There was a confluence of events, without which we would not have fast fashion and the multitude of problems that come with it:
- The industrial revolution
- The invention of synthetic fabrics
The industrial revolution gained steam in the early to mid-1800’s, allowing factories to proliferate. A new way to work was born. Shortly after these factories became the norm, synthetic fabrics were developed. Together, these two factors produced drastic changes; over the next 100 years we began to see prices fall, quality fall, and personal skills, like sewing, declined. With cheaper clothing, more is purchased, and because quality standards are lessened, even more again is purchased. Fast fashion is a new term to describe this cycle of unending consumerism.
Fast Fashion: Quicker and Cheaper
Where fast fashion becomes really dangerous is in the message that we, as consumers, are sending to the companies that make it: that we don’t care as long as it’s cheaper, always cheaper. But clothes cost to make what they cost to make, and if you’re not paying that price, somebody else is. Aside from the environmental and animal welfare costs, there is also the cost of human suffering.
In first world countries we have government agencies that oversee our safety, but in many of the countries where fashion is made, those services are underfunded, corrupt, or non-existent. The workers are forced to perform in unsafe working conditions, ingest and inhale unsafe levels of toxins, and sometimes even live in the factories, with little rest and no life outside of work.
I’d like to look at a few of the recent fashion factory disasters in order to better understand what life is like for these people.
In April of 2013, for several days, people were buried under rubble, dying. The Rana Plaza building, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, had collapsed amid fears about the growing cracks throughout. One day the workers, residents of the apartments, and employees of the banks and shops left the building, fearing for their safety, but by the next day the building had been deemed safe and everyone was ordered to return to work. They did have a choice, everyone always has a choice. But this choice was not fair: go back to work and maybe get hurt or die, or do not return, lose employment, and possibly become homeless or starve to death. Exactly 1,127 people died making that decision. In a country where unemployment is high and the value of the taka is low, desperation exists and people compromise to make ends meet. When (primarily Western) consumers are met with lower prices, please remember it is not because the corporation is taking a cut in profits. Sometimes it is a technological advance, or a tariff or tax break, but usually the difference is made by finding a factory that will do the same thing for less. This means longer hours, less wages, and greater gaps in safety.
It’s the 24th of November, 2012 and you work on the second floor of the Tazreen fashion factory. As you wend your way to your workstation, you perform near-parkour-like feats of maneuverability; scaling piles of fabric scraps, avoiding giant carts full of bolts of textiles, deftly avoiding loose cables and cords that are strewn around the floor. When the fire hits and the smoke consumes you, no amount of parkour-like grace can save you from the crushing crowd.
Of the 117 people that perished in the fire, 69 of them worked on the second floor. Small, crowded aisles and tripping hazards kept those 69 people from reaching an exit. Many of them were probably mid-seam on a shirt or a pair of pants when it started…
It was on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks when over 300 people lost their lives in two factories in Pakistan. Just like Dhaka and Rana Plaza, conditions were so terrible that deaths were largely due to the stampede. If you’ve ever worked in a building in the US that has fire drills, you may be wondering how could people that work together every day be so callous in an emergency situation? Exits were blocked, rows between equipment cluttered with debris, and the way out remained elusive. Another 600 people were seriously injured, many with extensive burns, and all I can think is, how many of them wished they’d never left the building?
Did We Learn Anything?
In all 3 disasters:
- Fault was established and the “guilty parties” were “punished”
- Reform was called for, and some was attained, by the international community
- Reparations for families of victims were demanded, and (some of) the involved brands made donations
Three years since Rana Plaza and I have to say, nothing has changed, not really. Walmart and Gap are still selling clothes made in sweatshops. Families of victims miss their loved ones while they wait to see the donated recovery money they so desperately need. In the US, people will still flock to the Black Friday sales. Every time there is a disaster there is a new cry for change – but now these companies know they only have to do a little to calm the rage and get consumers back into stores.
Why “Boycotting” Is Not a Bad Word
There is the side that believes we should not boycott brands that use sweatshops, but instead help support employees as they fight for better conditions. Unions have been suggested as a way to combat low wages and unsafe working conditions, but this is not the industrial revolution and unions are not the solution – they are just another Band Aid, and an off-brand one at that. Instead, I would point towards using your money to support brands that are working closely with the locals to create a fair situation from the ground up. Companies like The Root Collective, who currently make t-shirts in Bangladesh and shoes in Guatemala, are working to establish new ways of approaching manufacturing. We will continue to seek out these companies and share them here, with you. Purchasing clothing and products that are already being made responsibly will help to grow those brands, thereby injecting money, jobs, and resources into communities that have been neglected.
The Real Question about Fast Fashion
Imagine two factories in Dhaka: one employs 1000 people in substandard conditions, the second employs 10 people in fair (and often empowering) conditions. Do you give your money to the first company, plus a donation to an organization working to establish unions that may one day have an effect? Or do you give that same total amount of money to the second company so that they may, over time, hire those 1000 people instead? Personally, I vote for company number two. By supporting what already works, you are directly voting with your dollar for the world you want to live in.
How Can I Be Sure I’m Making the Right Choice?
The sad truth is that the current market (fast fashion) is full of the exploitation of oppressed people. I had every intention of linking lists of clothing brands that use sweatshops, or have been implicated directly in disasters, so that you may avoid them. Unfortunately, there’s just too many – list after list of popular brands that have either allowed or incentivized atrocities against other human beings. But there’s an easy way to know, to understand whether or not the person who made your jeans or t-shirt or dress were paid and treated fairly: how much does it cost? A higher cost may not guarantee a fair supply chain, but I can assure you, if you’re only paying $20 for that sweater, someone else, someone with a name and a family and hope, has paid the rest.