Fashion addicts will claim in their personal statements how they have loved fashion since birth. Though bold, I’m going to claim that I’ve loved fashion since I came out the womb when my mum wrapped me in a Harrods of London prima cotton blanket, with matching bed linen that she brought to the hospital herself, and changed the sheets whilst in early stages of labour. She wouldn’t dare to lie down on synthetic bedding so why would she wrap her newborn daughter in it? As a fashion designer with her own clothing brand, she’s always instilled in me the importance of quality. However, in the last 20 years of a race to the bottom, the fashion industry is facing a quality crisis. We want too much, and we want it as fast as our food. So, what is the true cost of our appetite for fast fashion?
This culture of a ‘shopaholic with nothing to wear’ has become a relatable and romantic idea, an it-girl trend to aspire to almost. Brands want us to buy more and then tell us what we just bought isn’t on trend anymore: go back and buy something else and so on. Clothes where things we use and now they are what we use up- but we love it. For some reason, we can’t get enough of using our clothing as quickly as baby wipes; we justify this because it’s ‘cheap’. But how can we justify that this clothing most often is a result of sweatshop labour?
Retailers want things even cheaper and quicker than we do, putting pressure on factories in third world countries to produce things in impossible volume. Well, impossible by our first world standards. This is the reason retailers do business there and why we, the UK, are the 3rd biggest trader with Bangladesh: incredibly cheap labour. Bangladesh garment workers have the lowest wages in the world with the countries minimum wage being less than £13 (1500 Taka) monthly. They have no-trade union rights and many workers have been murdered fighting for workers rights. So, when H&M tell you they are working towards ‘better factory conditions’ remember that their clothes labels still say, ‘Made in Bangladesh’. 98% of workers in the garment industry are paid less than living wage which in consequence locks them into a network of poverty. 80% of these workers are women and there are thousands of young girls working in the industry illegally, often subjected to threats, physical and emotional abuse, and forced labour. These girls are making the ‘GIRL POWER’ t-shirts you can buy right now on PrettyLittleThing.com, you know, because empowering women is a convenient trend this season. These are the girls being forced to provide the gluttonous demand that we, the consumer, desperately need supplying to us.
Your favourite brands boast about the charities they donate to and their membership with the Ethical Trade Initiative to give the illusion that they are sweatshop free, when in fact, to keep up with the low prices these companies on the high street demand, some products are made in ‘shadow factories’. These are unregistered factories where ethics and rights are off the books. demand for low prices and quick supply has led to this gross outsourcing for profit. Looking at various high street shop sites I couldn’t find one that was transparent about where their clothes are made. The lower price points fall, the higher risk to workers grows. In 2013, 1129 workers died as result of sweatshop Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsing, even though authorities had been made aware by workers that this building was structurally unsafe. Surrounded by the bodies of dead mothers, children and wives, Primark labels littered in the rubble and blood. Yet to this day, Primark is one of the most successful stores on the high street, five years after the crisis. Their deaths apparently don’t detract from our desire.
As a society, we want too much too cheap and in consequence, these garments become disposable. This has led to clothing becoming the second biggest pollutant to our planet. Over half of all the world’s clothing produced currently is made from synthetic fibres such as polyester; a plastic made from fossil fuel that is non-biodegradable. When E-commerce sites like Boohoo.com boast ‘100s of new styles every day’ and ‘10,000 lines in sale’ remember that every piece of polyester clothing ever made is still on the planet and will be for up to 200 years. Not to mention that this harmful plastic breaks down when washed and filters into our water system to the point our fish and water are riddled with plastic; we are literally consumers of our clothing.
Something as trendy as shoulder pads this season is veganism. Brands all over the world are going cruelty-free, helping animal welfare and our planet. But where is the trend of people caring as much about worker’s rights in third world countries as animal rights? We find slaughterhouse footage repulsive enough to stop eating meat so why doesn’t sweatshop footage have the same impact? Who’s raving about organic clothing as much as organic food? We can’t imagine wearing the skin of a dead animal so why can we wear the blood of hard labour?
So, this is where my argument comes back to quality. My Harrods of London birthday suit wasn’t about my mother being the trendiest of the ward. It was about quality. It was organic cotton made in the United Kingdom with workers’ rights and the blanket is still good as new ready for the next child to enter our family. That environmental and ethical quality is more luxurious than any polyester paradise you want to market to me. In a generation of popularity contest style hierarchy, everybody, and every trend is predicted to have their five minutes of fame. You as a consumer can make a valuable choice though; whether you want to be a princess of polyester, or a queen of quality.