Cheap clothes and child labor: the dark underworld of fast fashion

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Graphic by Julia Pariser

Deirdre de Leeuw den Bouter

Let’s be honest. We’ve all seen that $5 shirt from Zaful and thought about buying it. I mean, who wouldn’t? That’s so cheap. In our ever-changing economic and social status, we are virtually wired to want to buy something when it’s dirt cheap. Shopping for clothes used to be a once a season trip, not an aimless activity that you did whenever you felt bored. But why are clothes these days so cheap? It’s all because they use cheap (often child) labor and pollute the Earth.

Fast fashion is defined as “cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.” We’ve all probably worn fast fashion at least once in our life. Some of our favorite stores, such as Urban Outfitters, Missguided, and Amazon sell clothes that use fast fashion tactics to keep prices low and demand high.

In principle, fast fashion isn’t harmful. Propelled by consumerism, it aims to fulfill the appetite of 21st-century customers. With everything available at the push of a button, we expect things to be cheap, quick, and effective. We are the cause of fast fashion. I myself have complained when a shirt is more than $20 at a small, local business. We expect clothes to be low cost and have a one year wear tag. 

Recently, a story broke detailing Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s use of unsafe, underpaid labor for the production of their clothing line Kylie + Kendall. The famous sisters reportedly did not pay their workers for the work they did before Covid-19, effectively rendering these (mostly) women unemployed and starving. Many of us reposted Instagram posts demanding that fast fashion factories begin paying their workers fair wage. But, who are we to demand justice while sitting in our H&M sweatpants?

The International Labour Organization estimates that 170 million children are engaged in child labour. This is around half of the total US population. Many of these children work to produce clothing and textiles that end up across the US and Europe.

Some brands may not even be aware that their products are coming from illegal labor. In fact, companies may have no idea where their product is coming from. They likely know their main supplier, where they implement safety rules, but with subcontracting and the lower chains of manufacturing, it can be hard to trace who is making the clothes.

The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world. Fast fashion causes countless environmental issues such as water pollution, water consumption, microfibers in our ocean, waste accumulation, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, and rainforest destruction. The effects of these contaminants on Earth is catastrophic. Around 200 tons of freshwater is needed to create one ton of dye. To put this all into perspective, according to sustainyourstyle.org, 85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. 

With all this horrible information being thrown at you, you might feel as if there is nothing you can do. But there is something we can do. In DC, there are plenty of ways to shop ethically. Thrifting is a trend that has made millions love buying secondhand clothing. Buying secondhand reduces the amount of clothes thrown away and the amount of clothes bought. I suggest that everyone donate their clothes to thrift stores instead of throwing them away. This will reduce the amount of clothing waste you create each year, and every little bit matters. There’s also a plethora of stores that only sell items made in DC, such as https://www.shopmadeindc.com/, where you can buy some awesome local items. Lastly, the internet has some great (and relatively cheap) ethical clothing stores.  Here’s a link to some of the best I could find: (https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/affordable-ethical-fashion-brands).

Fast fashion, child labor, and pollution go hand in hand. In this ever-changing economy, we must learn to avoid buying from manufacturers that use illegal labor. Maybe, next time you’re in Georgetown with your friends shopping aimlessly at the big-brand stores, think about where the clothes you’re buying are coming from.