Don’t Mention The Garment Workers! The True Cost of Fast Fashion

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This post was inspired by a documentary titled ‘The True Cost’, which you can watch here. It is a fascinating look at the bigger picture of the fashion industry.

The full story is shocking and heartbreaking – and it is something that as many people as possible should hear. The human cost of the business is alarming, with exploitation being the root of what allows us to purchase such a staggering array of cheap clothes – something that is known as ‘fast fashion’.

Andrew Morgan takes us on a journey to the heart of the clothing industry, which is a global trip to some of the poorest areas of the world. It is gut-wrenching to meet the many hearts and hands that make our clothes.

I’ve Got Nothing To Wear

It is typical to see wardrobes in our modern world overstuffed with clothes, with a constant stream of new items being forced into it. Bags strewn across the floor, shoes everywhere and accessories galore. Yet the cry from the masses is that they have nothing to wear.

Clothes are available so cheaply that there is often little or no thought behind each purchase. It is considered normal to buy something on the hop, as such little commitment is required in terms of cost. But what does that matter when you can just throw something away?

Fashion has become disposable, and it has become fast.

The entire industry has changed in order to turn over more product – so far from the original 2 or 3 seasons per year that we used to see, it is now closer to 52 seasons. New lines are introduced every single week, and the pressure to stay up to date is high.

Until as late as the 1960s the vast majority of clothes sold in America were also manufactured in the United States. Today that number is drastically different. Approximately 97% of clothes sold in the States are manufactured overseas, with just 3% made domestically.

Why Is Clothing Manufacturing Outsourced?

It is far cheaper for companies to outsource the manufacture of clothes. Labour costs in the United States are significantly more than in third world countries including China, India and Cambodia.

Of course the living costs there are lower, so that makes sense right?

Unfortunately it is not so simple. The workers in the factories which make the clothes for large international brands are the weakest link in the supplier chain. They are the point at which margins can be squeezed the hardest in order to maximise profits.

So that means that corners are cut and safety is compromised. Workers are forced to endure harsh conditions, long hours and abysmal wages. They have no benefits such as sick pay, maternity leave or pensions. Their work spaces are not pleasant, and in the worst cases they are dangerous.

The average wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is just $2 per day. So when profit is the only concern of the big business, the cheap costs of production can be very appealing.

Are International Brands Accountable For The Conditions?

Legally, the answer to this question is no. Big businesses outsource to poor parts of the world, and leave the issue of working conditions up to the governments in the countries in question. That means minimum wages, access to a union and other things that we take for granted in the US are not applicable to the garment workers.

Workers rights and human rights are largely ignored on the quest for profits – which, by the way are at an all time high. Attempts to pass a Bill in Congress to place accountability on US fashion firms was rejected, and described as an impediment to free trade. So all that is in place are voluntary codes of conduct.

Globalised production allows large companies such as H&M and Gap squeeze the factories by demanding a low price per garment. While the cost of making the clothes is rising, the actual price of purchase is deflating. We are able to buy for less and less.

Most factories in third world countries have no choice but to comply with demands of the International brands. They are desperate for the business and have no other option…except most typically to shut down. They cut corners to devastating effect, so that the profits at the top of the chain continue to grow.sweatshop TGH

Marcin Krzyzak / Shutterstock.com

Garment Factory Disasters

The full impact of the unsustainable and unethical pressure forced onto factories was realised on 24th April 2013, when an 8 storey building, housing a garment factory amongst other businesses collapsed in Delhi. The workers had expressed concern about the structural safety of the building. But despite receiving warnings that large cracks were appearing in the walls, managers forced the workers back into the building.

The collapse occurred during the morning rush hour, and the death toll reached 1,129, with more than 2,500 people injured.

This was the worst garment industry disaster in history, but was not the only one to occur that year. Two factory fires also occurred in Delhi in 2013 claiming more lives of some of the most vulnerable and poorly paid workers in the World.

The Social Cost

Working in a garment factory offers a poor quality of life. Hours upon hours inside hot and highly pressured work spaces, with exposure to chemicals and extremely low pay. But what is worse is that mothers often have to face difficult choices when it comes to their children. One option is to take the young ones to work, where they spend their days in a dangerous environment, with little stimulation or opportunity to learn.

The other option is heart breaking, although probably better for the children, and that is to send them away to villages to be brought up by extended family. This is the reality for many families, who are forced to be separated for months at a time.

The movie follows the story of Shima Akhter, a garment worker who moved to Dhaka aged 12 to start work. Her starting wage was $10 per month, although she now earns a little under $3 per day. Shima’s daughter Nadia often accompanies her to the factory, but she makes the difficult choice to take her to be brought up by her parents in a rural village.

At another level, the social costs can reach a devastating crescendo, as seen in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in 2014. Garment workers decided to strike in an effort to lobby the government into raising the minimum working wage to $160 per month. After a week of strike action the police reacted violently, with guns killing 5 people and wounding more.

The Environmental Cost

One of the most heartbreaking environmental costs of the heavily industrialised global garment industry is that to Indian farmers. Many are persuaded to purchase seeds for their cotton crops from Monsanto – and as can be read here, this often leads to a downward spiral of debt and depression which results in suicide in a staggering number of cases. Children are also severely affected, from before birth. Many pesticides attack the nervous system, and the number of mentally disabled children in villages supported by such farms is undeniably high.

