top of page

Fast Fashion in China

Updated: Nov 19, 2023



If you’ve ever looked at the tags on your clothes, you’ve probably noticed that most say Made In China.


Because China is overpopulated, many Chinese people are unemployed or have jobs that pay them below minimum wage. 85% of laborers in China live in poverty in rural areas, causing many to end up in sweatshops while seeking employment opportunities to escape poverty and support their families.


Fast fashion companies establish sweatshops in China in order to take advantage of the economic situations of Chinese workers. While trying to make their clothing more inexpensive, they often cut costs in the labor industry first, resulting in unsafe working conditions for laborers.


 

An Overview of Fast Fashion


Fast fashion hits shelves at the height of its online popularity and is later discarded. A microtrend can start, reach its peak, and end within 3 to 5 months, or possibly even shorter depending on the microtrend and brands.


H&M, a well-known clothing brand, produces 52 microseasons a year. This means H&M is putting out a new collection of clothing each week that is meant to be worn immediately, otherwise known as a microtrend. High demand for these microtrends causes fast fashion companies to produce 53 million tons of clothing annually.


80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed per year. This is an astonishing 400% increase from 20 years ago. Approximately 85% of these clothes end up discarded in a landfill, hence the name “fast fashion.” This toxic cycle of consumption leads to clothing overproduction, pollution, and horrifying labor systems.



All About Shein


Profit-Based Intentions

As we are all probably aware, most clothing companies are mainly profit-focused. Fast fashion is a very profitable industry as consumers flood stores for trendy clothing and are back mere weeks later for the newest trend.


Shein is one example of a company that uses fast fashion for profit. Their website is appealing to consumers because it promotes large discounts and coupons on trendy clothes. However, this promotes fast-paced consumption of cheap clothing and produces unnecessary landfill waste.


False Claims

It is widely known that Shein uses sweatshops in China to lower labor costs and subsequently reduce consumer costs. However, the company fervently denies these allegations and claims that sweatshops are not used by suppliers of their clothing. Shein undoubtedly knows of their suppliers’ sweatshop usage and plays a significant role in the dangerous working conditions of these sweatshops as they try to cut costs as much as they can.


Shein has claimed that sweatshops breach their supplier code of conduct which is “based on International Labor Organization conventions and local laws and regulations, including labor practices and working conditions.” They also claim that the company performs “unannounced audits at supplier facilities” such that “Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and [they] will terminate partnerships that do not meet [their] standards.”


However, it is unlikely that Shein actually cuts ties with such sweatshops. Shein has received much backlash over the years for its violations of labor agreements in workshops, yet thousands continue to purchase from the online retailer.


Sweatshop Conditions

Laborers in a Shein sweatshop work 18 hours per day, 7 days a week, with just 1 day off each month. Their first month of pay is withheld, and even after the first month, they are only paid approximately 2 cents per piece of clothing they make. On an average day, workers make a minimum of 500 pieces of clothing.


The average pay for a month’s work in a Shein sweatshop is around $556. With such low wages, many sweatshop workers do not make a livable wage to support themselves and their families. Still, they are forced to continue working because they depend on the meager wages they do earn to survive.


Sweatshop laborers are exposed to silica dust, lead, and 8,000 different cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace. This causes approximately 27 million sweatshop workers to suffer from work-related illnesses and diseases. On top of this, about 1.4 million injuries occur per year in sweatshops of the fashion industry. These injuries and illnesses are often left untreated because workers are unable to pay for medical treatment.


Fast Fashion Impacts on the Chinese Environment


Negligence of the Chinese Government

As one of the main sources of sweatshop labor and one of the top exporting countries in the world, China is extremely production-focused. Because the Chinese government doesn’t allow the formation of trade unions and non-governmental labor organizations, corporations and factory owners are able to take advantage of these conditions to install sweatshops and other labor sources with less regulation.


Workers are often not informed of their rights according to the law, and the Chinese government usually doesn’t intervene even when the abuse of laborers is evident. Corporations and factory owners reap all the benefits of the fast fashion industry and laborers receive close to nothing. This unique situation allows corporations and factories to cut costs by using cheap materials and chemicals that are extremely harmful to the environment.


Water Pollution

Textile dyeing and treatment has polluted the 7 major rivers of China so extensively that they have been declared toxic. 72 toxic chemicals alone in China’s waters can be only attributed to textile dyeing, with 30 of these being permanent or unremovable from China’s waters.


Other chemicals and treatments associated with textile production can also be seen heavily polluting China’s waters, leaving very limited water resources for the country’s large population. China only has an insufficient 30 percent of lakes and rivers that aren’t contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater generated by the textile industry, most of it being a byproduct of fast fashion production. China, with its population of over 1.4 billion people, does not have an adequate supply of safe drinking water due to water contamination.


Carbon Emissions

Pollution in China is heavily influenced by carbon emissions of the textile industry. Due to the high demand for cheap textiles worldwide, China produces millions of textiles in factories with incredibly high carbon emission levels. Production of textiles for export to foreign countries is responsible for about 43% of greenhouse gas emissions in China.


Delivering these textiles to consumers also produces an astronomical amount of carbon, as shown by the delivery of the 2016 “Singles Day” clothing, which generated 52,400 tons of carbon in a single day. Because of this, it is highly encouraged for consumers to purchase clothing in-stores instead of ordering online.


However, fast fashion companies based in China are based mostly on e-commerce. It has been shown that the use of cell phones and computers to place online orders can produce 3.22 million tons of carbon dioxide, approximately 8,800 tons of carbon daily.


Climate change is an ever-worsening issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The actions of fast fashion companies such as Shein are only contributing to this problem instead of trying to lessen it.


 

Recap


When you look beyond the low prices and trendy clothes, fast fashion is extremely detrimental to our environment and encourages unjust labor practices. Chinese laborers are subject to unsanitary, dangerous working conditions in sweatshops and are paid well below minimum wage. Overproduction of textiles in China results in the contamination of China’s rivers by toxic chemicals and the production of hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon. Fast fashion companies help fuel an endless cycle of overconsumption and waste.


Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and all of our social media platforms!





Author: Karen Wong

Editor: Charlotte Wang


References

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page