Take a walk through any mall or shopping center and it’s easy to get carried away by the countless stores that utilize “fast fashion.” With bargain prices and the latest styles, these brands make it easy to jump on any fashion bandwagon, even update your entire wardrobe to follow a trend. Every year, the average American purchases 68 new garments – and to counteract their loss of closet space, throws out nearly ten pounds of clothing. I’ll admit, it is tempting to see a cute top in a store window and know that you can easily add it to your closet without breaking the bank. But when you get down to it, what trend are you really following?
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Each item you buy is a conscious choice, a monetary “vote” that you support that company. Sporting a trendy fringed crop top is not only a way to silently tell the world you can rock the bohemian vibe, but also that you are a supporter of the company who made that top. Think about it this way: wearing a t-shirt with the logo of your favorite band is a way to communicate that you support their music, just like how wearing a shirt from a specific brand is a way to say that you support their store. On Fashion Revolution Day we encouraged everybody to ask the question, “Who made my clothes?” But simply asking is not enough. If we discover answers we don’t like, we need to be enforcers of change.
For fast fashion stores, a key to their success is being able to update the products they offer at the drop of a hat. Quite literally; if a celebrity is spotted wearing a zebra print fedora today and suddenly everybody wants one, those very same hats can be put into production next week, and at a price no one can beat. This ensures that the stores get plenty of return customers who are always able to find something new and affordable to purchase. That may be awesome for the owners’ bank accounts, but what does it mean for the laborers?
Cambodian Garment Workers – PC: State Gov Library
With so many items in production, many factories and laborers are needed at short notice. With nearly all production occurring overseas, it is extremely difficult for managers of the company to keep an eye on everything, and, sadly, sometimes the details of fast fashion production slip out of focus. Garments get subcontracted to factories not directly approved and safe, many of which are unregulated and unlicensed. Millions of children get hired, even forced into labor. For many, it is their only choice – they must drop out of school at a young age and work to support their families. Oftentimes children use fake identification to bypass age restrictions and get jobs in sweatshop conditions. These jobs are meant only for adults, but when twelve year olds are able to pass off as eighteen, it is clear that these age restrictions are rarely followed.
Many of the workers in these factories are women. In fact, the percentage of women working in the garment industry in Cambodia is about 90 percent. Many times this is their only employment opportunity, their only way to avoid being forced into the ever-present sex trade. Discrimination against pregnant women is prevalent; many women choose to wear tight clothes to mask their pregnancies to avoid getting fired.
The conditions that both adults and children face in these factories are unthinkable. The wages they earn for toiling long hours is often less than $100 a month, far below a livable income. The quantity of garments the workers must produce is rarely attainable, and overtime is often forced. The temperatures can get so high in these factories that the heat will burn the workers’ skin if they don’t wear layers of clothes so their sweat cools them. Masks are necessary so that pieces of fabric don’t get caught in their throats. Using the restroom is sometimes not permitted, and improperly stored chemicals can cause hazardous health concerns. These conditions that seem unthinkable to us in the Western world are the sad reality that many garment workers across Asia face on a daily basis.
Women stitch khakis in a Bangladesh factory PC: Reutuers
These are the choices that we as consumers need to make. Do we continue on shopping the way we always have just because it is easy – easy to remain loyal to the brands we have grown accustomed to, easy to shut our eyes to the injustice that went into our clothing? Or do we make a conscious effort to support fair trade by specifically not supporting companies who don’t?
Obviously, we can’t throw away all the clothes we already own and rebuild our wardrobes out of only fair trade pieces. We can, however, make a more conscious effort to buy ethically made clothing in the future. It’s no secret that fair trade fashion can be a little bit pricier and more difficult to find, but the good news is that there are great options available if you know where to look. Besides visiting your local boutiques and stores that carry fair trade items, check out some websites such as www.matatraders.com,www.prana.com, and www.cometogethertrading.com. If you are looking for fair trade items beyond just clothing, check out our handbags and accessories at www.maliadesigns.com. Other great places to visit for accessories are www.greenolastyle.com and www.worldfinds.com. If your goal is to find a good deal, look into www.liketwice.com, an online thrift store where you can buy high quality secondhand items for a fraction of the cost. Not only does buying secondhand decrease manufacturing and labor demands, it also cuts down on the amount of clothes waste that ends up in landfills. Of course, cutting our favorite brands out of our lives won’t be easy, and it won’t happen all at once. But it is a goal we can work toward, one four-dollar tank top at a time.
Lindsay Murdoch’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald titled “West’s fashion industry relies on sweat of Asia’s teenagers” provided much of the background information used in this post. You can read his article here: http://www.smh.com.au/world/wests-fashion-industry-relies-on-sweat-of-asias-teenagers-20150613-ghjmy7
This clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a great background on the fast fashion industry:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdLf4fihP78
The author of this post, Anna Chudzinski, is our summer intern at Malia Designs. When she’s not learning about the fashion industry and fair trade, writing blog posts, looking through fabric samples, and battling with a tape gun to assemble boxes, you can find her curating our Pinterest account with interesting articles and fair trade fashion (https://www.pinterest.com/maliadesigns/). In the fall she will continue in the business honors program at Loyola University Chicago, and she won’t admit how many purses she owns, because the amount is borderline obsessive.