing item, the drastic alternative—paying six dollars for a mass-produced shirt—promotes a culture of overconsumption and almost inevitably supports a company whose practices involve human rights violations. Fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Shein have become increasingly popular among consumers, but at what cost?
This article discusses the ugly side to the fashion industry, with an emphasis on fast-fashion brands. Part II discusses the environmental impacts the fashion industry has globally, as well as the labor violations. Part III argues that the fashion industry needs more oversight both in fair labor standards and environmental standards. Finally, this article concludes that individuals and corporations are responsible for fighting the fashion monster; mass consumerism leads to mass production––which ends up in landfills.
A. This Season’s Out: Fashion and the Environment
In the last fifteen years, clothing production has doubled, and the time consumers actually wear a clothing item has fallen by forty percent.4 Following current trends, the fashion industry “could use a quarter of the world’s remaining global carbon budget to keep warming under two degree[s] Celsius by 2050.”5 To further quantify the environmental effect: the International Energy Agency estimated that the textile industry emitted 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gasses in 2016 alone––more than all international flights and maritime ships combined.6
As of April 2022, both Zara and H&M, combined, had launched 11,000 new styles, whereas Shein released 314,877 new styles in the same amount of time.7 The vast array of options for consumers, combined with the declining shelf-life of a garment, leads to more and more clothing items being thrown in the trash after relatively few wears.
In the United States, an average of twenty-five billion pounds of textiles are produced each year, resulting in approximately eighty-two pounds of textile waste per U.S. resident.8 While many believe donating their unwanted clothing provides the solution to this problem, nearly half of unsold clothing donations are shipped offshores.9 Essentially, rich nations like the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany overconsume and then shirk off the responsibilities of their fashion waste to poorer nations in the Global South. This process is donned “waste colonialism,” describing the nation-state domination via waste and pollution.10 Waste colonialism results in approximately forty percent of donated clothing items filling the landfills of countries like Ghana––causing detrimental environmental consequences, such as excessive flooding and communicable diseases. One article explains this phenomenon:
[S]ome [garments] wash away and end up obstructing the city’s sewage system. During months of the monsoon, blockades lead to floods, heavy mosquito breeding, and the spreading of diseases. In 2014, a cholera outbreak in the Greater Accra Region [of Ghana] killed 243 people, due to poor waste management and lack of clean water.11
Clearly, the fashion industry relies on marginalized populations to bear the brunt of the environmental consequences. In addition, the Global South shoulders much of the labor costs to make a garment. The following section will review the labor standards (or lack thereof) in the global fashion industry and its subsequent abuses.
B. The Shirt on Your Back: Labor and Human Rights Violations
Globally, the garment industry provides approximately sixty million jobs.12 The majority of this work is concentrated in Asia––in countries with few labor regulations.13 Often, garment laborers are subject to “insecure employment, nonexistent union rights, and weak enforcement organizations, and . . . wage theft.”14 Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has amplified these issues; one report states that eighty-nine percent of H&M workers’ wages were below the international poverty line during the pandemic.15
Shein produces its clothing out of factory towns in China; many of the local factories are illegal business that have no formal contract with Shein, effectively separating the company from liability for labor violations.16 Many refer to Shein’s company practices as a “black box” due to the lack of transparency on its sourcing and supply chain.17 Furthermore, the most recent Fashion Transparency Index report, compiled by Fashion Revolution, gave Shein a score of 1 out of 100––an abysmal rating.18 This lack of transparency is ripe for human rights violations such as fifteen-hour days, cramped working conditions, and scorching-hot working environment.
A December 2021 report disclosed that the fashion industry experienced the worst wage theft in history in Karnataka, India, where more than 1,000 factories failed to pay workers the legal minimum wage after the country had increased it in April 2020.19 Notably, the variable dearness allowance––India’s equivalent of the cost-of-living increase to a minimum wage––was raised to 417 rupees (or $5.60) a month.20 One worker reported only having earned half of what was necessary to pay for food and rent, stating that when she brought it up to her factory manager, they said, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”21
Twenty-two brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, and Target, were implicated in this wage theft.22 The International Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited all twenty-two brands to identify steps they have taken to ensure workers are paid their rightful wages in arrears and that workers are paid the new minimum wage going forward.23 Only sixteen of the twenty-two brands responded outlining repayment efforts.24 Essentially, the global garment industry has a laissez faire policy on ensuring production factories pay their employees a livable wage. Families are subject to abject poverty, so fashion brands can cut corners on the cost of production.
While some of the ills of the fashion industry have been recognized by U.S. legislation, these regulations do not solve the global environmental problem. For example, in 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act created fines for companies who dumped excessive chemicals and waste into bodies of water.25 However, only bodies of water in the United States benefitted from protection. When faced with pesky environment regulations, many companies moved production to underdeveloped nations in the Global South, shifting the environmental issues overseas.26 The same can be said for labor regulations that move work from the United States to other––less regulated––countries.
Although international law falls outside of U.S. jurisdiction, legislators can still act to protect international human rights of workers and the global environment. For one, the government can fund more research to gather data, to better understand the detrimental impacts of the global fashion industry. One reporter explains, “In the end, governments have the incentives to [collect data] because it will fall on nations to clean up the mess that companies create.”27 This data would help support legislation efforts, such as regulating the use of plastic in the fashion industry and setting clear labor standards for imported goods.
