Fast fashion items may not cost you much at the cash register, but they come with a serious price: Tens of millions of people in developing countries, some just children, work long hours in dangerous conditions to make them, in the kinds of factories often labeled sweatshops. Most garment workers are paid barely enough to survive.
Fast fashion also hurts the environment. Garments are manufactured using toxic chemicals and then transported around the globe, making the fashion industry the world’s second-largest polluter, after the oil industry. And millions of tons of discarded clothing piles up in landfills each year.
“A lot of what we’re throwing away hasn’t even been worn that many times,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “Clothing has become a cheap form of entertainment.”
Until the 1970s, most apparel worn by Americans was made in the United States. Then clothing production, like a lot of manufacturing, began moving overseas, where labor costs were lower. As recently as 1990, half the clothes sold in the U.S. were made in the U.S. Today, it’s just 2 percent.
Most American clothing companies now manufacture their merchandise in developing countries in Asia (see map, below). Workers there earn a fraction of what U.S. workers make—and have fewer protections. The lower labor costs translate to lower prices for shoppers (who then buy more clothing) and higher profits for retailers. That’s helped make fashion a $3 trillion global industry.
Today, many of the world’s 75 million garment workers live in China and Bangladesh, the top-two clothing producers. Workers often earn just a few dollars a day. Many are women in their teens.
“They’re sometimes the first one in their families to have a real job, so the family is eager to get them into the factories as quickly as they can,” says Michael Posner of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “It’s a very tough existence.”