Every morning one often finds himself in the ugly struggle of deciding what to wear, how to dress up, figuring what will look good on them? Every place has a certain dress code, every dress code has a variety to choose from, every variety is offered by numerous competing brands, every brand has its consumer base, and what the entire consumer base has in common is the feeling of following the trending fashion.
The fashion industry is an enormous set of clothes, shoes, accessories, bags, and whatnot. We often use “fashion” and “trending” as synonyms. This dynamic industry consists of many separate but interdependent sectors, all of which are devoted to the goal of satisfying consumer demand.
But here, we are not talking about any regular production or marketing process, the problem resides much deeper in the system. The Global Fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with annual revenues at almost 3 trillion dollars a year and continuous increasing profits as the brands have started outsourcing production. This production is outsourced to low-cost economies, particularly where the wages are very low, such as Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia. It is these wheels that are driving the fast fashion industry to what it is in its present form, and this is what true cost of fashion is. More structurally the True Cost of fashion is a description of consumerism, capitalism, structural poverty and the oppression under the cover of the fast-changing fashion industry.
Operating in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, and China, major brand manufacturers minimize costs and maximize profits by having companies in those countries which are competing against each other. The international brands pressurize the factory owners, threatening to close and moving production to another country if the clothes are not cheap enough; the owners, in turn, pressurize their workers. Brands like Zara take only 10 to 15 days to go from the design stage to the sales floor.
Well, if that’s not enough, in addition to having to work in those conditions and live on low salaries, Bangladeshi workers in Dhaka are often beaten by their employers while Cambodians sometimes shot by police. These people have lost the meaning of human rights and one is fully aware about the Rana Plaza Tragedy in Bangladesh, where workers were subjected to work in hazardous working conditions. About 1,129 employees were killed and many more injured in the collapse of a factory building that had already been pointed out as unsafe and yet the workers were forced back in. It seems like their lives don’t matter anymore. The Rana Plaza tragedy brings into light the global inequities behind cheap clothing.
So, is there a way out for the workers? I don’t think so. Workers in some countries have recently begun to protest these low wages by taking to the streets where, as in the case of Cambodia in 2013-2014, as expected they faced violent government crackdowns. The Cambodian government, like other developing nations, is desperate for business. Therefore, to reduce international retailers’ chance of relocating the production to other low-cost countries, the government holds down wages and avoids enforcement of local labor laws. It’s not just the brands who are to blame for, we, the consumers are equally responsible for this heartbreaking reality. In this age of consumerism, fast fashion has increased our consumption levels and created such a system that instead of the traditional two seasons a year model, we now have around 52 seasons a year, which means the stores have something new coming in every week. A garment from a fast-fashion brand usually lasts for 5 weeks in a person’s wardrobe on an average. Young people try to wear a new look or buy a new dress for every party they go to, without thinking whether they will still wear it after a year. Why do they do this? The reason is that fashion today is cheap and unknowingly or knowingly by purchasing these clothes we cut the daily wages of a factory worker, who himself may not able to afford this fast fashion but is working day and night to bring this fashion in the market. How ironical!
Consequently, the world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. As new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking pace. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone. The global environment is bearing much of the brunt of this clothing production with fashion being the second-most polluting industry in the world. Let’s consider one line of product- leather- to understand the environmental impacts of this apparently “diversified” fashion industry more acutely. Leather production is increasingly linked to a variety of environmental and human health hazards. The amount of feed, land, water and fossil fuels used to raise livestock for leather production come at a huge cost to the health of our world. And raising the livestock needed for production isn’t the end, the sad part is over 50 million animals are killed just for leather for the fashion industry. It’s as bad as raising your babies and then killing them for your selfish interests. Additionally, the leather tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain. Workers are exposed to harmful chemicals on the job, while the waste generated pollutes natural water sources, contaminates local communities, leading to an increased disease for surrounding areas. Studies have found that a leather tannery worker is at a far greater risk of cancer, by between 20% – 50%. All of this is extraordinarily cruel.
The problems need to be looked at from a broader perspective. It is high time now for us to start questioning, challenging and considering the long term sustainability of this model. What can be done to turn the selfish growth of fashion industries into a sustainable growth of fashion industries? Just asking yourself if you will wear a prospective item 30 times is a great place to start shopping smarter and more intentional. Consumption needs to be reduced. Sustainability in fashion is only possible when we do not dispose but recycle our used clothing and make a new piece of cloth from it. While brands such as H&M and Zara promoting this fast fashion, they are now realising the need to opt for this in a more sustainable way. H&M operates a separate line of the brand “H&M Conscious” which manufactures clothing from recycled clothing. It also offers additional discounts and rebates to the customers who donate their used clothing for recycling. It has also understood the importance of good working relationships and fair wages for the workers. Although the improvement in working conditions is not significant, an initiative is required. Zara’s parent company Inditex, on the other hand, has announced that all of the cotton, linen, and polyester used by Zara will be organic, sustainable or recycled by 2025.
It is easy to blame others for all the problems, we all are equally responsible for what happens behind the curtains, all of us- the consumers, the brands, and the government. Everything seems good upfront, having new clothes, cheap prices but change will begin only when we make decisions considering ourselves in the shoes of these workers. We want customers who understand that true happiness is not necessarily achieved by owning more stuff and who recognize the impact of their consumption. It is important to think about the origins of our clothes and to make a connection with the makers of the garments we buy and wear, as well as to inform brands that we care about these people. Although brands have initiated a change, a lot more needs to be done, sustainability is just a step closer to the ideal fashion industry. To end the myth that all problems we are facing today are beyond our control, maybe we can start with clothing!