Eco-colonialism: how Bangladesh is burdened by the impacts of fast fashion
Image: Gabriella Nero

Fast fashion has become more prevalent in society over the past two decades due to capitalism and consumption. Fast fashion is an industry which relies on the cheap and disposable production of clothing; it is based on trends and rapid consumption, and clothing items are expedited from factories to retail stores in the hopes of getting the newest trends on the high street as fast as possible. However, much of the production for this industry takes place in the Global South, a region which has been increasingly exploited for the benefit of large fashion houses. Bangladesh is one of the main actors in this industry, with as many as 8,000 garment factories operating in the country that generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue.

In order to maintain the low prices of items, Western companies often delegate developing countries with the task of mass production. This is because they tend to have lower wages, as well as labour and environmental laws that can easily be exploited. As demand for fast fashion increases, Western companies impose more pressure on factories to produce clothes even quicker – but this comes at a great cost. In order to maintain the low prices of items and its fast pace, garment workers are forced to work in highly unsuitable  conditions and receive very little pay.

What is eco-colonialism?

These exploitative practices can be understood as a form of ‘eco-colonialism’. This is a term not often used in mainstream media because the concept of colonialism is often seen as something of the past – however, the concept of neocolonialism is very much prevalent today. Colonialism in today’s society operates in a more insidious form within the Global South, especially through economic interdependence between the West and the Global South, specifically countries such as Bangladesh. 

Environmental colonialism (eco-colonialism) can be defined as the ways in which colonial practices have affected the natural environments of indigenous peoples. This explains how developed Western countries have become the face of sustainability and environmental protection, despite  being  some of the primary mechanisms who propel one of the main ways of environmental decline. A spokesperson for Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) said:

“It’s the same colonial attitudes, the white man imposing their rule on use from afar.”

The colonisers of the modern world are these Western companies. Sourcemap found that the supply chains for these major fashion companies mirror the same data and world trade routes as 150 years ago – the trade routes from  Europe’s colonial conquests. These Western corporations are exploiting developing countries by pushing factories and suppliers to the very edges in regard to wages and speed of production, in the same way that the West previously exploited colonised countries to provide them with other cheap goods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this exploitation in a new light. ReMake’s #PayUp petition exposes brands that are refusing to pay for items that have already been produced, or are in production orders. These brands have offered garment workers no support and have left millions without compensation – despite profiting off of them for decades. Brands that have refused to #PayUp include Urban Outfitters, Primark, ASOS, and many more.

The destructive environmental impacts

Sustainable development is heavily hindered by Western corporate ventures surrounding fast fashion. Textile production alone creates 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. The entire process of fast fashion creates heavy environmental damage. The damage initially begins with the industry’s use of materials such as polyester. Polyester is made from petroleum which means it requires twice as much energy than its sustainable counterpart, cotton, to produce – it is estimated that 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas was from the production of polyester in 2015. 

There is still a significant negative environmental impact even after the product has been bought by consumers. In 2015, it was found that over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year, and that three out of four of those garments end up in landfills, where they will remain for many years since the synthetic fibres within the clothing can take up to 200 years to decompose.

How does a Western narrative on sustainability deflect from their contributions to the ecological crisis? Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of fast fashion and the garment industry is responsible for 83% of the country’s exports. The country has around 5,000 factories that produce garments and those factories employ around 4 million workers. This means that the livelihood of both the country and the workers depend on Western corporations. 

Western corporations put an intense amount of pressure onto these factories to keep their products as cheap as possible, and often use tonnes of toxic chemicals as dyes.  As a result, these harmful chemicals are released into nearby rivers which are now heavily polluted. Not only does this pollute the waterways of Bangladesh (and neighbouring countries), but reports have shown a rise of diseases in the nearby communities. Teachers at nearby schools struggle to concentrate, and students don’t want to study at school because of the almost suffocating stench coming from the wastewater. The World Bank found that the procedure of textile dyeing contributes around 20% of industrial water pollution.

This process also requires an intense amount of water and that in itself has damaging effects for a warming planet. WWF found that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton used in one singular t-shirt. Textiles production uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water each year and a 2017 report found that that figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the gruelling effects of climate change with its water systems flowing throughout the country, therefore the consequent rising sea levels would cause severe damage – both to its people and its crop yield. The environmental damage caused by these factories are funded by Western corporations.

Eco-colonialism derives from Western companies wanting the cheapest possible price for clothing, which consequently relies on an exploitation of their workers. A report found that garment workers make an average wage of between $25 – $75 a month, which is almost impossible to live on – especially in major cities like Dhaka, in which most factories are located, which has extremely expensive housing. Not only are these workers living in poverty, but their work environment is extremely unsafe.           

The cost of fast fashion on the Global South

The most significant example of this is the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013. This factory was located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the collapse killed 1134 garment workers and injured 2,500. This disaster was the direct result of Western eco-colonialism. Due to the corporations pressurising for cheaper products, factories compromise on the safety of their workers – resulting in disasters like this.

This 2013 tragedy caused a few people to suddenly question the origins of their clothes. Although the Rana Plaza disaster is, arguably, one of the worst accidents that was directly caused by the garment industry, this was not, and is not, an isolated event. 1.4 million injuries happen in workplaces each year, but this is often neglected by mainstream media.

In order to evade responsibility when their negligence is held to account, Western corporations often relocate their factories. This was evident when Nike were accused of using child labour in their factories in the 1990s. 

The fashion industry is built on, and arguably thrives from, the exploitation of people living under the poverty line in developing countries. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, the majority of them producing garments for Western consumers. 

Although these companies are aware of the conditions they subject their workers to, they conceal that awareness through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which sees the brands telling the factories to ensure wages are paid, and adequate conditions are upheld. . However, CSR teams are nevertheless aware that their clothes are made through overtime and violations of codes of conduct. 

Western corporations are still benefiting from colonial practices such as overworking their workers, lowering prices of garments which results in lower wages being paid to workers, and being able to point the finger at the developing countries for its environmental destruction. 

The next steps forward

A sense of guilt and uselessness surrounding this information is not productive at all. There is no quick and direct solution for the damage left behind by, and that will continue to be produced by fast fashion. However, we as consumers have the power to make conscious choices; by adopting a more intentional mindset, we can make a conscious effort to consume less. This simple step of mindfully purchasing products less often will affect how the fashion industry works and develops as it operates on consumer demand.

This has been made even easier by some fast fashion brands, such as Adidas, who are becoming more transparent with their supply chains and where their items are from. This then allows the consumers to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to make a purchase. Choosing to support brands that produce their clothing in a more ethical and sustainable way also creates a wider space for these practices within the consumer market.  

As such, an effective way of curtailing fast fashion can be through buying second-hand clothes, upcycling clothes, and to support companies that promote an ethos of sustainability. All of these changes are a way of extending the life of an item and then helping to decrease the number of textiles that end up in a landfill.

Even though these some-what small changes have a significant influence on creating a more sustainable future in relation to fast fashion, this is still a huge problem that needs a larger solution quickly, for the sake of both the environment and garment workers’ lives. Companies need to create new sustainable systems and processes that do not rely on extrapolating unethical labour from developing countries. Western corporations also have a responsibility to ensure that their factories are providing safe working conditions and paying the correct wages.

Eco-colonialism is just as destructive as the outcomes it produces, and it’s about time corporations #PayUp.