Fast Fashion in China: A Humanitarian Issue

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BEIJING, China — Anyone who has ever bought a cheap piece of clothing has likely seen the phrase “Made in China” on the tag. In fact, as of 2019, China remained the largest source of fast fashion merchandise in the world. Much of this merchandise comes from domestic Chinese fashion companies. Additionally, not only is Chinese production a trend among cheaper brands, but high-end and “all-American” brands have high manufacturing rates in China as well. What do these trends mean for global poverty? In sum, fast fashion in China means poor work conditions, unlivable wages and overproduction. However, this does not have to be the case in the future.

Fast fashion is often defined as “cheap, trendy clothing” that mimics or is very similar to items seen on celebrities or in fashion shows. Many brands produce their garments in China where they can enforce extremely unreasonable quotas and exploit cheap labor to meet the demand of consumers.

Livable Work Conditions: a Humanitarian Crisis

In China, 85% of the population living in poverty live in rural areas. Chinese citizens often travel to seek better work opportunities and escape poverty. However, large corporate companies do little to separate work from poverty. Poor Chinese people who pursue these employment opportunities are often not legally protected from harmful working conditions. Since fast fashion requires speedy production, the factories that employ Chinese workers are dangerous and pose serious health risks. Sweatshop workers live in crowded dormitories and have no access to childcare. Furthermore, there is a high risk of exposure to harmful molecules like silica dust and lead.
Moreover, fast fashion in China is interconnected with human trafficking, specifically forced labor trafficking. This is part of a global trend in the fashion industry. In 2018, the Global Slavery Index determined that garments are one of the top five imported goods at risk for being produced by trafficked laborers. Fast fashion in China also requires illegal child labor to sustain high production. The conditions are unethical as they violate China’s own labor laws. Children have to work long hours, do not have access to adequate hygiene and have unreachable quotas.

Low Wages, High Cost

Along with dangerous working conditions, fast fashion does not offer reliable income for its workers. As a result, fast fashion in China does not free workers from poverty; it perpetuates poverty. This phenomenon has become known as the “race to the bottom.” As textile and clothing giants strive to keep up with fast fashion trends, they also strive to keep the cost as low as possible. This necessarily means paying workers less and less.
One instance of denying workers’ wages comes from Uniqlo factories in China. Although the company now has more ethical standards, they are frequently ignored. Uniqlo claims it will not punish workers financially, but employees have been denied pay for minor errors in the production process. Similarly, workers’ wages do not meet the minimum wage outlined in Chinese law, creating cyclic and inescapable poverty. This is only one example of many of how fast fashion in China protects and creates poverty.

The Environmental Poverty Price

The Chinese fast fashion industry follows two global textile trends: overproduction and waste. Brands attempt to keep up with current trends by producing cheap clothing. As a result, much of the clothing goes out of style and is undesirable shortly after being made. Instead of repurposing the unused clothing or disposing of it responsibly, companies throw away or incinerate large quantities of wearable clothing every year. In total, Chinese companies and consumers discard approximately 26 million metric tons of clothing each year.
Some of China’s own companies, like Inditex, are contributing to the problem of overproduction. Similarly, many non-Chinese brands, such as Uniqlo, Forever 21 and Zara, have attempted to reach the Chinese clothing market. However, many global companies cannot succeed, and there is simply too much merchandise to sell. Chinese media have reported multi-story fast fashion stores selling products on extreme clearance in an effort to get rid of products. Thus, several of these companies are pulling their stores from the Chinese market. This is due to a shift in attitude in China against mass-produced, cheaply made clothing.
Other factors contribute to a harmful environmental impact as well. Fast fashion sweatshops produce exorbitant amounts of carbon emissions and toxic chemicals with little regard to where they end up. To publicize this, an online resource called the IPE Green Supply Chain Map identifies different companies’ environmental impacts in China. It tracks individual factories and the corresponding air, water and carbon pollution rates in their areas.

The Alternative: Slow Fashion

Though the situation is grim, there is hope for ending fast fashion in China through slow fashion. Slow fashion focuses on producing durable clothing in an ethical and environmentally sustainable way. As consumers become more educated on the dangers of fast fashion, some companies are becoming more inclined to focus on artisan wages, work conditions and responsible sourcing.
In the same vein, Chinese brands and global brands alike are reclaiming the term “Made in China” to restore its original connotation of craftsmanship. These brands emphasize slow fashion and workers’ rights as opposed to fast fashion. Brands like Brass Clothing and Ellie Kai are making sure their clothing is made in a safe environment for workers. Brass Clothing even makes regular visits to the factories to ensure working conditions.
Fast fashion in China is far from absent, especially as brands cater to a global market and fad culture. It consistently creates economic and environmental poverty. However, by increasing awareness of the harmful nature of fast fashion, companies and consumers alike will understand the need for a change. Perhaps slow fashion will become more of a trend than fast fashion has ever been.
Hannah Simpson
Photo: Flickr
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