Who really pays for cheap clothes?

Welcome to 2018, when shopping is so cheap and convenient that it’s literally entertainment for the privileged. The fast fashion industry produces a staggering 150 billion items annually and leading brands in the industry, such as Topshop, spit out over 400 new styles per week. Online-exclusive brands like Asos are the new behemoths of apparel, skyrocketing in popularity and sales. While customers might enjoy having access to runway looks for low prices, the shorter turnaround times for manufacturers come at incredible costs. 

As the apparel industry outsources much of its labour to developing countries and is the second highest polluter of clean water, the impact of constant consumption cannot be overstated. We’re sacrificing more than just quality to satisfy ever-evolving and ever-increasing demands. 

Fashion itself has undergone a makeover in the past few decades. What was once a game of forecasting trends is now a race to replicate styles the quickest. Fast fashion brands are less interested in investing in design, and are instead inspired by popular fads. Not only has this shortened design and consumption times, but it has shortened the lifespan of each piece. On average, items are worn for around a month before being forgotten or tossed for the next round of styles. Fast fashion legitimizes and reproduces the mainstream attitude toward clothing as disposable. This leads to novelty items that wear out quickly — nothing is made to last — and consumers are hooked on retailers, increasing profits. 

What was once the fulcrum of fashion — originality, artistic value, and luxury — has been replaced by a culture of obsolescence. But most critically, we’re allowing bargains to supersede morality. This newfound world of ‘disposable’ clothing turns a blind eye to exploitation. 

 Where do our clothes come from?  

In 1990, most clothing for sale in the United States was locally made, but in 2015, 97.5 per cent of the United States’ apparel was imported.

While the garment industry has been the site of significant labour abuses since the Industrial Revolution, outsourcing labour to developing countries has allowed corporations to regularly escape from regulatory frameworks that were established to protect workers and the environment. The pressures of this accelerated pace to get clothing from design to shelf trickle down to labourers, resulting in poor working conditions, abuse, and child labour. 

Sexual and physical abuse in factories are often the norm, and victims have little to no safe avenues to report abusive incidents. The International Labour Organization estimates that roughly 170 million children are engaged in child labour, with many working in the nooks and crannies of the fashion supply chain. From cottonseed production in Benin to the long, intensive hours spent harvesting the plant in Uzbekistan, there is no limit to the dangers that these minors are subjected to. Employers are rarely held to account for these abuses — and when they are, consumers don’t always pay attention. 

Factory workers put their health at risk every day, but the industry equates absence of injury with health, failing to examine how workers’ physical, social, and mental well-being is held hostage by their dehumanizing employment. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, labour standards are so skewed that wages only amount to less than three per cent of the cost of most clothing items.

Even when labour stays local, manufacturers absorb immigrant and refugee populations who have no choice but to accept pay below minimum wage. In a report on Los Angeles garment factories, 42 per cent of surveyors revealed that exits and doors were regularly blocked, 49 per cent noted that there were no first aid kits on site, and a shocking 82 per cent of workers said that they had never been provided with any health or safety training. Evidently, the fashion industry isn’t good for anyone other than those who profit directly from it. 

 Morality in the closet      

While the Global North revels in the postmodern phenomenon of trying on temporary identities with endless supplies of garments, the Global South pays the price in suffering. A perpetual sense of urgency and drive for increasing profit forces employees to work at ridiculous speeds, leaving little time, space, and energy for them to assert their legal rights or to address violations of their rights.  

How can we change our consumption patterns? 

Ethical, sustainable brands have difficulty gaining traction, in large part because the sticker price is often significantly higher. Why bother shelling out more when something similar can be found at your local Gap? Ironically, it is the same capitalist system that pushes consumers to scrape for the ‘best deal’ that also oppresses the workers producing the goods. These workers, strangled by low wages and poor conditions, don’t have the resources to support ethical brands themselves. 

But for the privileged, each purchase becomes a vote. Opting for vegan shoes over leather boots is a vote for animal rights. Buying less and investing in responsible retailers is a vote for ethical values. While we may not always have the funds to throw our support behind every conscious brand, we need to recognize that what we dress ourselves in is a message to the retail industry. 

It’s easy to be swayed by the Amazon package of 25 per cent off items, or a $20 H&M dress that looks just like your favourite Instagram model’s, but saving a couple of bucks doesn’t mean that a price was not paid — we’re just not the ones paying it.