By: Penelope Giesen
As the holidays season has fallen upon us, I have been reflecting on this time last year. It was a time characterized by rising cases, near constant anxiety, and perpetual isolation. I remember the distinct feeling of longing for my family and friends. During a period of joy, light, music, food and love, the winter felt colder and the nights longer. The holidays, typically a joyous break from traditional monotony, became a bittersweet period of mourning what was lost. This year we can travel again, see our vaccinated older relatives safely, and spend time together in conversation over meals cooked with endless love and dedication. With that being said, the one part of holidays that we participated in last year and this year, the material exchange of goods, feels particularly relevant to discuss.
Although the holidays are a time of joy, they are also characterized by the wasteful production and consumption of an immense number of unnecessary products. We typically generate 3 million tonnes of extra waste in the month of January, during the holiday season, where 80,000 tonnes of clothing are included in this tally. Though we enjoy giving and receiving gifts during this period, Zero Waste Canada cites that within 6 months, only 1% of everything the average person buys is still in use and the other 99% has been discarded.
In the current age of constant advertisements and accessible clothing/products around us, the holidays have become an opportunity for marketing by businesses and consumption of cheap goods for family and friends. These goods particularly include holiday themed items and exorbitant amounts of clothing. As opposed to looking forward to a time for family, friends and relaxation, little kids look forward to Christmas with long lists for Santa. Moreover, parents search nearby department stores, online commerce platforms, and malls for goods to satisfy those lists. Gift giving, as it has evolved in today’s consumerist culture, sometimes loses the special feeling of a personal touch or meaningful message associated with the actual good itself.
Many people, young and old, wish for clothing around Christmas. Considering this demand, people justifiably often turn to cheaper options and end up buying fast fashion items for their loved ones. However, the consequences of these decisions are disproportionately correlated to the the low-price tag on the item. Fast fashion labels such as Gap, H&M, Zara and many others are able to keep their prices relatively low due to mass production of their clothing using cheap materials in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Cambodia that have relatively inconsequential labor laws. Therefore, the garment workers receive low wages and are forced to work incredibly long hours. In a truly horrific example, The Guardian reported that at least 540 female garment workers in Bangladesh disclosed threats and sexual abuse in their workplaces, which included factories for H&M and The Gap, between January and May 2018. The Guardian wrote that the abuse is a result of the global supply chain structure. H&M and The Gap’s fast fashion supply chain model creates unreasonable production targets and low bidding costs, resulting in employees (the majority of whom are women) working overtime hours without additional compensation and facing pressure to work quickly.
Sadly, these conditions worsened further during the pandemic. When we were online shopping for clothing, shoes, and other goods that we thought we needed or as an activity to pass the time during the pandemic, the garment workers in factories were further suffering from increasingly dangerous conditions exacerbated by suspended payments. The Clean Clothes Campaign interviewed 49 garment workers in these countries, to which 70% responded they had experienced delayed payments and lower wages than before the pandemic. Given wages that are barely capable of supporting life and obtaining food to sustain families before these cuts, the reality of delayed or lowered wages were matters of life and death for these families. These brands, in their unrelenting dedication to low prices and mass production of goods for consumers, were pushing their workers beyond their breaking points during the pandemic. The Clean Clothes Campaign reported that a garment worker in a factory that supplied products for H&M in Bangladesh detailed to a reporter that “We have been severely exploited in the name of pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic was not our fault, but it was us who were given less than half of our normal salary. At first we protested, but the factory management said, ‘If you protest or form a union, you will not get a penny from us and you will not only lose your job, but also you will be evicted from this area and will never get a job in any other factory again.’ So, none of us could form a union in this factory.” In addition, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Clean Clothes Campaign reports that the said companies refused to pay for an estimated $40 million worth of clothing and goods that were already produced or in production.
During the holiday season and in the time afterwards, I hope that we can remember what we were missing this time last year and prioritize time spent together. Our planet and its people cannot sustain the current culture of unrelenting consumerism. Therefore, I ask that we consider shopping for items that are multipurpose and/or multiuse. I also request that we demand as much as possible from companies that are dedicated to fair treatment and wages for their workers and they take action to manage waste effectively. Moreover, if more socially/environmentally conscious products are out of the price range of consumers, with some extra time spent looking, great quality options can be found at second-hand stores. Remember that the consequences of an item bought and discarded have implications for people working to make these products, and the nations who accept the pollution and mass waste produced in North America, thousands of miles away.
Hetherington, Barb, et al. “Zero Waste Christmas.” Zero Waste Canada , Zero Waste Canada, 2017, http://zerowastecanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Zero-Waste-Christmas.pdf.
Oshri, Hadari. “Council Post: Three Reasons Why Fast Fashion Is Becoming a Problem (and What to Do about It).” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 May 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2019/05/13/three-reasons-why-fast-fashion-is-beco ming-a-problem-and-what-to-do-about-it/?sh=670f7794144b.
Jessop, Andy. “Discover the Environmental Impact of the Christmas Season.” Commercial Waste, 8 Dec. 2020, https://commercialwaste.trade/the-true-cost-of-christmas/. “Abuse Is Daily Reality for Female Garment Workers for GAP and H&M, Says Report.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 June 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jun/05/female-garment-workersgap-hm-south-asia.
“H&M, Nike and Primark Use Pandemic to Squeeze Factory Workers in Production Countries Even More.” Clean Clothes Campaign, Clean Clothes Campaign , 30 June 2021, https://cleanclothes.org/news/2021/hm-nike-and-primark-use-pandemic-to-squeeze-factor y-workers-in-production-countries-even-more.
Image Attributions: HM christmas, HM, November 9, 2017 https://galleriariga.lv/en/hm-svetku-kolekcija-ir-klat/ Gap switches to “Merry Christmas”, Politics Red, December 8, 2013 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/bristolpalin/2013/12/the-gap-switches-to-merry-christmas/ Zara “party wear”, Zara, 2021 https://www.zara.com/ca/en/woman-evening-l1104.html?v1=1906800