Fast Fashion: A Neocolonial Practice
Fast fashion is a practice used by various industries to quickly replicate high fashion trends at a rapid and less costly rate than that of luxury fashion industries. This practice is widespread and highly exploitative as it appoints countries in the global south to take on the production that is needed to support this industry. While the results merit cheap options for consumers, the effect that fast fashion has on the environment, as well as countries that are actively producing garments to feed this industry, is direly destructive.
Bangladesh is one of the leading countries in garment production. Industries have turned to countries in the developing world to produce garments because labor is cheap and bears a greater profit for corporations at large. The practice of exploiting cheap labor is not a new concept to the region of Bangladesh— various imperial powers have popped in and out of the region and surrounding areas to exploit people for cheap labor, agriculture, and other commodities. The onset of global industrialism and capitalism has led formerly colonized regions to remain under the grip of western rule. Whether that modern colonial rule is direct or indirect, Bangladesh and regions alike have had to bear the brunt of neo-colonialism, or the use of economics, political, and/or cultural pressure to influence a country (usually one which was formerly under colonial rule). Indeed, contextualizing the role of textile production in Bangladesh’s history is important in understanding the garment industry today. Bangladesh (as well as West Bengal) under the Mughal Empire following the British was known for its textile production; this would eventually serve as a major commodity for the British and eventually West Pakistan.
Under Mughal rule, Bengal was in the production of textiles, mainly being that of Muslin. At a certain point in the Mughal Empire’s rule of the Indian-Subcontinent, Bengali Muslin was adorning the bodies of the royal court as it was regarded as the finest garments in the region if not the world. It is no secret that the arrival of the British East India Company meant that goods such as Muslin and other commodities would be subjected to mass production to feed the economic needs of the empire. It is here where the garment industry in East and West Bengal as we know it today would take root as a major cash cow for the British Crown. The British East India Company’s economic practices would set the precedent for modern capitalist practices which was heavily dependent on the labor of exploited peoples.
The modern garment industry in Bangladesh has had a dire impact on environmental and human rights issues. Ecological impacts include the emission of greenhouse gases, the use of non-renewable energy sources, as well as water pollution. While the western world has not had to deal with many of these impacts directly, Bangladesh deals with record breaking flooding and air pollution issues which more than often displaces thousands of people. As of 2019, Studies done on air pollution in Dhaka alone suggests that air quality is “the ‘unhealthy’ bracket of air quality, which requires a PM2.5 reading between 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³ to be classed as unhealthy.”
In addition to the environmental impacts, Bangladesh has faced a series of issues in terms of labor-rights and safety for garment workers. There have been numerous factory accidents in Bangladesh, most notably the collapse of Rana Plaza in April of 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka that was producing clothes for J.C. Penny, Walmart, and other major brands. It is estimated that there were 1,136 workers killed and hundreds injured in the collapse of Rana Plaza.
The fact that various western corporations that engage in fast fashion depend on cheap labor with little to no regard for the safety of the people who are at the forefront of the exploitative practices that come with this industry, is telling of how capitalism has no regard for the exploited. The lasting effects of imperialism are present in modern-day business practices. This is no surprise as colonial powers (both American and European) have been in the business of labor exploitation. This information should prompt consumers to look for alternatives to supporting the fast fashion industry at large. While it is virtually impossible to completely avoid buying into fast fashion, as consumers we can choose to support mindful brands, engage in thrifting, and avoid buying from large producers that actively engage in the exploitation of laborers.