The Politics of Fashion

Fashion. We all take part in it. Whether we’re closely following fashion week in Paris or have Air Force 1s bookmarked on our browser, we all are consumers in an industry that rakes in over 2.8 trillion dollars globally every year.

Yet, as we’re scrolling through online retailers or thumbing through racks, we often don’t consider the ethics and the politics of fashion. Here’s your style guide for thinking about what you wear.

Fashion Magazine March 2020 Cover entitled “The Age of Inclusivity” features a diverse set of models in bright clothing


Before the rise of “fast fashion” in the 1980s, fashion for most households was a matter of necessity, and buying new items was a symptom of a new climate, profession, or size. When people could afford it, they would often buy higher quality items, but far less of them, rather than today when people may spend the same amount of money on three lower-quality items that will likely last far less long. As new clothing has become far cheaper, people’s willingness to discard clothing has increased. According to the EPA, in the US alone, “the generation of textiles in 2018 was 17 million tons…Landfills received 11.3 million tons of MSW textiles in 2018.” More clothing in circulation leads to more clothing waste. As clothing becomes cheaper, so does the labor required to produce it, and as more textiles are produced, the fashion industry’s effect on climate change has increased at an unimaginable pace.

Climate Change

According to the UNFCCC, between 8 and 10% of all greenhouse gases are produced through the creation of textiles and clothing. The fashion industry contributes more to climate change than shipping and airplane travel combined. According to the UNFCCC,

“To make just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 liters of water is required to just grow the one kilo of cotton needed for the pair of jeans. In comparison, one person would take 10 years to drink 10,000 liters of water.”

United Nations Climate Change

According to Lucy Siegle in a Guardian article entitled “Am I a fool to expect more than corporate greenwashing?“, (greenwashing is a term used to describe when companies use deceptive tactics to appear environmentally friendly to consumers), even when companies claim to recycle textiles, the process to do so is often highly energy-intensive and far more difficult than just producing new clothing and throwing away used textiles. For example, according to a report released by the retailer H&M, less than 2% of H&M’s clothing was made using recycled materials in 2018.


We’ve heard about the huge events involving the exploitation of textile workers, such as when the Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013 in Bangladesh, killing over 1100 people. After the collapse of the building, several major retailers promised to enforce better pay and safer working conditions. But regulations around the pay for these workers are hardly ever enforced. Often, the changes companies sign on to, like limiting hours and increasing breaks, only are enforced on days when auditors visit. The pay of workers across the board for their labor is abysmally low, as demonstrated by the graphic below, created by the Clean Clothes Campaign.

According to this graphic, a worker makes 18 cents off of their production of a 30 dollar shirt. Clothing and textile production is one of the most exploitative industries in the world. More than 90% of workers in the industry have no means of negotiating their pay or working conditions. According to, “77% of companies think there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring in their supply chains.” According to the Global Fashion Agenda, “Over 50% of workers within the fashion industry are not paid the minimum wage in countries like India and the Philippines.”

Fast Fashion

Shein logo

Fast fashion brands, known for the speed with which they are taken from the design stage to production, are by far the worst offenders in terms of their climate impact and exploitation of workers. According to Forbes, “Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.” And, according to the 2015 documentary “The True Cost,” “Cotton production is responsible for 18% of the world’s pesticide use and 25% of its insecticide use” and the use of pesticides is linked heavily to farmers in developing nations becoming sick with pesticide poisoning.

Are There Solutions?

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of the importance of fashion. As a huge global industry that struggles with major ethical problems, it’s worth a lot more consideration than we often give it. Obviously, we’re not going to be able to get rid of the industry altogether, nor should we want to, but how can we move forward with the creation of ethical clothing?


I have to say, I love thrifting. Finding the perfect sweater for a third of its retail cost hidden in the middle of a 20-foot-long rack always feels like an accomplishment. And it seems far more ethical than buying from Forever21 or Shein, right? Second-hand stores ensure that items are reused for far longer and prevent clothing from ending up in the dumpster. Thrifting is often toted as the ethical solution to problems of the industry, but it comes with its own set of issues.

Thrift stores can often provide relief from shame around the ethicality of cheap clothing that I know I often struggle with when thinking about buying from online retailers. Instead of buying less in the first place, we feed into an industry that is run on consumers constantly swapping out their wardrobes.

The recent popularity of thrifting has another consequence as well; people who don’t have another option for clothes except to buy second-hand are now competing with people who do not require it as a necessity. Ironically, the increased number of people who are shopping at thrift stores because of the low prices drives the prices of second-hand goods up exponentially, making it even more difficult for the people who have to buy second-hand to get the items they need.

Thrifting isn’t even as good for the environment as we often like to think: more than 80% of the items you donate end up in a landfill or are shipped abroad.

Often, the most ethical thrifting that you can do starts with your own closet. Think more about what you can reuse, mend, and upcycle, before dropping huge amounts of your wardrobe off at Goodwill to start again on a new closet.

Buying Higher Priced Items

Companies like The Good Trade recommend more brand transparency and higher consumer demand for ethicality. Others like attempt to make this easier for consumers by supplying resources to become more informed and highlight ethical brands. Many recommend buying higher quality more expensive clothing less frequently. Yet, just because a brand or an item is expensive doesn’t mean that it is ethical. According to a Guardian article entitled “Luxury brands: higher standards or just a higher mark-up?” companies like Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Hugo Boss have exploited workers in many of the same ways fast fashion companies do. They use labor in Eastern Europe, in places like Croatia and Turkey, paying workers less than three times what a living wage would be, and often less than the legal minimum wage. Often, they do this to be able to have tags on their clothing that say “Made in Europe” as a way to make buyers believe in the ethicality of the garment’s construction.

