The Perils of Fast Fashion

Shoppers are buying more new clothes annually and keeping them for half as long. But with industry issues ranging from labor practices to environmental impact, consumers need to pose questions about their wardrobe beyond whether a piece of clothing still sparks joy.


Multimedia Production
By Kaela Malig

March 14, 2019


Fashion is a form of self-expression for Mikee Yu, a lifestyle blogger.

“I have more or less 500 clothes,” she says, although she admits she is only able to use 50 to 100 pieces of clothing regularly. The rest of the pieces are left sitting inside her closet, usually after being worn just once or twice.

Her love of fashion has her buying clothes even when she doesn’t necessarily need to do so. She shops two, three, even five times a month.

“When I see something that I can add to my style, I buy it even if I don’t need it,” she says.

Mikee ends up disposing clothes that, in the words of organizing consultant Marie Kondo, do not necessarily spark joy — they’ve been damaged, they don’t fit, or they’re just not her style anymore.

Fashion blogger Mikee Yu has a large wardrobe, but she is making efforts to declutter.

While she has a bigger closet than most, Mikee is no different from most Filipinos when it comes to fashion. According to a 2017 survey by YouGov, a database that records people’s habits and opinions, nearly three in ten, or 29 percent, have thrown away an item of clothing after wearing it just once. Nearly a fifth of all respondents (18 percent) have thrown away in the past year at least three items that they’ve only worn once.

According to the study, 60 percent of Filipinos dispose of their clothes because they no longer fit, while 46 percent do so because of damage. Some 34 percent of Pinoys discard clothes that have developed a fault, 21 percent dispose of their outfits that are “more than a few seasons old,” while 14 percent were simply bored of wearing it.

Over the past few years, it has become much easier for shoppers in the Philippines to snap up stylish new items, because it has gotten just as easy for companies to produce clothes at a scale that was previously unimaginable. The industry term for this: Fast Fashion.

Garments did not use to be so easily accessible. Prior to industrialization in the 18th century, most items of clothing were made to order and crafted by hand.

And with the advent of globalization, companies have been able to turn to the whole world into their production chain to produce cheaper clothing.

Walk into any store of a global clothing brand, and each item could come from a different part of the world — the shirts, for example, could come from Bangladesh, the belt from India, the underwear from Vietnam. But the process of coming up with a fashion line is even more global than that would indicate.

The cycle begins with the brand’s merchandise group coming up with the design of the seasonal collection. Afterwards, they source their fabrics from different textile producing countries, such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

After securing the fabric from the supplier, the firm would then tap first-tier suppliers — factories that handle cutting, making, and trimming — in countries such as China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.

The brand would then assign each line of products to a manufacturing country, depending on the type of product (e.g. Bangladesh for apparel, India for leather goods).

Brands also have worldwide warehousing systems that store the supply of items after its production before they are distributed to their store branches.

Swedish fashion brand H&M, for example, says it works directly with approximately 800 independent suppliers from several parts of the world, according to Dan Mejia, its head of communications for the Philippines.

The reason why most of the items at retail shops, whether local or foreign brands, come from other countries is that they’re simply cheaper because of this global production chain. Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez admits these countries have “technology in productions, economies of scale, longer production runs, lower electricity costs and lower wage rates” compared to the Philippines.

The Philippines used to be a major exporter of garments to the world, shipping an annual average of $2.5 billion between 1995 and 2006, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Office.

It has been a downward trend since for the industry, with exports at only $812.9 million, according to PSA data.

Clothing imports, meanwhile, have been on a rise over the last decade. From just $81.6 million in 2010, we imported $391.1 million worth of garments last year.

The government blames the plight of the garment industry to the end of the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA), which placed quotas on how much garments developing countries could export to developed countries. This was a boon for the Philippines, as it only had to worry about filling the market quotas for its garment exports.

In 1995, at the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), countries agreed to bring textiles and garments under the World Trade Organization. That began a 10-year process of dismantling quotas under the MFA.

In his 2012 paper on the subject, Dr. Rene Ofreneo, former dean of the University of the Philippines School of Labor and Industrial Relations (SOLAIR), said the Philippine garment industry had an “overwhelming dependence” on the market quotas provided by the agreement from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. When the agreement finally expired in 2005, it “meant the end of a sure market for Philippine apparel exports,” Ofreneo said.

The end came fast for Emma Garcia, who lost her job soon after the agreement to end the MFA. She’s now 61, but the date remains etched in her memory: August 30, 1995. Her employer, a garment manufacturing factory that produced leather gloves, hats, scarves, and ballet shoes, said that it could no longer afford to do business in the country.

She remembers the distress of her co-workers when they heard the news. “People were crying, what happened?”

