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Fast Fashion: Environmental and Human Rights Violations in South Africa

Paper Details 

Paper Code: AOJACLAV3RP142023

Category: Research Paper

Date of Submission for First Review: March 9, 2023

Date of Publication: December 29, 2023

Citation:  Farzin Naz, “Fast Fashion: Environmental and Human Rights Violations in South Africa", 3, AIJACLA, 120, 120-128 (2023), <>

Author Details: Farzin Naz, Content Writer, Lawsikho


Your favorite Content Creator posted on her Instagram, “I probably won’t wear it again as it is already in my Instagram feed”. On the other hand, there is a small boy named Mohu, who is standing and watching the Korogocho slum being covered in smoke which is released from the dump site and the banks of the Nairobi River is being choked with piles of clothes, shoes, plastics bottles, and glass items that make it difficult to tell the difference between solid ground and the river. But how often do we pause to consider and think how the fashion business is affecting both the environmental and human rights? Many fashion companies tend to make a lot of cheaply made clothing from synthetic and rayon materials. Fast fashion is the term for this method. Fast fashion is being criticized for creating a lot of garbage. The decomposition of clothes which is made out of synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, etc., can take a very long time. These garments, when burned or disposed of discharge dangerous greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change. It doesn’t end here as several fashion companies and people, after using these clothes, choose to sell their unsold stock or donate to underdeveloped nations like Kenya in order to avoid the costs associated with disposing of this waste. The clothes which are wearable ends up in a market to be sold, while the ones which are not in a good condition, end up in landfills or are burned. Pollution and waste of all kinds also have an effect on human rights. This article focuses on analyzing how fast fashion is turning South Africa into a dumping zone and how it is adversely violating the basic human rights of the people of South Africa. Further, the article also focuses on giving recommendations for the same.


Climate Change; Dumping; Environmental Rights; Fast Fashion; Human Rights


In the present times, when people are crazy about K-pop and Kdrama, they look up to their idols and favourite actor when it comes to fashion. People, especially teenagers, want to have clothes which are trendy, in fashion and were worn by the actor in a particular drama or song. They always look for cheaper alternatives. This is when “fast fashion” comes into the picture. As the name suggests, the fast fashion[1] industry is a manufacturing unit whose main focus is to produce large quantities of clothes in a short period of time. Brands like Shein, H&M, Zara, etc., are among the top few brands which sell fast fashion and trendy clothes. These clothes are mostly made of non-biodegradable materials like nylon, viscose rayon, polyester, etc. Not only are these very cheap, can cause skin rashes, not at all comfortable but they also don’t last for a longer period of time. Such clothes offer consumers reasonably priced clothing, primarily for young ladies. Fashion magazines and Brand advertisements contribute to the demand by promoting new "must-haves" for each season. Moreover, for each new upcoming drama or a movie, the brands collaborate with the production houses just to sell the same clothing which was worn by the actors. Girls and kids, in particular, have an endless appetite for fashion and they tend to copy their idols and thus invest in such clothes. Because it is inexpensive, they purchase more of it.

From environmental point of view, fast fashion is dangerous. For instance, if we take an example of a single pair of jeans, for manufacturing purpose, the factory requires a minimum of 1,800 gallons of water.[2] Similarly, in order to produce one single cotton t-shirt, it requires about 715 gallons of water. Such an amount of water is almost equal to losing about three years’ worth of drinking water. It doesn’t stop here. Since these are cheap clothes, when people are done using them or when it goes out of fashion, they either just throw them out or mostly donate them. As per the studies conducted,[3] annually, about 300,000 tonnes of clothes are discarded in the UK. This study further states that the discarded clothes are eventually imported by the Mitumba vendors in Kenya, who spends up to 50% of their revenue on importation. The vendors are obligated to pay around $15k per 40-foot container in taxes to the Kenyan government. Not all clothes which are imported are wearable. Some are in such bad condition that the vendors prefer to throw them. The ones which are in good wearable condition are sold at cheap prices in the market and the unsellable ones are usually dumped, burnt in dumpsites and discarded along riverbeds.

To put it another way, Kenya has transformed into a rapid fashion dump as a result of the European fashion industry. Kenya's battle with fast-fashion garbage is just one example of the environmental crisis. The fast onset of climate change is having an adverse effect on several African countries. Climate change is already severely harming the environment and the way of life of people in many areas of Africa. Water scarcity brought on by rising temperatures, crop failures are other instances of their suffering.

