The Gendered Cost of Fast-Fashion by Elisabeth Schilling

This last week, my students watched True Cost (2015), a documentary about the environmental impacts and human casualties of the fashion industry. According to the film, fashion is the number two most polluting industry in the world (oil is number one) and more lethal than some of us know. This is due to the incredible rate of people in the Global North consuming cheap clothes. I used to buy clothes weekly in graduate school, accumulating 100s of pieces, some that I never wore.

I never really thought about where my clothes came from (well, I would buy most of them second-hand, but they still had a former origin). I did not think about the pesticides flooding millions of acres of cotton and seeping into the ground and causing brain tumors and early deaths to farmers, and I did not think about the (mostly) women who made my clothes in other countries in poor working conditions, their own countries being polluted by factory run-off in their sacred rivers and the soil from where they fed their families.

Polluted run-off

The drug for my insecurities and boredom was being supplied by human blood. One out of six persons, mostly women, works in the global fashion industry. On April 24, 2013, an 8-story commercial building called Rana Plaza just outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five different garment factories, collapsed due to deteriorating structure. Because of the pressure on the managers to keep production costs low to keep the business of the foreign companies, no money went into the building; over 1,000 people died in the collapse. This is not the only incident of garment workers dying because of building collapse or fire. Many owners of the fashion companies linked to the Rana Plaza building are billionaires, but the women who actually make the clothes make less than $3 a day and often cannot take care of their children and must risk their lives. . . for what?

Bangladesh collapsed factory

Furthermore, the clothes that I and others in the Global North purchase so indulgently and unthinkingly are then dumped back into these third-world countries through “charity” or in a landfill where the synthetic, non-biodegradable fabrics will sit and off-gas for hundreds of years. Another cost is that the largest wave of suicides involves cotton farmers in India: 250,000 in the last 15 years. Vandana Shiva, who is featured in the film, explains that the farmers, who must douse their own fields with industrial chemicals, are often not paid well and have debts for which their land is threatened to be taken away. Shiva says when a woman is told about her husband, she is often told he was found lying in his field, having just consumed a bottle of pesticide. The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus in India and people around the world, but it is one of the lifelines of Gaia that is being trashed and choked because of greed and ignorance.

Spraying pesticides

As I was showing my students this documentary, I wondered why this is not the subject of classrooms typically? Why are environmental activism and the effects of globalization not introduced in junior high and high school, the real truths of suffering and ignorance in our world? What information was I learning that could be more important? My own education growing up, I realize, was far too cheerful and not realistic enough. How horribly we are distracted and disempowered, thinking we are so rich because we can buy all the clothes and cheap items from Wal-Mart, Target, and H&M – not questioning how they can be so cheap, and who is paying the cost. Consumers of fast-fashion also suffer because many of them/us can’t secure essential things we need like a house or health care or education. Teens are given loans without much counseling about how much they are taking out, and they are subject to manipulative advertising that packages a false life.

We celebrate and reward the extreme wealth of the Global North by showcasing it on reality television, when really we should be watching in horror and disgust at the destruction it is causing to our only planetary home and the lives of humans upon it. Humans worship and honor the life-giving Gaia, but we don’t see her, stampeding her underfoot. Most of us walk on concrete, and the sacred earth is beneath it somewhere our feet don’t contact. So, we pump waste into her bowels as well. This sickness we have could so easily be healed if we could unplug from the propaganda that we are hooked up to and slow down the incessantly spinning hamster wheel that is our ambitions, careers, and strategies for economic comfort.


Working 8-9 hours a day, can Americans be awake enough to awaken to what is going on? Our medicine, our salvation, is there in relationship with the earth and each other. All I really know what to do is buy ethically-produced clothing, and a lot less in general, and keep having conversations. I want to do more though. I want to breathe the cold air and look up at the moon and know I’m not making this world worse. Ignorance is not bliss, not when you are struck with the horror that comes with knowing. More and more the evangelistic Christian trope (found in Christian music videos) of the multitudes having the hammer in our hands as Jesus is nailed to the cross makes sense. Indeed, I did this. Now how can I back off and let life grow again?

Women working


LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.

Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “The Gendered Cost of Fast-Fashion by Elisabeth Schilling”

  1. PS not having a fashionable figure, I rarely shop and patch and wear the few clothes I like till they literally fall off. That’s not virtue; it is shopping phobia. I would love to find two or three comfortable non-polluting, non-exploitative changes of clothes to wear like a habit. I won’t be able to shop at Target anymore. Alas, Target tends to be where I can find clothes that fit. Now I will be on a quest to clothe myself with justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that statement Elizabeth – to clothe myself with justice. I’m also sitting here thinking about what I can change. I buy from the Hospice or Sally Ann Thrift stores. Don’t have room to over-fill my closet. I consider clothes something to keep me warm/dry/cool and keep me from getting arrested for public nudity. And wear things until they fall apart or become unbearably embarrassing and ragged.
      I thought cotton was a “safe” material, now that it is no longer picked by slaves in the US.
      It seems we are drowning in a cesspool of injustice. Thank you for alerting us LaChelle. What was the response of your students?