Emma was an officer in the company’s labor union, but even they were at a loss as to how to explain the matter to the everyone. In the end, 7,165 garment workers were left jobless after its closure. Even worse, the factory employed generations of workers from the same families, who were all left devastated.

In her 13 years of service, Emma only received P46,000 after the company closed. They filed a labor case against the firm, but it remains unresolved to this day.

The same anguish befell workers like Portia Ariesgado more than a decade later when her employer packed up shop. The mother of four had worked in a factory that opened in 1954 and closed in 2006, after the MFA ended.

Portia had worked for the company for more than 40 years. Now 71, she says she is among 1,526 workers who are still waiting for the right compensation following the closure.

Based on their union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, Portia says she and her co-workers were entitled to more than P271 million in compensation. But because the company filed for insolvency, she says, its assets were bid out, and generated just P68 million.

Emma Garcia, 61, worked in a garment manufacturing factory for 13 years. 

The fashion industry has had a long history of problems with how it has treated its workers.

Recent headlines include the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013, killing 1,130 people and injuring 2,500. The factory, which produced clothes for well-known brands, was notorious for poor environments for its workers.

In 2017, workers in Turkey stitched messages to clothing sold by the brand Zara, which read, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn't get paid for it.” According to Zara’s parent company Inditex, the workers were employed by a third-party manufacturer whose owner disappeared suddenly. Inditex said it had set up a “hardship fund” to cover losses by the abandoned workers. Last year, 140 Turkish garment workers “were forced to take” partial payments owed to them, according to a report from the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Such tragedy is not unfamiliar to Filipino garment workers like Emma Garcia and Portia Ariesgado. For many workers in the industry, the sudden closure of their companies and the uncollected wages and benefits were only the last in a long series of injustices.

For Emma, the worst was seeing a co-worker die, back in 1986.

“She coughed up blood right there. It was 2 o’clock, we had just come in, and then there was a commotion because she passed out, she couldn’t breathe. She was brought to the clinic, and there was blood everywhere in her wake. She was dead by the time she reached the clinic, but they still brought her to the hospital,” she remembers.

“She was declared DOA at the hospital. She was young, maybe not yet 25. She had an illness with her lungs, because of our condition, we were packed, and it was so hot.”

The company employed 14,000 workers. Emma was among 6,000 who shared space inside a three-story structure with no ceilings or exhaust fans, where they toiled in high temperatures with poor ventilation.

“Inside the factory it was so hard because there were so many of us. One table would have 20 workers on 20 machines. There would by a fan on each side, one fan for every 10 workers. We would be so close together, there wasn’t room to pass by behind us,” she says.

And then there was poor sanitation, with not enough toilets for the workers.

“You’d have to line up just to pee, but your supervisor would be watching you, because you can’t take too long because you need to fill your quota,” she says. “A lot of people got UTI (urinary tract infections).”

Portia Ariesgado, now 71, worked for an intimate wear manufacturing factory for 40 years.

Portia had a different battle to fight. Because the wages she earned from the factory was not enough, she took to secretly selling food to her co-workers to make ends meet.

At first, she would buy bread from the bakery before going to work. “I would line up the bread outside the factory, my co-workers would get them on loan, and they’d pay me back weekly.”

Soon, she would move on to home-cooked meals. She would wake up at 3 a.m. each morning to cook the food — usually five types of ulam, two types of pancit — to sell. By 5 a.m., she would have a folding table ready on the street outside the factory, selling the food to her co-workers on the way in.

Fifteen minutes before work starts, Portia will begin to pack unsold food and ask her fellow workers to bring it in past the security guard, who strictly disallows selling inside the facility.

“When we get in, we are able to dispose the food while we’re sewing. The pancit would secretly be passed around for anyone who wants to buy,” says Portia, who was able to send her kids through school.

For workers in the garments industry, “systemic exploitation remains rife,” according to a 2015 white paper by Fashion Revolution, an organization started in 2013 — after the Rana Plaza factory collapse — to scrutinize industry practices and raise awareness in its most pressing issues.

It noted that in countries characterized as “extreme risk” in the Forced Labour Index in Maplecroft’s Human Rights Risk Atlas also features many of the world’s textile and garment producing economies, including China, India, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Data from the International Labour Organization shows that the Philippines has the highest non-compliance rates with minimum wage in the garment sector.

“There have been diverse forms of bonded labour and deliberately hidden subcontracting (where conditions are unregulated) for decades,” Fashion Revolution said. “These things are endemic across the industry, but certainly more visible today than in previous decades.”

Uniforms of public officials and government employees made from tropical fibers on display at the Philippine Textile Research Institute.

Labor practices are far from the only problem brought on by the fashion industry.

“Pulse of the Fashion Industry,” a study published by industry group Global Fashion Agenda with The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. highlights the overall annual apparel consumption, currently at 62 million tons, the equivalent of one suitcase per person. The same study expects this figure to rise to 103 million tons by 2030.

