Last week I watched, The True Cost, a documentary on the effects of fashion on people and the planet and was saddened and appalled upon seeing more of how we get brand new clothes so cheap in developed countries. The film is produced by British journalist Lucy Siegle, sustainable brand consultant Livia Firth and director Andrew Morgan.
I've always enjoyed fashion as a form of personal communication and like fashion designer, Orsola de Castro states in the documentary, "(fashion) is fundamentally a part of what we wish to communicate about ourselves." I grew up sewing clothes in my room out of scraps of fabric and enjoyed the process of creating and wearing something that was totally unique. In junior high, my desire to be unique and true to myself often gave way to the desire for acceptance and status among my peers as I think it does for most adolescents. To maintain approval from others in the U.S, even after growing up and entering the "adult" world, one often needs to wear what the fashion gods are wearing and follow their laws of what not to wear. We all know fully well that this religion is designed to make the fashion companies more money and yet we still buy into it.
Before about two years ago when I started to think about the things I buy, where they come from, who made them and their impact on the world, I just looked for the best deals on the trendiest pieces. I come from a family of deal hunters and coupon clippers who essentially taught me that saving the most amount of money is one of the most important things in life. The lesson of frugality can be useful and wise but it doesn't consider the other costs that go into making something: the human cost (how the people in the production process were treated and compensated) or the environmental cost (how many natural resources were used, wasted and contaminated and can no longer be useful to humanity).
The practice of deal hunting was passed down to my mother from her parents who grew up before the 1960s when the US was making 95% of their clothes. Back then, you could know who was making your clothes and the company was under your own labor laws and regulations. Furthermore, the product was traveling a shorter distance from production to distribution to consumption, using less resources and creating less pollution than shipping materials and product from far-away countries does.
Today, the motto of "buying cheapest is smartest" still lingers even when the US only makes 3% of our clothing now and outsources the rest to developing countries far away from our eyes with completely different standards and practices. Of course, this shift wasn't advertised by the fashion companies but subtly tucked inside of garments on tiny tags while the increasingly-low prices were pushed in front of our faces. Sadly and instinctively, we are drawn to the bright red numbers, enjoying the rush of having a new thing, that we neglect to ask important questions about how the article came to be so cheap.
Economist, Richard Wolff, speaking on our capitalist economy in the film, explains that if you don't criticize or question something for years, it rots. Something very similar has happened in the fashion industry as we continued to blindly consume and accept cheap clothing. We like the thrill of having a trendy piece even though the fashion production system and their self-propelled "trends" are only looking out for how much profit the executives of the fast fashion companies make. Consider that the CEO of H&M has a net worth of $2.5 Billion, the two CEOs of Forever 21 have a combined net worth of $4.5 Billion, and the CEO of Zara is the richest man in Europe with a net worth of $72.9 Billion. These are just a few examples of the best documented CEOs of fashion retailers who outsource most of their production to developing countries.
In stark contrast, the garment workers that make most of the clothes for these companies are in Bangladesh where the average salary was about $800 a year in 2014 and in Cambodia where they made about $1200 a year in 2014. Garment workers in both countries say that their wages are not enough to pay for food, housing and healthcare and most of the time they do not even make minimum amount because hours are cut and laws are not upheld. Roger Lee, Ceo of TAL Apparel confirms that fashion retail prices have gone down while the cost of materials has gone up which means that costs are being cut in the wages and safety of the garment workers. A garment factory owner in India, Arif Jebtik, explains that the need to keep production cost low is created by the demand of wealthy countries for cheap clothes. If a large fast fashion company doesn't get offered the cheapest price for production, they will simply go to another manufacturer.
There are labor laws and requirements for each country but they are not strictly followed or enforced. This is what happened in the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh where an 8 story factory collapsed killing 1,130 garment workers and injuring about 2,500 more. To provide the lowest prices to brands like H&M, the factory ignored the large cracks in the building and forced the workers to stay in the building and complete their work. The same day of the collapse, the workers had expressed concern to their managers and the factory owners were ordered to evacuate their building, however the orders were ignored in order to meet deadlines. Those people died and lost limbs and loved ones so that wealthier people like us could keep up with the trends that were pushed by billionaires in order to make even more money for themselves.
After the Rana Plaza factory tragedy, consumers started to ask a few more questions and fast fashion companies like H&M released statements about how they are going to increase wages and enforce safety for their garment workers but they never give specifics on what they will be payed or how they will regulate the improvements. In the film, Livia Firth directly asks Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M, what exactly those new wages are and she is unable to answer with any numbers. Whatever the real numbers are, with the CEO being worth $2.5 Billion and the garment workers saying that they do not have enough money for their basic needs, I am sure there is room for growth.
With the death toll rising, profits for fashion have increased and it is now a 3 trillion dollar industry. Bangladesh is second to China (who has worked on enforcing labor laws) in cheapness and the unions have no power. One young woman followed in the documentary, tells the story of how she created a union at her factory in Bangladesh and brought a set of demands to their managers. The management refused the requests and when the union women pushed back, they were locked inside of the factory and beat up. Similar stories are told from other factory workers in other countries like Cambodia.
People like Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute and Kate Ball-Young a former sourcing manager for Joe Fresh, argue that sweatshops help the economy of the developing countries and that people (mainly women) choose to work there even though their other options, like underage marrying, are not good. Even though sweatshops provide jobs and independence for people, should those people have to live in fear of dying at work or being abused by their managers just so that much more privileged people can have a larger wardrobe at a smaller cost?
The True Cost, highlights one particular fashion designer, Safia Minney, founder of People Tree a fair-trade fashion brand. Safia works with fair-trade organizations around the world to give garment workers higher wages and benefits like childcare. Most of the organizations employ artisans like embroiderers and knitters whose skills have been de-valued with the increase in fast fashion. Safia also uses mostly organic and natural materials for production. The use of chemicals that usually happens in the farming and production process for materials is very harmful for the farmers and people in the communities who drink the contaminated water. Often times, in the areas around the world (including the US) where pesticides and chemicals are being used to treat plants and materials there is a higher rate of cancer and birth defects. In Punjab, India where most of India's cotton is grown and the most pesticide is used, Dr. Pritpal Singh found that 70 to 80 kids in every village has severe mental retardation and physical handicaps. Environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, also points out that the "companies that sell the GMOs and chemicals are the same companies that sell the medicine which they are now patenting."
It all begins to seem hopeless and like there is no way out of this corruption and destruction but people like Safia are raising the bar for outsourced production by visiting the production facilities, getting to know the workers and seeing how they are living. If more people support caring fashion companies like this, buy used clothing and buy articles that are made closest to home from organic materials, we can change the health of the planet and the living conditions of everyone. As Stella McCartney said "if you don't like it, you don't have to buy into it." The consumer is in control. I highly recommend watching the True Cost for it's insight and visual exploration of the effects of fast fashion.