The past century has given way to a phenomenon known as fast fashion, a system that expedites the production of clothing to make high fashion trends cheap and available to almost everyone. Through the means of fast fashion, the average outfit costs about $80: $15 for a top, $20 for some pants and $45 for a pair of shoes. Eighty dollars is also the equivalent to the amount of money a woman in Bangladesh earns in one month working a minimum wage job in an American-owned garment factory.
So what’s the catch? What’s the true cost behind buying and producing clothing? These are two questions that test the ethics of designers and consumers the same. Fast and cheap goods can only be produced by the hands of fast and cheap labor. The fashion industry is one of the leading fields in labor exploitation and human trafficking. Most consumers overlook this blaring truth or simply refuse to acknowledge it, which is easy because production primarily takes place thousands of miles away in countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. There, labor laws hardly exist and are loosely enforced, allowing the economical and easy mass production of American and European goods.
This shift to foreign production is detrimental for large companies with factories based here in the United States. As of now, the U.S. spends more than $1.5 billion in overseas factories, where ninety-seven percent of American and European clothing is sourced. These statistics explain why companies such as American Apparel, who promote fair trade production, end up filing for bankruptcy. Due to the strictly enforced labor laws in Europe and America, it is impossible for large corporations to produce at the same rate as those countries where minimum wage and worker protection scarcely exists.
However, this lack of worker protection has resulted in numerous tragedies, most notably is the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building in Bangladesh in 2013. Housing five North American garment factories and 2,000 workers, the collapse of the building resulted in the death of 1,100 people. The building clearly did not meet health and safety codes. Still, workers were forced to enter and those who refused were beaten. Following the incident, activists took action in Bangladesh and other countries to enforce fair labor laws and safety codes. However, they have only served as a paper tiger and made way for a continuation of injustice.
Even with the labor laws intact, companies find a way to subvert them through subcontracting. For instance, authorities exposed H&M for illegally subcontracting sweatshops in India and Cambodia in 2016. While the company promised to improve labor conditions and pay, changes have yet to present themselves.
“The fast fashion industry promotes an urgent mindset in the sense of clothing… In reality, North Americans only wear 30% of the clothes that occupy their entirely massive closets.”
Similarly, the infamous fast fashion powerhouse, Forever 21, practices child labor in the cotton fields of the Republic of Uzbekistan. They disguise the cotton plant as a “work study program,” forcing children as young as nine-years-old to laboriously pick cotton for 15 hours a day. They undergo threats of beatings, suffering grades, and detention as punishment for inadequate work. Many of them have no means of escaping because they are solicited by companies as a sort of indentured servitude.
For the average consumer, injustices like these are practically inconceivable — the t-shirt they’re wearing or the sweater they just bought for fall manufactured from start to finish by slaves. It’s archaic. While slavery appears differently than it did hundreds of years ago, the basic principles remain the same. It is a system of the big man taking advantage of the small, of treating people as less than human.
The fast fashion industry promotes an urgent mindset in the sense of clothing, the idea that you need to buy more and more and more. In reality, North Americans only wear 30% of the clothes that occupy their entirely massive closets. This creates a magnitude of waste. Not to mention, mass-produced clothing is typically ridden with toxic pesticides and lead, detrimental for not only workers but consumers themselves.
While this information reads as devastation, knowledge also precipitates change. With more people being educated on the injustices stitched into the fabric of their own clothes, both consumers and designers have begun to speak out.
This backlash forced large corporations to make major improvements in their means of production. Not only that but individuals and activist groups have laid a new foundation for fair trade and sustainable clothing. They are curating a new future to make ethical the best choice for the consumer’s conscious and budget. Online stores such as The Reformation, Krochet Kids, n:Philanthropy, and Lulu’s are all examples of this. Also, Nordstrom recently declared to only sell fair trade fashion items and accessories, making it the first department store of its kind to do so.
In addition to all of this, regionalized shopping has also impacted the ethics of the fashion industry. American consumers are more inclined to shop locally and support regional designers because they know who and where the clothes are sourced from. In the same way, thrift and vintage shopping is also an economical and stylish direction to take. Like a recycling system of clothing, thrifting eliminates the waste and ethical burden of shopping first hand.
Above everything else, the most effective way to generate change is to simply buy less. A decrease in turnover equivalates to a decrease in demand of labor. Injustice in the fashion industry is cyclical and refusing to endorse it is the only way to successfully break it.
Guilt is not the greatest tool here. Knowledge is. No one should feel guilty for the choices they have made but plan to make better ones in the future. Fast fashion is inescapable. The resolution will not take place overnight, but making small lifestyle changes is more effective than none at all. There is hope on the horizon; the future of fashion is woven with threads of freedom.
Written by Kat Sours
Cover graphic by Iman Sinnokrot