The internet has been speaking out over the past couple months about the impact of aptly named “fast-fashion,” mainly in response to The True Cost, a recent documentary. The film, debuted on May 29, “pulls back the curtain on the untold story [of the fashion industry] and asks us to consider, who really pays the price for our clothing?”
While the documentary delivers a striking reality, critics point out that The True Cost doesn’t divulge anything the collective ‘we’ didn’t already know. Sure, we are perhaps not thinking logically about the impact of our choices when we reach for the $5 tank top at H&M, but the West at large does know $5 tank tops can’t be made ethically.
Further criticism stems from the documentaries ‘shame-on-us’ approach to a solution to the multi-faceted problem of fast-fashion. Though stampeding our fellow citizens in order to get the best deal on already cheap clothing can never be justified, the issues facing the role fashion plays in the world (both the developing world and the western one) cannot be over simplified.
For many of us, the moral implications of cheap clothing present themselves in the form of general unease, rather than a truly informed understanding of the issues at play. We know in general that the people making our clothes are not living the dream, but when pressed for details, the average mall-shopper might not be able to recite them.
This article reviews some of the major impacts (both positive and negative) of the globalized world of cheap clothing manufacturing. If you’re interested to learn how we got to this state, check out Yesler Journal’s article “The True Cost of Your $5 Leggings.”
According to Luz Cladio, in the article, Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, American’s throw away 68 pounds of clothing per person, per year. Our throw-away clothing and textiles accounted for 4% of the municipal solid waste in 2006 and that number has only gone up.
Our clothing culture encourages cheap, trendy and disposable garments. The average lifespan of a piece of ‘disposable couture’ is 5 weeks in a western closet. According to Maxine Bedat, co-founder of Zady, an e-commerce platform and lifestyle destination for conscious consumers, “the fast fashion industry pushed me to buy crazy trendy items, but the problem is crazy trendy items from one season purposefully look terrible with the items manufactured for the next.”
Though about one-fifth of the throw-away items are resold for lower prices at second-hand shops in the US , there are not enough people in the country to take in all the cast away clothes, even if they were given away. The cast-off items that aren’t resold in the states are bulk shipped to developing nations to be sold at street markets, or chemically repurposed into other goods.
As our demand for cheaper clothing increases, the lifespan of the items decrease. With a drop in price means a drop in quality – fewer items are able to be resold to anyone, because they are not made to last for any significant number of wears.
Much like the organic and local food movement, the first instinct of many green-minded westerners is to buy local when they look for clothing choices as well. While this may be a better environmental option, it disregards the human-system that also depends on a globalized clothing market-place.
In many developing nations, the impact of our addiction to fast fashion is an economic staple. In Bangladesh, for example, garment manufacturing accounts for almost 80% of the entire economy. Economies that can meet the demand for lower and lower wages win out in this battle – and if an economies only means of survival is a lower wage, the stakes are quite high.
The impact of the fashion industry for women in nations like Bangladesh is most striking. Although conditions in factories are often-times quite horrific, the ability to earn any wage at all offers a chance of survival. In traditionally patriarchal cultures, women are more often than not pushed even further to the outskirts of basic human needs. The ability to work, move to an urban location and fend for oneself without an education or the support of a male counterpart is unquestionably important.
It is undoubtedly because of this desperate situation that garment manufacturing factories are allowed to exist in the conditions they do. The day to day life of a garment worker is grueling. Women, often very young women, work for 6 days a week, for abysmal wages. There is little in the way of worker’s rights – some reports state that union organization is shut down by the state. Workers who speak up about low wages and unsafe conditions are silenced, sometimes brutally.
Beyond the devastating day-to-day reality lies the dramatic and more shocking truth. Thousands of workers have been killed by factory fires and collapsing buildings in Bangladesh, these devastating cases have been covered widely by international media. Little has been done to prosecute factory owners (who are often also government officials) who had a hand in creating the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedies such as these. Western companies can’t be forgotten in the discussion of responsibility – they demand more and more production, for less and less pay. The race to the bottom continues.
As the world at large becomes more aware of the cost of our desire for cheap clothing, there is, perhaps only superficially, a change on the horizon. Economies that depend on garment manufacturing would collapse if they were suddenly pushed out of the competitive marketplace, but standards cannot remain where they have been. Since the Rana Plaza Tazreen Factory Fire in 2013, the government in Bangladesh has allowed for the registration of Unions, and Western nations have signed on to agreements that hold them accountable for the safety and conditions of overseas factories.
The small steps being taken in garment-manufacturing dependant nations are far from a solution, but the social and economic impact of this industry on many countries is undeniable. Asking consumers to boycott cheap clothing is both naive and destructive – like it or not, globalization exists and people’s lives depend on our spending. In a utopian universe, it would be would be lovely to interact directly with the people who make your clothes, barter with them for a skill you can offer and share have organic cocktails afterward – but we don’t live in that utopia.
So, what can we do?
Demanding more transparency about the working conditions of the factory in which a garment was made is a good start, and more and more companies are making these facts available.
Consider purchasing fewer items, and spending more per item. Invest in things that will last, that won’t get thrown away after just a few wears.
Make purchases at consignment stores, thrift shops and garage sales. The internet has created a wonderful marketplace of resale clothing – look there first before heading to the mall.