A Brief History of $5 Leggings

Regarding the fashion industry, The True Cost director Andrew Morgan, believes that “there is consistent irresponsible care of the environment, and clear violations of the most basic human rights.” May 29th saw the release of Morgan’s documentary film, The True Cost, which outlines the grave consequences of Western reliance on cheap, low quality garment manufacturing.

The True Cost presents a grizzly reality – as a culture, we’ve grown accustomed to an ever-changing selection of inexpensive trendy items available at stores like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara. Even those of us with limited budgets can access fashion quickly and easily, but the environmental and human cost of those purchases is staggering.

Although we are certainly not picturing the reality of overseas garment manufacturing practices when we reach for the latest $8 pair of Aztec-patterned leggings, deep-down, we certainly know something so inexpensive can’t have been made ethically. The True Cost reminds us of the reality of our clothing choices, in a way that is both fatalistic and heart wrenching.

This three part series, The Impact of Our Fast Fashion seeks to give context to the fast fashion culture and realize the economic, environmental and social consequences of it’s continued dominance. Perhaps most importantly, the series seeks to shine light on possible solutions to this global issue, because, as Morgan states, “this is something we can and must change.”15598180812_9a5a5a41f1_k

Outsourcing as a general business practice is relatively new. Since the Industrial Revolution, businesses have grappled with strategies that allow them to maintain their most competitive advantage. Up until the 1960s the agreed upon business model was to control all aspects of a business. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the push for diversification had companies considering which aspects of their business could be outsourced to their advantage.

By the 1990s “outsourcing” was an official business term, and global competitors realized that sending manufacturing overseas was a cost saving measure that allowed them to remain relevant in the global market.

The 1990s shifted the textile industry in the United States to a new low. Having moved most production to the American south in search of cheap labor, the textile industry moved out of America in general — in search of cheaper labor. Developing nations with low labor costs were an obvious choice for outsourcing because of the labor intensive nature of textile production.

1994 saw the implantation of NAFTA, which reduced quotas and tariffs between Canada, the US and Mexico. The entire US apparel industry was affected by the agreement, as yarn production moved to Mexico for cheaper labor.

Garment production factories in developing countries employ millions of people – for example, Bangladesh’s national economy relies on the textile industry. Up until 2005, smaller, developing world economies, like Cambodia and Paraguay, were able to compete in the textile industry, even against labor giants like India and China.

In 2005, the Multi Fibre Agreement(MFA), which imposed quotas on the amount of garments developing nations could export to developed countries, expired. In countries where government enforcement of minimum health and safety standards is lacking, the cost of labor could plummet even further to make up for the increased competition found by the dismantled quotas.

The trend toward lower clothing prices has been observed since before the second world war, and the percentage cost per garment has steadily declined, even with the effects of inflation.  According to Jessica Goldstein, of ThinkProgress, 97% of what American’s wear today is made elsewhere. Compare that to the 1960s, when American’s produced 95% of our own garments. Since the 1970s, an ever increasing amount of our clothing is produced elsewhere states Dr Pamela Ravasio, of The Guardian.

Tied up in the trend toward outsourcing garment manufacturing is the multi-faceted class system in which the West bases our understanding of the world. Clothing has always been a means of separating different classes – it is an obvious and definitive marker of the haves and the have nots. According to Ravasio, a Victorian-era office worker would spend approximately the same amount of money on clothing and rent each year, while surviving on a single income. In stark contrast, a fortunate laborer family, who combined the incomes of all household members, would have just enough income to keep food on the table – clothing was a barely attainable after thought.

Contrast the historical relevance of class-separated clothing styles with today’s spending habits — according to Ravasio, American’s in 2009 spent about 2.98% of their income on clothing. The decline in clothing prices undoubtedly allowed poorer American’s to attain fashionable clothing choices — a fact that cannot be ignored in a discussion about the consequences of fast fashion.

Any logical approach to actionable change in the way we consume fast fashion must first start with acknowledging the social and economic drivers our culture values. Many developing economies depend on Western demand for an inexpensive apparel industry. Many middle-class Westerners depend on ‘democratized’ fashion prices. A solution to the ethical impacts of fast fashion must start at that crossroads.