80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased worldwide each year, which is 400% more than a decade ago. The fashion market is increasingly growing and most average fashion consumers don't bother questioning what it really takes to produce that cheap, trendy piece of clothing bought at the local mall. So the real question that we as consumers should be addressing is: when we buy cheap clothes and accessories made in developing countries, are we supporting a developing economy or taking advantage of underpaid workers?
Clothing is cheaper now than it’s ever been. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average shopper spends less than four percent of their total income on their wardrobes. Its the era of Fast Fashion, new products are being brought into stores weekly, if not daily. Cheap
clothing that keeps up with the latest fashion trends- its almost like you can’t afford not to buy it.
Fashion brands have the possibility to manufacture wherever they want. They have the ability to switch factories at any time, for any reason. This means that desperate factories in impoverished countries are forced to compete with each other by continually lowering costs and increasing the burdens placed on the garment workers who have no say or rights in this equation.
This business formula has proven remarkably successful, with many of the big brands posting record profits. The founders of H&M and Zara are both among the richest people on the planet. And they’ve done it by providing a nearly unlimited selection of super cheap, fashionable clothing that consumers reliably devour.
In a recent interview with NPR, Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Fast Fashion, explained that stores like H&M produce hundreds of millions of garments per year. “They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit out of selling an ocean of costing,” she says. H&M has about 2,800 stores in 48 markets and it’s growing rapidly, especially in China and the United States.
But if these companies are making billions and consumers are getting great deals, the cost has to be absorbed somewhere. And that’s where developing countries like China and Bangladesh come into the picture. Because there is no way the fashion profitability could be so high without an army of extremely low paid workers to quickly turn massive orders around. You could only imagine the harsh working conditions and unsafe environments these workers are forced to work in on a daily basis in order to keep up with the high demand.
Taking into account, the recent tragedy that happened in Bangladesh. Rana Plaza, the building outside of the capital Dhaka that collapsed on April 24, was owned by a local politician who illegally built three additional floors onto the structure and installed heavy textile machinery. The building housed five different garment factories and more than 3,500 workers. Even after large cracks were found in the walls the day before the disaster, factory supervisors – under pressure to fill orders – ignored warnings to vacate the building, and ordered workers to continue production.
Sadly, consumers never take a step back to take any of these statistics into consideration. There are numerous articles, documentaries showcasing the disturbing conditions the workers within a developing country work in order to produce that piece of clothing. That piece of clothing, that will than be marked up twice its price and sold to us at a reasonable price which won’t even cause a slight hesitation, before purchasing it. But, hey its business right?
It’s easy to blame the big clothing companies, many of whom reap enormous profits, fully aware of the conditions where their products are made. From a business perspective, it is a win-win situation since companies capitalize on low-wage labor in developing countries and significantly reduce production costs. They move more cheap product to low-end consumers and increase annual profits for the shareholders.
And then there’s us – the consumers. Because the reality is that none of this would be happening if the demand wasn’t there to fuel it. Factory conditions would likely improve if consumers were to demand it, especially if we were willing to pay more for our clothes and absorb some of the costs.
But doing so is a lot easier said than done. It’s one thing to be horrified by Bangladesh’s recent tragedy and to hope conditions improve. It’s another thing to voluntarily pay more for your clothes at the register. It’s easier to just pretend they don’t exist.
Which begs another question: how much more would you be willing to pay to know your clothes were being produced in an ethical manner?
Do you really care to make a difference?
Do you really care to make a difference?