The enjoyment of human rights, such as the right to life, the right to the best possible physical and mental health, the right to clean water, food, adequate housing, safe and healthy working conditions, etc., is seriously threatened by the illegal trafficking and disposal of toxic and dangerous goods and wastes.

Currently, the management of these wastes is a significant topic for debate both at the global and regional levels. The development of legislation and regulations must be based on sound scientific research in order to address these issues with controlling fast-fashion trash in South Africa. This study will make an effort to comprehend present regulatory frameworks controlling clothing waste management at the national and international levels in order to ascertain if they are in conformity with the standards essential for successfully managing such hazardous wastes.

What Impact does Fast Fashion is Making on South Africa’s Environment?

According to a report published by EEA[4], in 2019, the fashion sector is contributing up to 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The report further stated that the fashion industry is also a major contributor to global water pollution, with the majority of its environmental effects occurring in developing countries, where the majority of clothing is produced. But this isn't the only significant impact of the fashion industries on developing and underdeveloped countries. In addition to this, huge amounts of textile waste are also progressively making their way to such countries through illegal importation.

Greenpeace[5] published a report stating that developed countries are exporting huge quantities of used and old clothes to developing and undeveloped countries in the name of charity. As per their report, in the year 2019, Kenyan vendors imported about 185,000 tonnes of used clothing from European countries. Those which were not sold amounted to about 60 to 75 truckloads of textile waste or 150 to 200 tonnes of waste. These wastes were dumped, burned, or delivered to Dandora (a dumping site in Kenya) or other overflowing dumps. And this keeps on repeating every day.

There is a demand in Africa for reasonably priced and fashionable clothing. People prefer to buy cheap imported used clothing as they are more cost-effective than new clothing. Due to these demands, a huge amount of textile waste is imported every year by Kenyan vendors. The majority of imported clothing is of such poor quality that it is quickly discarded in landfills, burned, and dumped close to riverbeds. As these clothes are burned in the open, it releases toxic fumes. Thus, locals are exposed to health risks when they inhale smoke from the burning of clothes. At Dandora, the largest landfill in Kenya, garment wastes are usually seen piling up and if you look at it from afar, it seems like a huge trash hill.[6]

Instead of using good materials like cotton, wool, silk, hemp, etc., brands prefer to use cheap and non-biodegradable materials like synthetic fibres, polyester, nylon, elastane, etc. From the time they are created until they are no longer usable, synthetic fibres cause significant environmental issues, such as pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the production of microplastics. It has been demonstrated that nylon and polyester microfibres, which are shed from synthetic garments, enter people's lungs, hinder COVID-19 patients' recovery, and injure toddlers whose lungs are still developing.[7]

What are the Human Rights Implications?

Many international forums have established the fundamental human right to live in a sanitary environment. The inclusion of the right to live in a healthy environment as a component of the right to life is supported by the decisions of various international courts as well. For instance, Article 11[8] of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights discusses about the three important and basic rights. They include the right to a healthy environment, access to essential public services, and the responsibility of the state to preserve and develop the environment. Similarly, another important Convention, i.e., the Child's Rights Convention, stresses that maintaining children's health can help Nations to fight with issues like environmental degradation, sickness, and famine.[9] Further, another set of basic human rights i.e., the right to sanitization and the right to good health, both play significant roles and has been interpreted in terms of the right to life. For instance, Article 24(1) of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights,1981[10] states that every single individual has the right to an environment that is favourable to their health.

Talking about UNGA, a resolution was adopted by UN General Assembly (UNGA)[11] which strongly affirms the basic right to a safe, wholesome, and sustainable environment for every individual. By passing this resolution, UNGA urges the Governments, international organisations, NGOs, corporations, and other stakeholders to "scale up efforts" to maintain a safe, wholesome, and sustainable environment for all.

Courts have also taken a step further when it comes to protecting basic human rights. The European Court has expanded and interpreted the definition of the right to a clean, healthy environment and to the protection of human rights from all environmental problems in the famous landmark case of Lopez Ostra v. Spain.[12] It was held by the Court that the environmental problems violate the right to privacy of individuals. In another famous case of Diego Cali,[13] the European Court of Justice, by referring to the Rio Declaration's third principle, ruled that environmental preservation and pollution control aid is a part of sustainable development.

