The Real Cost of Fast Fashion

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‘Fast fashion’ is a concept which initially sounds very appealing; it enables the consumer to see a piece on the runway, or worn by a celebrity, one day, and to buy a version for themselves the next. However, when one looks deeper, ‘fast fashion’ is not as effortless and glamorous as it may seem. Replace the word ‘fast’ with ‘cheap’ or ‘disposable’ and the images conjured up are not so much replicas of the meticulously designed and lovingly hand-crafted gowns of the red carpet, but more of the cheap skater dresses (for example) which one can find in the likes of Primark. It is easy to assume that the masses of cheap clothing sold at unbelievably low prices in high street stores are churned out by machines as most other consumer products are, but this is not so; spare a thought for the thousands of people working for a pittance in developing countries where this is their only route out of starvation.

On 24th April of this year, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing over 1,100 people, and injuring more than 2,500. The crumbling of this eight-storey building is widely considered the most devastating incident of this kind ever to occur, and it is shocking to think that it happened in the 21st century, where health and safety laws are rife in most parts of the world. The factory provided services to a number of well-known high-street stores, including Primark, Mango, Matalan, Bonmarché, and Benetton. The collapse of this factory shook the fashion industry, and has made many high-street stores reconsider their labour policies. However, incredibly low wages and unbelievable conditions still continue to plague these factories in many developing countries.

It is worth considering that working conditions such as these are found beyond the fashion industry, and affect thousands of people across the planet, simply because of our ‘cheap and disposable’ consumerist attitude. The New York Times recently published an article revealing a chilling letter from a Chinese factory worker, which had been hidden in a packet of Kmart Halloween decorations. It was a desperate cry for help, hastily written in broken English, detailing how “people who work here have to work fifteen hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month)”. 10 yuan is the equivalent to £1.03, or the same as surviving on a loaf of bread for a month.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory made many high-street stores reconsider their labour policies

Interestingly, some of the high-street shops have been making more of an effort to be seen as ethical businesses. For instance, H&M produced its ‘Conscious Collection’, stressing its use of sustainable and organic cotton. However, it does call to mind the question that if this is their only range of ‘conscious’ clothing, how would they define the rest? Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction, as affordability in conjunction with sustainability is what the fashion industry needs to achieve if factories such as Rana Plaza are ever to cease to exist.

There are, of course, many brands already championing Fair Trade and sustainable fashion. One of the leaders in the UK is the Fair Trade company, ‘People Tree’, which exclusively uses Fair Trade suppliers, factories, and artisans to produce its collections of beautiful and affordable fashion. Similarly, ‘Pants To Poverty’ aims to change the fashion industry starting – quite literally – from the bottom up! The brand appeals to a younger demographic, producing underwear which would not look out of place in a Jack Wills catalogue, but made with organic cotton and to Fair Trade standards.

So the real cost of fast-fashion comes in a number of instalments. Firstly, there is the social and environmental impact felt in the developing world; every time we save money by buying something made in a fast-fashion environment we are effectively denying the fair wage of the people who have made the garment. Secondly, there is the sad disposable nature of these clothes, which are quickly and often poorly made, so do not last long in our wardrobes. Thirdly, there is the unfortunate perception of Fair Trade clothing as being expensive, which it undoubtedly is when compared to the rest of the high street. The combination of these factors produces a ‘catch 22’ situation, which can only seemingly be resolved through an overhaul of the entire fashion industry, and the attitude of the world as a whole when it comes to buying clothes. It is easy to preach that Fair Trade and sustainable clothing are the way forward, but in a market over-crowded by cheaper alternatives, it is equally easy to overlook the working and living conditions which brought us these clothes. Until the entire industry is ready to embrace sustainable fashion, demand will not be high enough for Fair Trade prices to drop. The first step is consideration and honesty; alternatives are out there to be discovered, if only we can take a step back and come to terms with the whole picture.

Photograph by rijans (Flickr ID)

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