In 2021, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act which ensured that American dollars were not funding forced labor among ethnic minorities in China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region.28 Additionally, New York and California (two of the largest fashion manufacturing hubs in the United States) have introduced state legislation to protect workers’ rights and fair wages.29
In the United States, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Fashion Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change Act (“FABRIC Act”) in 2022. The FABRIC Act offers incentives to accelerate domestic apparel manufacturing and workplace protections.30 Key provisions include: (1) the establishment of a nationwide garment industry registry through the Department of Labor; (2) implementing new requirements for fashion brands and retailers along with manufacturing partners to be jointly accountable for workplace wage violations; and (3) eliminating piece rate pay for garment workers in the United States.31 Furthermore, the FABRIC Act would establish a forty million dollar domestic support program and thirty percent reshoring tax credit for garment manufacturers that move to the United States––thus incentivizing the close regulation of the fashion industry.32
Additionally, an increasing number of countries require mandatory human rights due diligence (“MHRDD”) to hold corporations responsible for their actions.33 The MHRDD concept was inspired by the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights publication, which established a guide to recognize the States’ obligation to protect and fulfill human rights, businesses’ responsibility to respect and comply with human rights laws, and the appropriate remedies when these responsibilities are breached.34 MHRDD codifies a legal accountability for corporations operating under the specific jurisdiction for any human rights violations that occur.
Civil liability is an effective remedy to human rights violations by corporations; companies will comply with MHRDD to avoid large payouts, therefore mitigating harm.35 For example, one such law in Germany will require companies to provide a livable wage for their supply chain workers and avoid enumerated chemicals.36 Failure to comply with these MHRDD laws, according to the UN Guide, may be determined by judicial, administrative, or legislative means.37
Ultimately, corporations and governments need to get ahead of the environmental and human rights violations associated with the fashion industry. Legislation and government funding is necessary to regulate the industry and provide oversight to protect workers. However, individual consumers should reevaluate their shopping practices and make purchases aligned with their values. Secondhand clothing and sustainable brands are worthwhile alternatives to fast fashion. Consumers, governments, and corporations have a long road ahead, but progress and accountability are necessary.
- Olivia Suraci, The Best-Dressed Polluter––Regulation and Sustainability in the Fashion Industry, 27 Hastings W.-N.W. J. Env. L. & Pol’y 225, 226 (2021).
- The FABRIC Act: What It Is & Why It Matters, Remake Our World (May 16, 2022), https://remake.world/stories/fabric-act-what-it-is-why-it-matters/
- Hala Abdel-Jaber, The Devil Wears Zara: Why the Lanham Act Must be Amended in the Era of Fast Fashion, 15 Ohio St. Bus. L.J. 234, 235 (2021).
- Samantha Sharpe et al., Make Your Wardrobe Sustainable. Cut Back on 75% of Clothing Purchases & Try Renting Outfits, The Economic Times (Apr. 19, 2022), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/no-more-shopping-spree-please-its-time-to-cut-back-on-buying-new-clothes-by-75-to-meet-the-sustainability-goals/articleshow/90935396.cms.
- Elizabeth Segran, It’s Time to Regulate Fashion the Way We Regulate the Oil Industry, The Fast Company (Jan. 22, 2020), https://www.fastcompany.com/90453905/its-time-to-regulate-fashion-the-way-we-regulate-the-oil-industry.
- Cecilia Huang, What is Waste Colonization?, Remake our World (Feb. 9, 2022), https://remake.world/stories/what-is-waste-colonization/.
- Kaanchi Copra, Wage Theft Worsened During the Pandemic: Here’s Why We Need Legal Reform Now, Remake our World (Aug. 23, 2021), https://remake.world/stories/news/wage-theft-worsened-during-the-pandemic-heres-why-we-need-legal-reform-now/.
- Wu Peiyue, The Shady Labor Practices Underpinning Shein’s Global Fashion Empire, Sixth Tone (Sept. 17, 2021), https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1008472/the-shady-labor-practices-underpinning-sheins-global-fashion-empire.
- India: Brands & Retailers Respond to ‘Worst Wage Theft’ Document in Garment Industry in Karnataka, India, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (Jan. 19, 2022), https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/india-garment-workers-in-karnataka-struggle-to-make-ends-meet-after-suppliers-refuse-to-pay-legally-mandated-wage-increase/.
- Annie Kelly, ‘Worst Fashion Wage Theft’: Workers Go Hungry as Indian Suppliers to Top UK brands Refuse to Pay Minimum Wage, The Guardian (Dec. 16, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/dec/16/worst-fashion-wage-theft-workers-go-hungry-as-indian-suppliers-to-top-uk-brands-refuse-to-pay-minimum-wage.
- Copra, supra note 12.
- Ashley Lauren, Why Regulations Aren’t Solving the Fashion Industry’s Environmental Problem, Medium (Nov. 12, 2019), https://perma.cc/4L2L-6JMS.
- Segran, supra note 6.
- Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, S. 65, 117th Cong. (2021).
- See S.B. 62, 2021-22 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Cali. 2021) (enacted); Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, S.B. 7428, 2021-22 Leg., Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2021).
- Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change Act, S. 4213, 117th Cong. (2022).
- Elizabeth Cline & Laurel Anderson Hoffner, What You Should Know About Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence, Remake Our World (May 20, 2022), https://remake.world/stories/faq-mandatory-human-rights-due-diligence/.
- U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, U.N. Doc. HR/PUB/11/04 (2011), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf.
- Cline & Hoffner, supra note 33.
- U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, supra note 33.