By going through the above-mentioned provisions, resolutions and Court orders, it is evident that there has been a clear violation of the Right to a Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment in South Africa. Fast fashion brands are to be blamed for this. A new study conducted by Water Witness[14] claims that blue or indigo-coloured discharge from textile factories (where fast fashion clothes are washed before selling them in the market) which has either not been cleaned at all or only partially, is contaminating the rivers in Africa. In South Africa, the rivers are becoming worse. The inhabitants are forced to use this polluted water for household purposes, irrigation, gardening, and other purposes. Due to water pollution, farms and businesses that depend on the river have seen a loss in productivity and many people associated with these industries have also lost jobs.

What is the Take of the European Union on This?

By looking at the alarming situation, on December 22, 2020, the European Commission[15] updated its Regulations on the export, import, and transport of plastic garbage inside the EU. The new regulations regulate and cover the shipping of plastic garbage both inside and outside the European Union. By virtue of these new regulations, only clean plastic trash that is submitted for recycling may be exported from the EU to non-OECD nations. Some of the important provisions of the New Regulations are:

  1. Hazardous plastic waste and difficult-to-recycle plastic waste are restricted from being exported to non-OECD nations.

  2. However, the regulation provides that only under specific circumstances, as mentioned in the Regulation itself, the export of only clean, non-hazardous trash (meant for recycling) will be permitted to be exported to non-OECD nations.

  3. The importing nation must inform the European Commission of the rules governing these imports. 

  4. The export from the EU will thereafter only be approved under the conditions set forth by the importing country.

  5. For countries that do not share information about their legal system, the "prior notification and consent approach" will be employed.

Although the aforementioned limitations are already in place to restrict the export of plastic waste globally, the EU parliament approved a proposal to prevent the export of any plastic waste to non-OECD countries in an effort to further address the issue in January.[16]Only the export of hazardous or difficult-to-recycle plastic waste is forbidden at the present time. However, it seems unlikely that this will be successful in cutting down on waste in the fashion industry as well. Because the fast fashion business in the EU already generates plastic garbage that is "difficult to recycle.

Are There any Legal Framework at Force to Tackle this Matter?

At present, there are several global policy frameworks that have provisions for addressing plastic pollution as well as associated problems, including marine litter and water pollution from plastic waste. African nations are parties or signatories to these frameworks and are thus expected to implement these laws at the national level.

Some of the existing frameworks are:

London Convention, 1972[17]

  • The convention's signatories are required by law to notify any aeroplanes or ships that dump plastic debris into the ocean.

  • However, there is no provision that prohibits industries that pollute the ocean from dispersing plastic waste into the environment or dumping it in inland bodies of water including rivers, estuaries, and seas.

(MARPOL), 1983[18]

  • This specifically applies to pollution caused by ships. The biggest drawback of this regulation is that it excludes pollution from other sources.

  • Annex V of the regulation specifically forbids the discharge of garbage, including plastic waste, for operational or unintentional reasons.

  • Under the regulations, vessels have to comply with different compliance requirements and fines apply depending on the vessel's weight, how many passengers it is transporting, and whether it is fixed or floating.

UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), 1982[19]

  • It is a global pact that establishes a legal foundation for all marine and maritime activity.

  • As per the pact, nations have an obligation to "implement rules and regulations in order to "avoid, minimise, and control pollution" caused by land-based sources and dumping.

  • However, the pact does not lay down any specific instructions on how to carry this out. As a result, further or separate agreements like MARPOL and the London Convention have to be adhered to in order to close this gap.

  • In general, the pact forbids the dumping of rubbish in rivers and estuaries.

Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992[20]

  • It is an international agreement that covers every aspect of biological diversity, including its preservation, the sustainable use of its parts, and the equitable and just sharing of the benefits related to genetic resources.

  • According to Aichi Biodiversity Goal 8,[21] which was established in 2010 under the Biological Diversity Act, pollution that threatens ecosystem health and biodiversity must be addressed, with a focus on marine debris such as plastics. This goal was adopted in 2010. It wasn't possible to meet this goal.

Basel Convention, 1992[22]

  • The Transboundary Movement of Hazardous and Other Wastes is governed by this particular Convention. As per the Convention, each state party to the Convention has an obligation to enact national legislation with an aim to control hazardous wastes, and that Act so enacted must define the phrase "hazardous waste."

