why we do itTechnological advances of the 21st century catalyzed the concept of fast fashion into a dream come true for money hungry design labels. Fast fashion quickly became the industry norm, with big box shops boasting to share holders about their ability to give immediate consumer feedback to factories worldwide. In one of the world’s most cut-throat industries, many companies don’t stop to examine the impact of their newfound cashflow. Wasteful production, low wages, and unsafe conditions are the grease that keeps the fast fashion machine churning, with devastating consequences for the environment and people involved.

Factories, pushed by large brands to value efficiency over all else, waste huge amounts of materials every day by aiming to cut quickly instead of with the most accuracy; throwing out “unusable” pieces of fabric that are too small or simply don’t meet the season’s tastes. In addition, production of fabric, items failing quality control, end of season stock purges, and clothing discarded by the final consumer all play a part in contributing to the estimated 1 million tons of textile waste dumped into landfills around the world each year.

Textile manufacturing, dyeing, and disposal all add up to a really big, global problem. Manufacturing polyester, a synthetic material accounting for 40-45% of all textiles, is an energy intensive process requiring nonrenewable petrochemicals. Harmful emissions include excessive carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases that are released not only during production but also when materials are burned or left in landfills. These chemicals are responsible for polluting the environment and contributing to illnesses and respiratory diseases. Sadly, factories have polluted 70% of China’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs to the point where they are unsafe for human use. Textile dyeing and treatment account for 17-20% of worldwide industrial water pollution, contaminating our water supplies with 72 toxic chemicals. Of those 72 chemicals, 30 cannot be removed. When waste materials are incinerated or dumped in the ground, they have devastating environmental consequences. Harmful cancer causing chemicals and solvents leak out of heavily treated materials and into water sources. Methane, a significant contributor to global warming, is released into the air from decomposing fabrics.

While the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry is horrifying, the human impact is simply tragic. Employment conditions in many factories are likened to modern day slavery. Cambodian factory workers are paid on average $100 a month, an income agreed upon by most as well below a living wage. Workers are often denied sick leave and forced to work 10-12 hour days to keep up with industry deadlines. Increased rates of cancer, silicosis, asthma, dermatitis, and lead poisoning have been reported in garment factory workers, as they are repeatedly exposed to dangerous chemicals without proper protective gear or ventilation. According to the International Labour Organization there are currently 168 million child workers ages 5 to 14 in the world today, with the Asian-Pacific region pulling the lion’s share of that number. 18% of human trafficking victims are exploited for labor. Cases of forced labor, involuntary servitude and bonded labor in apparel manufacturing have been documented by the U.S. Department of Labor. As brought to light in the 2013 Rana Plaza Collapse, unsound building structures and shoddy fire safety standards pose an imminent threat in many workplaces. Most workers depend on the little income these jobs generate to provide for their families, leaving them no option but to continue working under such dangerous and oppressive conditions.

So what can you do, just one person in 7 billion, about such a massive problem? Think before you buy. Educate yourself about the issues surrounding the fashion industry. Support brands that care about the environment and the people behind your clothes as much as you do. Even large retailers have to listen to customer preferences, and each dollar spent is a vote cast.

tonlé’s impact

A conventionally made t shirt uses the following resources:
Each year tonlé’s production, in contrast to a typical manufacturer, saves the following:
  • 10,000 kg (22,046 lbs) of materials from landfills
  • 70,000 kg (154,324 lbs) of CO2 from entering the atmosphere
  • 200 kg (441 lbs) of pesticides
  • 46,266,600 gallons of water