Written by Chu Yao Quan


Clothes were mass-produced as early as in the 1850s, with a few countries dominating the global manufacturing of clothes. Clothes remained affordable, up until in 1973, when the United States and European Union (EU) countries established the now-abolished Multifiber Arrangement, a global quota system that limited the amount of textile these countries can export. 

This drove up clothes prices sharply, creating a rush to find producers who can produce quickly and cheaper. That phenomenon, fast fashion, has continued over the last thirty years, and has consequences to the environment and societies. 



In 2019 alone, Singapore produced 168,000 tonnes of textile and leather waste, equivalent to the weight of more than 400 Boeing 747 planes. Meanwhile, the global fashion industry contributes some 92 million tonnes of waste and 79 million tonnes of water per year, or roughly 10% and 20% of global carbon and wastewater emissions respectively.  

Many artisanal and heritage craft industries, like the traditional shoemaking and leather tanning trade in the UK, have largely disappeared in favour of cheaper shoes. Major brands like Louis Vuitton, have faced scandals of cultural appropriation of selling exact replicas of South African Basotho blankets or armchairs featuring Tenango motifs without crediting these communities. 

Moreover, the exploitation of workers remains rife within the global fashion industry. Child labourers and people from developing countries are forced to work in harsh, unsafe places like in cotton fields and run-down buildings while being paid measly.



Nowadays, activists are looking to change the profit-driven, race-to-the-bottom fast fashion business model. Consumers now have options to swap their clothes for new ones at local and foreign establishments, which encourages lower demand for new clothes. Big brands, having the resources and marketing power, are urged to be transparent and protect their workers in their supply chains. While change will not take place overnight, efforts are underway to make fashion a force for good.

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