Plastics, Clothing, and Climate Injustice
September 19, 2023
Countries around the world are experiencing more environmental issues each year as climate change presents new challenges and exacerbates familiar ones. However, the causes and effects of these problems are not equally distributed. The Global North — also known as post-industrial or developed countries — are more responsible for emissions and pollution. However the effects of consumption in industrialized nations are felt more directly by developing countries — also called the Global South — which often lack the funding or infrastructure to adequately handle environmental or human health problems. There are major disparities between these regions in the causes and effects of climate change and pollution.
Post-industrial nations have disproportionately contributed to climate change
Climate change is affecting everyone across the planet, even though the culpability for rising global temperatures lies with countries contributing the most greenhouse gasses. The United States alone is responsible for 20% of historical CO2 emissions. Since the 1750s, developed nations have industrialized rapidly, and with new technology came increased carbon output. This disproportionate level of emissions has not dropped off in recent years; in 2021, these post-industrial nations were still responsible for over 7 billion metric tons of CO2 output.
Although countries currently in the process of industrializing are beginning to emit more greenhouse gasses, the U.S. and Canada are emitting far more per capita. Some countries in industrializing regions argue that because developed nations have historically contributed more to emissions, they should bear the majority of the responsibility instead of condemning industrializing nations for their increased pollution levels. Developed countries are still falling short of their promises to fund climate solutions in the developing world.
Plastic pollution is generated in developed countries and discarded in developing countries
Plastic is ubiquitous in post-industrial nations — it is impossible to avoid it in our daily lives. In 2016, the U.S. and the EU generated 71 million metric tons of plastic waste. The per capita plastic waste generation of the U.S. alone was over six times that of India. Plastic waste from these countries — including materials deemed “recyclable” — are shipped and dumped in developing countries like Malaysia, which contributes 20 times less plastic waste than these wealthier nations.
The plastic we use every day in developed countries has devastating impacts on the places where this garbage ends up. Most developing nations do not have adequate facilities to destroy the influx of plastic, forcing local workers to pile up the trash or incinerate it. This has considerable health impacts, as the garbage often contains toxins that can alter neurodevelopment, endocrine, and reproductive functions.
The fashion industry is booming in post-industrial nations at the expense of workers in the developing world
Clothes are easier than ever to access at incredibly cheap prices. But these inexpensive goods are only available because the price is offloaded onto laborers in the Global South, who are often underpaid. Many clothing exporters are in developing countries where labor laws are less stringent, allowing the fashion industry to exploit their laborers. In places like Eastern Europe, India, and Bangladesh, workers earn far less than the legal minimum wage in these countries.
Meanwhile, countries in the Global North import millions of dollars worth of clothing. Textile production is also incredibly harmful for the environment. Factories release high levels of harmful chemicals into bodies of water. Microplastics from synthetic clothes leech into the ocean. And poor quality, secondhand clothes are often exported back to developing countries, which are used as textile dumping grounds. Environmental and human health suffers greatly in developing countries where the textile industry continues to grow.
Health impacts of pollution and climate change are felt more acutely in developing regions
Air pollution is one of the world’s most dangerous health risks — seven million deaths per year are attributed to the effects of poor air quality. Particulate matter in the air can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. But pollution is more harmful in industrializing countries — it is estimated over 1.4 billion people are exposed to levels of air pollution exceeding the World Health Organization guidelines, many of them residing in countries experiencing rapid population growth and industrial development.
In addition to exacerbating existing social determinants of human health, climate change also poses new challenges for health in less developed regions. Communicable diseases are projected to increase in developing areas like China as a result of urbanization and changes to the climate. Urban sprawl in industrializing areas intensifies the effects of heat waves, causing excess mortality. It is estimated 100 million people will become impoverished as a result of climate change, further decreasing access to healthcare and healthy living conditions for already vulnerable populations.
Extreme weather as a result of climate change will more directly affect developing nations
Extreme weather events — floods, heatwaves, droughts and storms — are occurring with relatively equal frequency in developing and developed nations. However, the lack of robust infrastructure in industrializing nations makes them more vulnerable and less resilient in the face of destructive weather. Climate change contributes to issues like water shortages, agricultural productivity, and rising sea levels — all of which destabilize developing countries. In 2022 alone, there were 81 weather, climate and water-related disasters in Asia, of which over 83% were flood and storm events. Heatwave duration and intensity has increased over parts of Africa.
Natural disasters lead to mass displacement of “climate refugees” whose homes and livelihoods are altered or destroyed by these events. In 2019, the number of displacements as a result of environmental disasters was three times the amount of people displaced caused by conflict and violence. India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and China saw the most displacements. But the poorest citizens can often not afford to migrate, leaving them essentially stranded in unsafe areas.
Climate change is a global phenomenon, but it is important for us to remember that those who feel the most direct consequences are not necessarily the most responsible. Yet it is possible for everyone to take action — sign our global plastics petition today and encourage the United Nations to adopt a Global Plastic Treaty that would ban the export and incineration of plastic waste in industrializing countries. Educating ourselves on climate issues is a key part of saving our planet. For more information on how EARTHDAY.ORG is working towards a more sustainable future, visit our campaigns.