      1. I know! I remember when watching television more to have access to commercials, cotton was always marketed by typical companies as the romantic, pure, ideal choice. The point of being organic or not, was not revealed in the pastoral narrative. Great point!

        Most of my students reacted quite strongly toward the issue. The youngest students were much of the sentiment that there wasn’t much that could be done/they were too young to make a change, so that is where we began our discussion post-viewing. I was very interested in this response. What makes them feel so powerless?

        In contrast, my older students took more of a pro-active approach/individual responsibility/did some creative problem solving, so we worked on developing those ideas. Many of those students mentioned that they were already making changes and were having conversations with their parents who were supportive. I am very interested to hear what goes back to parents from our class and how (since they are in high school), so this was an interesting insight for me.


    2. That is wonderful! I agree with you. The more minimalist I can be, with just a few items that will suffice and get me through the seasons, sounds like a more effortless existence to me. Fewer choices sound good. I hope that you update us on your quest! I liked all the suggestions about fabrics in the link you posted.


  2. Very interesting! I used to shop a lot. I practically lived at Nordstrom. Now it’s hard for me to remember when I bought some of the clothes I wear. And I NEVER go into a Walmart.

    in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York killed 146 girls who worked 12-hour days. The owners of the building had locked the doors so their employees couldn’t steal anything.


  3. “We celebrate and reward the extreme wealth of the Global North by showcasing it on “reality television” ( put quotes around reality television because it’s a bad joke) when really we should be watching in horror and disgust at the destruction it is causing to our only planetary home and the lives of humans upon it. ”

    You are certainly on the right track here educating your students about the ‘
    “cost” of fashion. Far worse is what is underneath this idea of needing to be in fashion in the first place. Says WHO?

    Fashion only worked for me when the clothes fit my personality. As a middle aged adult I was still buying clothes that were not in fashion but who expressed who I was becoming…. and now as an older woman I buy less because although clothing is still a form of self expression – I have so many other outlets…so clothes are less important in general.

    With that much said we need desperately to understand how clothing/make up destroys human lives. And sometimes this is hard to do especially with financial constraints.


    1. The quotation change on ‘reality’ sounds good to me. “Being in fashion” can also transfer to food/drink. I remember the Starbuck’s craze however many years ago that was.


  4. Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful, hopeful piece. I say “hopeful” because the most important part for me was the simple act of conversation and interaction with others from a humble perspective. It reminds me of Elizabeth Alexanders “…are we not of interest to each other?” from her poem [Ars Poetica #100: I Believe.

    The hope I read here in your article and the comments is that once our souls hear (and feel) the cries of others, we have the opportunity to change and speak hopefully of those changes in our own lives to all we meet along the way.

    Again, thank you.


    1. Thanks for the poem reference! Yes, with suffering comes awareness/ of other suffering and then maybe we can begin to change ourselves. I’m glad you see hope.


  5. HI, wow, interesting and eye-opening.

    I went to school 35 years ago for fashion design and worked briefly in the industry. I have wondered over the years how I moved away from clothing and fabric. I wasn’t interested in the newest or most fashionable, but I loved designing and wanted to make beautiful garments that could be worn with joy and would fit well and feel good.

    Now I work with the plants as an herbalist and foraging instructor.

    As I taught classes on herbal skincare I learned about the chemicals in our skincare and makeup, and now pass on that information to students and others.

    I got into the whole clothing/design/fashion thing in my teens because I started dyeing with natural and plant dyes, still a passion of mine. I can dye non-synthetic fabrics (though rayon, while synthesized dyes like silk) and tend to wear natural fibers.

    I loathe the use of nonrenewable petroleum for making fibers for our clothes, a bad choice in my opinion.

    But lately I have started thinking about what goes into synthesizing fibers like rayon and tencel, and “sustainable” fibers like bamboo (how much energy, how many chemicals does it take?), and worry about their environmental impact.

    Your post helps me realize how right I have been in the direction I have taken, teaching about sustainable medicine and food from the plants around us (letting go of that other love, though I still sew), and caring for our Earth as the precious resource she is. I think I was meant to be doing the work I am now, not working as a seamstress or in the fashion industry. Certainly I can sleep at night!

    I will be thinking about what you have written and how I can start to educate people about that aspect of our culture.


    1. Thank you, Iris! How amazing to hear of your story. I also love beautiful, well fit garments, and feel we can have this in sustainable, ethical, and simple forms that we acquire with mindfulness and self-controlled consumption. What wonderful lessons, from clothing to foraging, you gift to the world. I wish I could take your classes. Thank you for your kind words and sharing this journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness. We need a new way of living that encourages respect for the environment and for each other.


    1. Oh goodness yes! I love the punch in your statement. Hasn’t it? I’m all thinking that will certainly happen or we’ll be forced into it by our dying earth.


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