  • The state parties are also subjected to a few broad responsibilities. For instance, in accordance with the Convention, parties must inform other State Parties if they do not wish to import hazardous waste from a certain State. States and Parties who have received notification must stop exporting hazardous waste after receiving it.

  • According to the Convention, the parties must select one or more competent authorities who have the power to implement the Convention at the national level. In the case that the State of Transit arises, one competent authority must be notified.

  • In 2019, the convention’s scope was modified to include plastic trash.[23]

  • At its 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) in 2019, three annexes were revised.[24] The revision included giving state parties the power to prohibit the import of plastic garbage and require prior written approval for exports of plastic waste.

(Stockholm Convention), 2001

The Stockholm Convention aims to protect the environment and public health from the dangers posed by persistent organic pollutants. It is based on the precautionary principle. The following are some of the important provisions of the Stockholm Convention:[25]

  • The Convention imposes an obligation upon the parties to adopt strict measures with an aim to ban the import and export of chemicals which are listed in Annexures A and B of the Convention.

  • The Secretariat created under the Convention is required to keep a Register. The Register must always be available to the public and must contain information on the exemptions for chemicals that State parties have been granted.

  • Further, the Convention also imposes an obligation upon the parties to disclose information on POP production. Additionally, the parties should always provide information to the Secretariat regarding the production, use, removal, and release of POPs in the environment. Relevant details must be shared via the National focal point.

Bamako Convention (1991)

Although the Basel Agreement was in place, yet the developed industrialised countries had not stopped and continued sending hazardous waste to developing countries, especially those in Africa. Africa is a favourite among all nations as Africa provides a less time-consuming and more affordable choice for disposal. Therefore, as no organizations at the global level were looking at the misery of the African Nations, so they decided to sign a pact among themselves in 1991 in response to the Basel Convention's failure.[26]

The Bamako Convention’s goal also aligns with the Basel Convention's goal, which permits States to enter into agreements for the transboundary transport of wastes with other States (and non-parties). Furthermore, in terms of scope, the Bamako Convention's scope is broader than the Basel Convention's. In contrast to Basel, Bamako Convention covers and handles radioactive wastes and outlaws their import into African nations. Some of the important provisions of the Bamako Convention include:

  • Any infringement of the Convention's express restriction against the importation of hazardous waste into Africa shall be regarded as illegal and criminal in nature.

  • Further, the Convention also discusses and implements the precautionary principle as a way to reduce pollution.

  • Furthermore, shipping hazardous wastes to countries with less developed technologies or those unable to handle the wastes in an ecologically sustainable manner is prohibited under international law.

  • There is a mechanism for proposing amendments to the Convention, and any State Party may make such a proposal. The Convention calls for the establishment of a competent authority to have all powers for executing its provisions.

What are the Shortcomings?

  1. Despite the fact that there are several rules in force, as was previously stated, there is no express legislation or policy that prohibits the import of fast fashion for charity uses.

    2. Sustainable clothing can solve the issues associated with fast fashion. However, there is not a single piece of legislation out there at the global level which focuses on switching to sustainable clothing manufacturing and reducing waste disposal.

3. Also, there is not a single piece of legislation which imposes an obligation upon the nations to create action plans to address the issue of fast fashion.

  1. For tracking and reporting the life cycle of plastics, there are no set standards in place.

  2. A dedicated scientific organisation with the power to evaluate the present state of the issue is the need of the hour. There should be a scientific organization in place that offers direction and policy assistance to the issue of fast fashion.

  3. Moreover, although there are numerous treaties that focus on fighting plastic pollution. However, there is no organised strategy or treaty at the global level to fight plastic pollution caused by the dumping of fast-fashion clothes.


This indicates that in order to better the situation in nations like Kenya and Tanzania, the following fundamental demands should be implemented first:

  1. We can start adapting a few changes at the individual level, as we can start by donating only those clothes which are in wearable condition and are made of good materials.

  2. As a purchaser, we should avoid excessive purchasing and purchase only what we truly need. Moreover, we should focus on quality rather than quantity. Investing in sustainable clothing is a good option. Although the clothes may not be trendy but they will be good for both the environment as well for your own health.

  3. Starting today, we should only buy from businesses who have made definite commitments to uphold transparency, sustainable sourcing, and major environmental obligations, including a definite strategy to gradually eliminate their reliance on fibres generated from fossil fuels.