Rivers are frequently polluted and local eco-systems destroyed by the chemicals required in the actual manufacture of clothes. A shocking example given in the movie is a tannerist, who treats cheap leather. This single leather factory pours an incredible 50 million litres of toxic chemicals into the local river every day. This has an impact on the environment, by polluting the water source and soil. Agriculture is also affected, and fruits and vegetables in the area even contain traces of chromium. Skin problems are rife in the surrounding areas, as well as numbness of limbs, digestive disorders and cancer. Jaundice is also very common, with the chemicals attacking the liver.

Surprisingly fashion is the number two most polluting Global industry, second only to oil.

At the other end of the garment lifespan are the problems caused by the mindset that the cheap clothes are disposable. People buy so quickly that the turnover of garments is enormous. It may feel that we are doing the right thing by donating our unwanted items to charity, but that is not the whole story. Unfortunately less than 10% of the clothes donated are actually sold in local charity stores – this is due to the sheer amount of items discarded as well as the vast array of cheap new clothes available in stores.

Often huge bags of clothes are shipped out to Third World countries, where they drown the local clothing industries who frequently go out of business, as was seen in Haiti.

It is estimated that 82lbs of textile waste is created per person per year in the United States. This is non-biodegradable and slowly releases toxic gases over the months that it sits in landfill.

Cotton Farming

We are introduced to Larhea Pepper, who runs an organic cotton farm in Texas. She has been brought up in the cotton industry and witnessed the change from a natural approach, to a more pesticide dependant method of farming. Larhea expresses concern at seeing such huge swathes of land being blasted consistently with chemicals, with no concern for the future. That includes the wellbeing of agriculture workers, the health of the soil and impacts on ground water and air, and also on the skin of the individuals who wear chemical infused cotton.

Are There Economic Benefits To Sweatshops?

There are some people who argue that sweatshops are a necessary evil on the path to a process which leads to better country labour standards. Benjamin Powell of the Free Market Institute justifies their existence in this way.

When companies open sweatshops they bring technology and physical capital with them. Better technology and more capital raise worker productivity. Over time this raises their wages. As more sweatshops open, more alternatives are available to workers raising the amount a firm must bid to hire them.

He also argues that sweatshops are sometimes the best of a very bad choice of options for the workers in desperately poor countries. Below he cites an example where a US senator suggested banning imports from areas that used child labour.

Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out that for many sweatshop workers the alternatives are much, much worse. In one famous 1993 case U.S. senator Tom Harkin proposed banning imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. In response a factory in Bangladesh laid off 50,000 children. What was their next best alternative? According to the British charity Oxfam a large number of them became prostitutes.

Fair Trade Clothing Manufacture

No matter how well the argument for sweatshops is constructed, it doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable knowing that families are torn apart and lives are lost just so that we in richer nations of the world can have the ridiculous luxury of buying clothes so cheaply that we feel nothing to throw them away.

Fortunately there are other options available to us – in the form of fair trade clothing.

One such organisation is People Tree run by Safia Minney. This fashion brand started in Japan and is now stocked in over 1,000 stores.

People Tree is recognised by customers and the fashion industry as a pioneer in Fair Trade and environmentally sustainable fashion. For over twenty years, People Tree has partnered with Fair Trade artisans and farmers in the developing world to produce a collection of ethical and eco fashion. Fair Trade is about creating a new way of doing business, creating access to markets and opportunities for people who live in the developing world.

Wardrobe TGH

Systemic Change

The one thing this movie makes clear is that we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Every item of clothing that we wear has been touched by a human hand, and we need to realise that the low price we are enjoying is only made possible by their suffering.

As a materialistic society we are understanding that buying more and more things actually makes us feel more depressed and dissatisfied than ever. We experience the opposite of what adverts claim that we will feel. We are used to media telling us that happiness is attainable, if we only buy more stuff. And works! Statistics suggest that we purchase 400% more clothes than we did just two years ago, but are we happier? Largely not! And we have been manipulated to keep spending for years.

Earnest Elmo Calkins was an advertising pioneer back in the early 1900s. He wrote a book titled ‘Consumer Engineering’ where he explained just how easy it is to persuade the masses to buy.

He identified two kinds of product: The kind that we use and the kind that we use up. Calkins explained that the way to sell is to get people to treat the things they use as the things thy use up.

As responsible consumers we need to re-address the assumptions that we hold about our purchases. Watching footage of Black Friday shoppers clamouring to snatch ‘even-cheaper-than-usual’ items that we don’t need in a desperate frenzy is enough to show us that our hunger is getting out of hand.

‘Careless production and mindless consumption’ is the way the the True Cost Movie describes it. The fact is that we consumers are part of the problem and we can also drive the solution. Andrew Morgan, the Director has this to say about the industry and what we can do to change it.

There is consistent irresponsible care of the environment, and clear violations of the most basic human rights. But this is something we can and must change.

The eyes of the world are opening, and I believe history is giving us this moment to choose a better path. Human progress moves forward when those who have a voice use it on behalf of those who do not. It moves forward when a moment is seized rather than ignored. And it most certainly moves when we decide that the profit of some must never come from the exploitation of others. I hope with all my heart that this film serves as a needed step in that progress.

What are your thoughts? Should we be happy that we have access to so much cheap fashion? Or should we lead the way in rejecting the unethical roots behind the clothing industry?

I would love to hear from you.

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