Fast fashion seems to be the culprit. According to a Greenpeace Germany study, clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. The average person buys 60 percent more clothing items yearly and keep the products half as long as they did 15 years ago.

According to YouGov’s study, 42 percent of Filipino millennials said that half of the clothing items they own were purchased in the last 12 months.

Fast fashion brands, whose main goal is to produce more clothing at an affordable rate, have taken to using the most common and cheapest raw material available: synthetic textiles. “The synthetics will definitely last you more than your lifetime, two lifetimes, three lifetimes as the studies quote they talk about 200 years,” says Celia Elumba, the director of the Philippine Textile Research Institute.

The quick turnover of fast fashion items becomes an additional problem for the environment, with more waste that does not decompose or degrade. According to the Pulse study, only 20 percent of annual apparel consumed is reused or recycled.

Even washing clothes made of synthetic fibers end up releasing microplastics into the environment, according to a 2017 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It found that 35 percent of all primary microplastics — plastics directly released into the environment in the form of small particulates — in the ocean come from the laundry of synthetic textiles.

“In the water the plastics really become a magnet for toxins so imagine the tiny piece that has now absorbed chemical toxins gets eaten by the fish,” Elumba says. “Over time this is going to kill us.”

Aside from synthetic textiles, the dyeing of fabric and textile also cause mischief to bodies of water. In a report by The Guardian in 2012, it stated that 17-20 percent of industrial water pollution is caused by textile dyeing and treatment.

The Greenpeace study also notes that synthetic fibers, in particular polyester which is present in 60 percent of clothing, emits nearly three times more carbon dioxide in its lifecycle compared to cotton.

“It is now a question of how it really affects humans but it doesn’t even have to go to the sea...It is pervasive; it’s not just in the water, it’s in the air,” Elumba says.

There are efforts by some fashion giants to change things.

H&M says 35 percent of what it uses for clothes are “organic recycled or made of other sustainable materials,” adding that it wants to increase the share of sustainable materials in their total production every year.

The company also launched its garment collection initiative in 2013, where they collect bags of unwanted clothing in their stores worldwide in exchange for 15% off vouchers. The collected clothes are brought to Sweden to be recycled.

“We don't just stop in selling, we also do something more of an awareness that you can also recycle old clothes so that you can actually wear clothes that are on trend,” H&M Philippines External Communications Miki Espe says.

But Fashion Revolution Philippines coordinator Sophia Calugay is skeptical about the voucher program.

“It encourages more waste, more consumption and more production which is not sustainable at all,” she says.

Also making things harder is that synthetic materials are usually combined with natural fibers for clothing.

Elumba, the PTRI director, says her agency is already looking into a technology that can separate natural fiber from synthetics.

“If your material is mixed with a synthetic material they will not respond to the same catalyst for regeneration because they are different composition. One is synthetic, one is natural,” Elumba says. “That’s a technology for example one brand is trying to work out. So we will be looking at those technologies. How do you split it up? First, how do you identify that you can sort? Because you have to sort.”

Hannah Theisen started TELAstory, a Filipino garment manufacturing start-up that aims to provide living wage jobs for Filipino workers.

There are also start-up garment firms that aim to address the sustainability for both labor and the environment.

Hannah Theisen, an American who has been working in the sustainable fashion world for nearly seven years, founded TELAstory, a Filipino garment manufacturing company that aims to create living wage jobs for women in the Philippines.

“It kind of started with the fact that over 60 percent of the world’s garments come from Southeast Asia so the Philippines and countries near the Philippines,” she says. “I wanted to do something to tackle the social injustices and the environmental issues that I saw within the fashion industry.”

Theisen has small-scale factories in Tagaytay and Binondo, where they produce custom wholesale products for certain brands, like children’s garments, aprons, cafes and home goods.

TELAstory works with a non-profit company to find garment workers, many of whom used to work in the big manufacturing factories. The company now has a half-dozen workers.

“It wasn’t necessarily unemployment that made me want to create jobs here but just the lack of living wage jobs specifically for garment workers,” she says.

“I mean we know that there’s the standard of minimum wage, either in the city or the province but many garment workers aren’t even making that,” she adds.

TELAstory is using a formula created by experts and advocates that calculates the living wage in different Southeast Asian countries based on “human consumption units and how much they need for food, shelter and then for other things like medical care, education, savings.”

She believes that “a brand can never be truly sustainable unless they are paying their workers well. People are resources too, people are your most valuable and most important resources.”

TELAstory is also committed to using biodegradable fibers to decrease their environmental footprint.

“Here in the Philippines there’s such a wealth of natural resources I mean there’s cotton, there’s pineapple fiber, there’s abaca there’s even things like water hyacinth bamboo,” she says.