  4. Due diligence should also include high levels of transparency since companies regularly exploit third-party outsourcing and murky supply chains to hide violations of human rights and environmental issues.

  5. It is common for big luxury brands to destroy or just throw out those clothes which are not in demand anymore. Thus, there has to be a regulation which ensures for transparency requirement that would require brands to publicly reveal how many things they trash and destroy.

  6. A policy/ Legislation should be adopted that imposes an obligation upon the exporter country that any unwanted, used clothing imported may be returned to its nation of origin.

  7. A "Polluter Pays" law or policy that makes manufacturers accountable for the expense of fixing environmental and health harm everywhere in the supply chain, regardless of where the damage occurred, should be implemented. Therefore, the exporting country has to be held financially responsible for the cost of rectifying the environmental and public health damage.

  8. It is necessary to adopt a worldwide agreement, much like the recently approved UNEA Plastics Treaty and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, that talks about fast fashion and due regulation of its associated waste.

The above recommendations suggest measures for both individuals as well as policymakers. Fast fashion has become a big nightmare for everybody. Earlier, the introduction of such cheap clothes was seen as a boon to meet the high growing demands for clothes, but later it was realised that it has a devastating impact on the environment as well as human health.  The fast fashion industry is one of the biggest producers of plastic waste, pollution, and carbon emissions, all of which contribute to climate change. Fast fashion is a growing cause of concern, yet sustainable fashion offers a solution. Along with fashion firms and producers, consumers can also help the green revolution by wearing more ecologically friendly clothing.

[1]Spruce “What is fast fashion and how you can avoid it” https::// (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] European Environment Agency “Private consumption: After food, housing, and transportation, textiles are the EU's fourth-leading contributor to environmental challenges” https: :// -consumption-textiles-us-fourth-1 (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[5] Greenpeace  “How textile waste from Fast Fashion is being dumped in the Global South.”

“https::// 333/how-fast-fashion-is-using-global-south-as-dumping -ground-for-textile-waste/ (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[6] Down-to-earth “ Kenya flooded with plastic waste from exported used clothes.

“, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[7]Synthetics Anonymous, “Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels” https: // ploads/20121/07/SyntheticsAnonymous_FinalWeb.pdf, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[8] Additional Protocol to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, 1994, http ::// vention-on-Human-Rights.pdf, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[9] Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, https ://, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[10]African Charter on Human and People's Rights, 1981, -0011_-_african_charter_on_human_and_peoples_rights_e.pdf, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[11] UNGA resolution on human rights “ UN General Assembly recognizes the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”, /glob al/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_857164/lang--en/index.htm#:~:text=This%20reality%20was%20recognized%20by,been%20a%20long%20time%20coming ,   (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[12] Lopez Ostra v. Spain, 1994, /sites/default/files/court-case/COU-157040.pdf.

[13] Diego Cali v. SEPG, Court of Justice (European Union), ECLI:EU: C:1997:160.

[14]Water Witness “ How fair is fashion’s water footprint?”,,  (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[15]European Commission “Plastic waste shipments New Regulations, 2021“ pics/waste-and-recycling/waste-shipments/plastic-was te-shipments_en, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[16] European Union “ Proposal for Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on shipments of waste and amending Regulations (EU) No 1257/2013 and (EU) No 2020/1056”, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[17] The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Convention), 1972, nment/Pages/London-Convention-Protocol.aspx, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[18] International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) Annex V (entry into force in 1983), marpo-convention-shipping/#:~:text=This%20marpol %20protocol%20was%20adopted,a%20spate%20of% 20tanker%20accidents, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[19]UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), 1982,, (last accessed 2023-03-12).

[20] Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, https://www, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[21] Aichi Biodiversity Targets, rgets/, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[22] The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, 1989: Text and Annexure, UNEP,   https://www.basel./P ortals/4/BaseL20Convention/docs/text/BaselConventionText-e.pdf, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[23] Actions for addressing plastic waste under the Basel Convention, ticwaste/Overview/tabid/8347/Default.aspx, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[24] Fourteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, 520/Default.aspx, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[25]Stockholm Convention On Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP), 2001, UNDP, cs/treaties/en/unep-pop/trt_unep_pop_2.pd, (last accessed 2023-0612).

[26] Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa (1991), UNEP, import.bamako.convention.1991/portrait.pdf, (last accessed 2023-0612).

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