“If you want a purely ethical line you also have to go beyond this idea that your clothes are made in a sweatshop, that’s not where they are made, that is where they are processed. You have to look at who made the thread for that fabric and who supplied the cotton for that thread. At the base of it is the farmer. Fields aren’t divided between expensive brands and cheap brands, instead the same farmers and labourers are at the behest of the market.”

Filmmaker Leah Borromeo, creator of the documentary Dirty White Gold about India’s cotton fields

Changing Shopping Culture

As great as switching from buying new clothes to thrifting used clothes is as a short-term solution, it doesn’t fundamentally change our relationship with clothing. We need to actively change the way that we shop for clothing. Focusing on buying higher quality clothing less often is the best way to make steps forward. This doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is that there is far too much clothing in circulation, and it is created in environmentally unfriendly ways by exploited workers. The fashion industry itself needs a massive ethical overhaul that refocuses on producing less clothing that is higher-quality in order to begin to solve these problems. Government organizations taxing companies for their current practices, and more importantly, consumer demand for change, are the only things that will change the fashion industry.

Links to Companies Leading the Way and Articles for Further Reading

6 thoughts on “The Politics of Fashion

  1. Hi Brynn, I really enjoyed reading this article and appreciated how you connected fashion to labor and climate change concerns. As someone who doesn’t buy into and understand fast fashion, it’s encouraging to see younger consumers who play a significant role in short-lived fashion trends become more aware of and concerned about clothing sustainability. The statistics you provided on the amount of water needed to produce just one pair of genes was really shocking, and was a very effective literary strategy in getting your point across to the reader.

    I also appreciate you mentioning the ethical issues with the rise of thrifting as a trend among consumers who can afford to buy clothing at full retail price. Many “sustainability” trends are often more complicated than they seem on the surface, and I enjoyed how you highlighted the pros and cons of various ways to create a more sustainable clothing industry.


  2. I really enjoyed this article! As someone who’s fashion sense for most of her life was “what did my mom and I buy that one time we realized I’d grown out of my old clothes,” I never really thought much about the choices I make in purchasing clothing or compared the ethicality of various brands. Especially as I begin to have my own purchasing power (and dress for fun not necessity), this article is a helpful guide.

    I wonder what the logic of this article would look like applied to other industries? For example, if we also divested from food products made unethically, or media produced by unethical companies. Considering the climate impact of certain food industries (beef and almonds come to mind as two random examples) and worker mistreatment, I wonder if a similar guide could be made to purchasing food ethically.


  3. I found this article very interesting, especially because as a consumer I know that I purchase a lot of fast fashion items, often unintentionally because these are the clothes that I can afford. While I don’t typically purchase clothes from brands most commonly associated with fast fashion like SHEIN, brands like ZARA, Victorias Secret, GAP, and other retailers that you may not associate with fast fashion are guilty of the same practices, making it hard to find clothes that are sourced ethically.
    I am interested to learn more as to why “more than 80% of the items you donate end up in a landfill or are shipped abroad,” when thrifting.
    One thing I think is interesting to consider is how social media interacts with the practice of fast fashion. In some ways, I think social media increases this rapid changing of trends and avid consumer culture, as influencers promote new “microtrends” every week. However, social media has also brought more awareness to the fast fashion industry. I had never heard of the term until I saw it on TikTok, and I often see videos popping up on my feed alerting me to brands that use unethical production practices or explaining how harmful our current consumer culture around clothes is. This has influenced howI think about what I buy and often discouraged me from purchasing from fast fashion brands.


  4. Thank you for sharing this with us, Brynn! I really enjoyed this article, and I found it very interesting to consider my own purchasing habits through this context. While I was in high school, I did not often buy clothing, and when I did I usually didn’t buy women’s clothing, but now that I’m in college I find that the temptation to buy clothing strikes me sometimes three times a week. In an environment like Vanderbilt, clothing is such a sign of status, culture, and wealth, and I so often find myself anxious about my own place in that—anxiety that I have too often calmed with clothing purchases. It’s also interesting to consider how clothing has come to signify so much for women in society, and the queer community, too: that moral, social, financial value justifies so many ills, and makes it difficult to make arguments about reducing consumption at the root.


  5. Hi Brynn,
    Thank you for your blog. I really enjoyed reading it! I was most taken aback by the section about climate change. I had known about the concept of greenwashing but I never knew there was a term for it. I think that companies who participate in greenwashing by using deceptive tactics to appear environmentally friendly are one of the biggest groups to blame in regards to how fashion impacts the environment. Not only are they being deceptive, but they are tricking consumers into thinking they are making an ethical purchase when in reality they aren’t. Further, I was absolutely shocked to read that “between 8 and 10% of all greenhouse gasses are produced through the creation of textiles and clothing.” The idea that the fashion industry contributes more to climate change than not only the shipping industry but the shipping AND airplane industry combined was mind-boggling. I also really enjoyed reading some of your thoughts about possible solutions, particularly from the consumer side!


  6. Hi Brynn,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I really like how you demonstrated how multifaceted the issues with fast fashion are. From a climate change perspective to an ethical perspective, there are so many reasons to move away from this industry. Nowadays I find it increasingly harder to not fall into the trap of fast fashion because of its prevalence. From the ads we get on social media to the stores we see at malls, we are constantly bombarded with such clothing options. However, I think as more people become aware of the implication of fast fashion, we can make more strides toward ending it. Recently I have been seeing more stores advertising that they are environmentally friendly and ethically manufactured. One of the most famous ones I’ve seen is Everlane. Their main brand is that they are environmentally friendly, however, their clothes are often too expensive for the average buyer. With much cheaper options available right next door, people tend to gravitate towards fast fashion instead. I think along with individual purchasing power, there needs to be a change from the industry standpoint to make any significant progress.


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