This is a follow-up post to our last article on the Gender Pay Gap (GPG), in which we suggested that focusing on a pay gap based on gender is not enough and that shifting the focus to the concept of performance would be useful. As a kind of continuation, we turn here to the topic of fast fashion and discuss this ubiquitous ‘monster’ in all our closets, including from the perspective of equal pay.
Lack of initiative despite well-known problems
We all know it, or should know it, if only we would do the math: There is a lot going wrong in the fashion industry as it exists today. How else would it be possible that we can buy a multi-pack of tee shirts for under 25 US dollars at Zara? If you break such prices down to the costs along the supply chain, i.e. the (increasingly scarce) resources, the manufacturing process, packaging, transport and import duties, and marketing, one thing becomes very clear. In addition to the immense environmental impact, enormous sacrifices must be made in terms of wages for manufacturers, who include cotton farmers and garment factory workers. Numerous studies show that labor outsourced to low-wage countries incurs costs that are not reflected on the price tag of our clothing. Even if the data and estimates on this are still relatively unclear, investigations show on the one hand a large burden on the environment, for example through high water consumption, the destruction of superfluous stocks or the frequent throwing away of end products by consumers , . The CO2 emission of the fashion industry alone is estimated to account for 10 percent of total carbon emissions worldwide each year, which is more than those of commercial aviation . On the other hand, evidence shows that especially in outsourced manufacturing processes, precarious conditions often prevail due to inadequate and delayed wage payments or unsafe working conditions leading to collapsing factories such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, among other things .
In terms of both environmental impact and exploitative and dangerous working conditions, a link can be made to the discussion on equal pay. One obvious point is that the production of clothing commonly referred to as ‘fast fashion’ would be impossible without the underpaid work of factory workers. Their performance is ‘essential’ for the functioning of the dominant clothing production system and yet, it is not adequately remunerated. The second point concerns the fact that – as in the case of care wages – we are all at least to some extent aware of these grievances and problems but are not really prepared to do anything about them. Neither as corporations, as (world) political actors, nor as individuals – at least not in a meaningful and lasting way. While many major fashion companies have now included some form of ‘conscious fashion’ in their catalog, these efforts are also already being exposed as disingenuous marketing moves or so-called ‘greenwashing’. While there is currently a debate about whether advertising for cheap meat should be banned for sustainability reasons, no state has yet managed to introduce a compulsory ‘fashion tax’ on the purchase of clothing in order to curb consumers’ buying frenzy. On the individual level, it is especially young people (who are generally perceived as more climate-friendly and socially conscious) who boost the sales figures of super-cheap fashion, so-called “ultra fast fashion” like that of the Chinese online retailer SHEIN . A study by Aarhus University last year aptly calls the situation the “Fast Fashion Paradox”: According to surveys, (young) end consumers, agree that fashion should become less exploitative. At the same time, however, they perceive themselves as being completely at the mercy of the system and place all responsibility for more sustainable and fairer fashion consumption on brands . Interestingly, a survey conducted by the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger reflected similar basic thoughts among young frequent flyers who use the airplane for vacation purposes .
Distance makes the heart grow colder
Of course, one can only speculate, but a contributing factor to this Fast Fashion Paradox seems to be the geographical distance between the main consumers and people in the areas most directly affected by the fashion industry. Both the ecological and the socio-economic impacts (still) burden the Global South a lot more than the industrialized countries, be it in the form of enormous waste dumps whose decomposition process releases greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into the air, soil and groundwater, or of severe underpayment for work done in dangerous conditions. At the same time, we in the Global North are disproportionately responsible for such impacts due to our consumption. What can we do specifically to improve the status quo? Some suggestions already exist, including cutting back on fashion consumption, buying second-hand clothes, or returning to more frequent mending of damaged pieces. In short, to strictly follow the ‘5 Rs of sustainability’, applied to fashion: Reduce, Rewear, Repair, Resell and Recycle.
However: In the long term, these measures can reduce the demand for ‘throwaway fashion’ and thus make a difference, at least from an environmental point of view. But they do not offer any immediate relief for the millions of factory workers in the clothing industry, who are grossly underpaid for their work today. It is a well-known fact that in the production of fast fashion women are in particularly disadvantaged positions in terms of pay and suffer from actual gender discrimination . In addition, the question of equal pay is also complicated by the aforementioned factor of national borders and distances, as well as in part by the prevalence of rigorous social hierarchies based on parameters such as religion, ethnicity or origin in the manufacturing countries. There is no simple solution to these (global) problems, especially if one considers the already cited attitudes of the end consumers. It rather looks as if a majority of us consciously accepts the monstrous effects of fast fashion or indirectly even willingly promotes them by expecting ever lower discounter prices. Seen in this light, our physical distance from countries more affected by the consequences of fast fashion creates apathy at best and denial at worst.
The moral of the (true and continuing) story
What the example of fast fashion shows is that we, as end consumers, should all be more aware of our double standards regarding pay equity within and beyond our own national borders. Equal pay, when viewed from an international perspective, quickly becomes ‘just’ one aspect of what we commonly refer to as social justice. Such a viewpoint relativizes the view on local discussions about things like the GPG, because it pushes (de facto) more urgent and far-reaching problems like the high environmental impact and wage dumping into the foreground – things that should be tackled as a priority. As a side comment, it should be noted here that fast fashion is in fact merely an example of these arguments; the article could just as easily have been written about the electronics industry. For both topics it is true that the behavior of many would change quickly and bring about positive changes if we had to take more responsibility for our contributory negligence, precisely because we are all involved.
Does the current fashion industry, with all its drawbacks, nevertheless offer potential for positives? Sure. From a labor market perspective, a turnaround towards fairer and safer working conditions in the clothing industry, for example by means of increased promotion of female entrepreneurship in current low-wage countries, would be entirely possible and desirable . Of course, this cannot happen overnight. The bigger question is whether there will ever be a willingness of all involved actors to bring about such change and whether we as a global society want to permanently say goodbye to this monster in all our closets.
At JANZZ, we think it is important that the best job candidates with the best performance receive the best match and are compensated appropriately for their work, regardless of location. This is one of the many reasons why we are a trusted partner to an ever-growing number of Public Employment Services (PES) in various countries around the world. We develop evidence-based solutions and have been successfully deploying them since 2010. Our job and skill matching solutions are fair and non-discriminatory and provide completely unbiased results according to the OECD principles on AI.
 Niederberger, Walter. 2021. Je billiger die Kleider, desto höher die Kosten. URL: https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/je-billiger-die-kleider-desto-hoeher-die-kosten-887753681235
 Wicker, Alden. 2020. Fashion has a misinformation problem. That’s bad for the environment. URL: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact
 World Bank. 2019. How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment? URL: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente
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 Rønholt, Nikolas und Malthe Overgaard. 2020. An Exploratory Study: The Fast Fashion Paradox. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341756158_An_Exploratory_Study_The_Fast_Fashion_Paradox
 De Carli, Luca und Lisa Aeschlimann. 2021. “Ich gehöre wohl zur Generation Easyjet». URL: https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/ich-gehoere-wohl-zur-generation-easyjet-325086221442
 Iglesias, Teresia, Ellen Haverhals und Tatiana De Wée. 2021. The fashion industry needs to break with its gender and women’s rights problems. URL: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/the-fashion-industry-needs-to-break-with-its-gender-and-womens-rights-problems/