“All of these things can be used to make 100 percent biodegradable fibers so just looking at the resources that are here and the access to skilled garment workers here.”

The Philippine Textile Research Institute uses natural byproducts from the country to make biodegradable textiles.

The country’s textile research agency has been taking steps to allow the industry to take advantage of natural resources, developing products like abaca, banana, and pineapple leaves into biodegradable textile.

“These are byproducts. Imagine, you don’t have to plant anything new, they are already there and what otherwise will be thrown out or thrown away can be reused and made into yarns and into fabric,” says Elumba, the PTRI director.

“We’re also working on bamboo, it’s a fantastic new material. It is unlike the viscose bamboo, this is done in a more natural manner so I guess what we’re working on a lot are really on the natural textile side.”

She notes that these natural processes have already drawn interest internationally. “In the world market there is such a demand for ecological or green textiles; they are more interested in something that is natural. We’re getting validation, we’re getting inquiries and expressions of interest coming from different parts of the world, they have all expressed an interest in technologies that would help them convert banana and water hyacinth into yarns and into textiles,” she says.

The PTRI is also planning to create “a microspinning facility that can produce natural fiber and natural textile yarn, the very location where you can get the agricultural byproduct.”

Alongside the natural textile, the PTRI has also created an upgraded natural dye technology that process dyes from resources like plants.

Still, she laments the lack of opportunities to apply these technologies within the country.

“The branded ones we have tried and encouraged but they are not ready for development,” she says. “Everything of course is hard until it gets better but you have to put your good amount of work on it because it will get better in time.”

Fashion entrepreneur Tere Arigo runs the online clothing store Teeforel, where she sells “upcycled”  clothing.

Amid the wave of fast fashion, there are consumers who are starting to buck the trend.

That has made it easier for Tere Arigo to give up her corporate career in IT six years ago, making her side hustle her full-time job. Today, she’s a fashion entrepreneur who owns a vintage online clothing store Teeforel.

Growing up in Subic Bay, Tere has always been environmentally-conscious, volunteering for beach clean-ups. Her love for the environment even led her to stop using single-use plastics.

Vintage shopping was also one of her hobbies before she even knew that it is one way to help save the earth from more pollution. She calls it a stroke of good luck that her bread and butter is aligned with her advocacy — sustainability for both fashion and the environment.

Tere would hunt for good clothing finds in ukay stores to “upcycle” — stitching new buttons, mending loose hems, and sometimes even re-styling the pieces — before selling the brand-new looking piece in her online store.

As someone who is both eco- and style-conscious, it was heartbreaking for her to learn about the harm the fashion industry causes to the environment.

“By upcycling and selling second-hand clothes, the clothes get to have a second chance in life and not be in the landfill for a while. My concept is simple: it's one clothing having a second life, it means one less clothing item polluting the planet,” she says.

Upcycling and vintage shopping are just two of many things consumers can take to help the environment. There is deconstruction, where one can take a piece of clothing and turn it in something else.

There’s also resisting the urge to simply throw away damaged clothes.

“If there's a hole or stain, you patch it up with something,” says Sophia Calugay, the Fashion Revolution country coordinator.

She also suggests recycling clothes through hand-me-downs.

“We kind of need to shift the mindset of the consumers that you can still look good, be in style, be in fashion trends without buying anything new,” she says.

For Tere, who also volunteers for Fashion Revolution, the first step is education.

“The number one point there would be for them to know how bad the pollution of the fashion industry is. They have to know so that they would care,” she says.

She urges shoppers to stop buying unnecessary clothing, and instead review what they currently have in their closet and make the most of its life by restyling, mending, or even swapping with friends.

Tere Arigo talks about the upcycling process.

Being curious about who makes their clothes and how they are made is another positive step for consumers.

“We ask consumers to do a simple thing as ‘Who made my clothes?’ We ask consumers to turn their clothes inside out showing the label of their clothes and asking them on social media because social media is one of the biggest tool that can be used to take effect and use to change something,” Sophia says.

Consumers have the power to change the whole system into a more sustainable one.

“Brands listens to consumers. Not many people know we have so much power as a consumer to really take effect and do a positive change in the fashion industry.”

For Hannah Theisen, the owner of TELAstory, the change must come from both consumers and producers.

“I think it’s possible to make ethical fashion accessible but in order to do that we have to change the game entirely. There has to be a real shift of mindsets in part of the producers and a part of consumers,” she says.

As long as huge brands make profit king, the unsustainable practices in fashion will carry on.

“We’ve made some progress in the right direction but in order to get fashion affordable, ethical fashion affordable, we do need to reframe the way we think about our spending and our consumption in fashion,” she says. “As long as there are huge corporations that put profit above all else, we’ll continue to see that exploitation.”