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Exploitation In Your Closet?

Written by Gwen Schaulis- Education Outreach and Programming Eco-Rep

Over the years, shopping has evolved from necessity to hobby. Many of us look for the latest trend at the lowest price. What we fail to recognize is that our shopping sprees fuel an industry that places profit over environmental and human health. Concealed from consumers and shielded by self-interest is a global environmental justice dilemma called fast fashion. We’ve all heard of it, but have we moved away from the brands we know to be harmful? Shein, Forever 21, H&M and many other popular names have faced scrutiny for labor violations. Still, these brands continue to attract the Gen-Z population by appealing to their taste and wallets.

Shein adds over 500 items to their website every day and sells these items for an incredibly cheap price. They target Gen-Z individuals by posing as a trend forward company and offering a plethora of promotions. Next time you contemplate buying a $5 shirt from a fashion retailer, pause to consider how that price could have compensated sustainable manufacturing and a garment worker’s fair wage. Those markdowns actually come at a much higher price.

According to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the industry contributes $2.4 trillion to global manufacturing and loses $100 billion in materials each year. 1.5 trillion gallons of water are used annually and the industry contributes about 8% of total global GHG emissions. Other environmental harms include water system contamination by textile dye leaks and massive amounts of microfiber pollution in our oceans from plastic-based fabrics. Furthermore, most clothing is made of polyester or cotton. Cotton requires pesticides and a large amount of water. Polyester is derived from oil.

Apart from wreaking havoc on our planet, many fashion companies mistreat their employees. Workers are rarely paid a fair wage. The conditions in which they work are congruent with slave labor and most companies restrict unions. Many are forced to work 14-16 hours, 7 days a week. Studies show that textile workers are likely to develop lung cancer from inhaling synthetic air particles and many suffer painful musculoskeletal problems from repetitive movements. Corporations prey on women and children for their ability to be easily controlled and their small fingers are best for handling cotton. Using cheap child labor allows companies to decrease the cost of each garment, thus reaching the top of the competitive marketplace.


The fashion industry is complex in that big brands use multiple subcontractors to manufacture their clothing. This web of workers is made of 300 million people, mainly women and children in developing nations. A complex supply chain makes corporate accountability very difficult to achieve. Apart from disclosure agreements, which require corporations to report on child labor but not to eradicate it, there is no legislation to protect voiceless individuals. Corporations use disclosures as a way to obtain a good reputation but carry on business as usual. In 2012, California passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires companies to publicize the inner workings of their supply and gives the Attorney General punitive powers. In most scenarios, companies face nothing more than a drop in revenue and a slap on the wrist.

Two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are at play here. SDG 8 ensures decent work and economic growth. Goal 12 ensures responsible consumption and production patterns. To achieve these goals, we need an overhaul of corporate accountability. Incentives and consequences should be reevaluated by environmental social and governance, making it harder for companies to conceal their negligence. Companies should be required to implement recommended changes. Laborers need advocates. And you and I- the powerful and transparent generation that we are, must not stop the impetus for change. 

Here are a few suggestions on how to champion the environment, promote social justice and shop sustainably. 

  1. Be aware of greenwashing- Companies disclose misleading information to fool you into thinking they’re an ethical/sustainable company (best indicator is price).
  • Brands to avoid: Shein, Mango, Nasty Gal, Boohoo, Forever 21, and Zara.
  • More sustainable brands: Girlfriend Collective, Pact, Patagonia, Reformation, Levi’s and Everlane. 

2. Support local brands and artisans 

3. Repair and refurbish your clothes rather than buying new.

4. Donate your clothing to a reputable organization – Check out the Galerstein Gender Center’s new “Life Transitions Closet”. Grand opening on Oct. 6th at 10 am in SSB 4.300!

James. (2022). Child Labor in Your Closet: Efficacy of Disclosure legislation and a new way Forward to fight child labor in fast fashion Supply Chains. The Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice, 25(1), 245–.

Bick, Halsey, E., & Ekenga, C. C. (2018). The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environmental Health, 17(1), 92–92.

Fashion and Sustainable Development. The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. (2022, April 4). Retrieved September 22, 2022, from 


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