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  • Bridget Cai

Fast-Fashion and Eco-Neo-Colonialism

It’s no secret: with the omnipresent popularity of fast-fashion, the negative impacts on the environment and the lives of the labour-force, particularly that of the Global South, perpetuate just as quickly. Fashion, as we know it, is an industry built on keeping up with the constantly changing trends with the remarkable feature of minimal input for maximal output. And no, it’s no biggie for them if the environment and the well-being of labour-workers are sacrificed, as long as prices stay low. If we boil it down, we start to notice that mega-brands whose consumer bases lie in the Global North (shout-out to Nike and Urban Outfitters) centralize their production in the Global South, where countries were already colonized--some only just recently gaining independence--so that wages and working standards are kept at an all-time low. If we boil it down even further, removing elevator shoes and high-waisted plaid pants (which, if you haven’t guessed, both are designed to make you look taller) (say hello to my wardrobe), what remains is this: eco-neo-colonialism.

Neo-colonialism, as explained by Sandra Halperin in the Britannica Encyclopedia, is widely understood as “a form of global power in which [international] corporations and global and [multi-national] institutions combine to perpetuate colonial forms of exploitation of developing countries,” whereas eco-colonialism is the environmental damages that occur as a result of colonial practices. Put them together, and you get a system where the planet and people of the Global South are taken advantage of for the benefit of the so-called ethical and socially-just countries.

Time is money, money doesn’t fall from trees--you get the point. Eco and neo-colonialism are often referred to as an extension of capitalism, and it becomes rather obvious when we take a look at what companies are willing to forfeit for the sake of economic development, despite the environment being the real cost: textile production emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, and toxic dyes that frequently end up in natural waters, causing diseases and damaging the local biodiversity (around 20% of water pollution, as discovered by the World Bank). Sort of interesting how the most ‘developed’ nations depend heavily on the environmental crises they cause abroad, isn’t it?

But let’s be honest: I’m just preaching to the choir here. What also deserves further discussion is the power imbalance between brands up here and the employees down there. Strikingly enough, Western companies continue to use the same trade routes as those from 150 years ago, back during the height of their settlement carriers. They also refrain countries from recovering from the impacts of colonialism in addition to forcing economic dependence on them. For example, garment workers in Bangladesh are paid roughly $50 per month--easily a wage the country has many valid reasons to complain about or even leave behind. But here’s the catch: factories produce 80% of its national revenue, meaning backing out on this would result in the need to rebuild its economy from scratch.

Maybe you think that’s already bad enough, and yet, the Global North succeeds at making another leap to raise their comfy spot as the face of social justice and environmentalism. For decades, these countries continue voting themselves for class rep of the school we call sustainability. Not only do they cause numerous world issues, they always get the first (and sometimes the only) say on how unaccountable other regions are towards the environment. Western countries criticize others for their environmental problems, despite being the ones dictating the environmental treatment in the Global South. In simpler terms, they play the blame-game. Moreover, most policies regarding climate change are implemented by the wealthiest countries in the world, in an attempt to ‘rescue’ developing countries from the crises they’ve caused themselves. It’s what we call having a ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex,’ and it creates the illusion that the Global North has done nothing but play the hero.

Fast-fashion continues to benefit from colonial practices to this day, whether it's by underpaying workers or exploiting the natural resources of the Global South from afar. After assessing the systems that allow these brands to thrive, we need to consider the power dynamics within the industry before jumping to the conclusion that countries in which these environmental issues spread are brought upon themselves due to lack of intelligence or responsibility. It’s important to understand the root of the problems and the role you play in order to seek change and to truly take pride in being a world leader in sustainability and ethics.

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