The other day I watched a documentary called The True Cost on Netflix, and it’s made me take a hard look at the dialogue around me surrounding fashion. I hadn’t even taken a moment to realise how many YouTubers I subscribe to had haul videos, brandishing the money they spent and squealing with glee as they found new items of clothing they fancied.
I understand not all YouTubers are like this, and some others I subscribe to actually have begun to recognise their ways and, in acknowledging this, try to cut down the mounds of clothing in their wardrobes or focus more on sustainable brands. If anything, this shift in narrative has been a vital step in how I, myself, became aware of this culture. So do note I’m writing this very much as someone who has an overflowing wardrobe myself, who loves the convenience of online shopping, and all the excitement of new pieces that come with it. But, equally, also as someone who’s trying to learn about the importance of sustainability, and practice this in everyday life.
Fashion and retail shopping has wider implications than I realised, and I feel the need to share this. See, the interesting thing about the fashion industry was, in a world where inflation is always causing an upward trend in prices, fashion saw average prices decrease, actively working against this current and cost cutting to make its products cheaper. Whilst this meant more people were able to afford the products which is a positive thing on its own, it came at a cost – specifically, driving down the costs of manufacturing these products, that directly hit the pockets of workers in developing countries who often worked at the factories of these high street brands.
” In a world where inflation is always causing an upward trend in prices, fashion saw average prices decrease, actively working against this current and cost cutting to make its products cheaper.”
Actually, saying it hit their pocket is an understatement. In addition to their wages, these businesses were so focused on profit that they even skirted corners when it came to safety regulations, and maintaining suitable working conditions. This meant the workers were exposed to chemicals, and even risked their lives when this unacceptable neglect showed up in ways such as the 2013 Savar garment factory building collapse, where over 1,000 individuals, people just trying to make a living, mothers, children (I say this as majority of workers were significantly females and children), and loved ones were crushed and never returned to their families.
Now, I’m not saying you purchasing an item of clothing is the direct cause of factories coming crashing down in other parts of the world. However, what I do think is important to note is that when you and I do purchase an order of clothing, particularly those that are sold for cheap and quickly manufactured to stay on top of trends (see Primark’s latest example here), what we do by extension is feed the industry by creating demand for these goods. What this likely means is behind the scenes factory workers in developing countries are taking pay cuts, unable to fight for better working conditions, forced to succumb to the realities of the Capitalist Western world.
On a macro level, this has monumental implications, where Governments of developing nations have encrusted themselves into an economic deadlock, feeding off of what is an unhealthy and vile transaction. Governments are desperate for the jobs and income these Western brands create in their domestic economies, and know that, should they become more expensive, the brands will simply turn to the next developing country. Therefore, they have an incentive to look passed Labour rights and ensure suitable wages and working conditions, only further fueling the suffering the factory workers endure.
Therefore, the discussion cannot simply end at “yes, but these factories create jobs in those countries, which is a good thing”. What those ‘jobs’ do is entrap these individuals into a spiraling nightmare with no workers’ rights, unhealthy and even toxic working conditions, and barely $1-2 a day to go off of, not to mention the families many of these mothers would be caring for. Yes, they may officially be employed, but no element of their role follows official guidelines thereafter.
What’s interesting is we are now beginning to see a slight shift in the dynamic of these markets; as the internet enables information to be broadcasted at unprecedented levels, Reputation is the new black, or rather, the new profit. A brand’s reputation is everything; it’s how it grows a following of people who like their product and keep coming back. It’s how it draws in new customers, who hear about their brand and what they claim to represent. It’s also how, in today’s world of exposing controversy and sub-par goods and services in favour of so many other options, these business stay afloat; by paying attention to and investing in their Reputation.
In my opinion, this is a slightly backwards approach, and in theory a business should ensure proper practice to deliver a quality product which then results in a good reputation, rather than caring about its reputation, therefore it covers all its bases and hence is then incentivised to carry out proper practice, but I’ll take it if it means we can start to see a shift towards more ethical sourcing in the fashion industry.
All in all, this post is to suggest you, the reader, adopt a more mindful approach to fashion. This does not mean you need to necessarily buy more expensive clothing, but rather, not to buy into the fads of the industry, to wear and choose pieces that you will treasure for years and to recognise when the industry is making you feel incomplete for reasons you would not have felt otherwise.
Something I will be practicing from now on is, the next time I shop, be that online or elsewhere, I aim (and hope you will too) to take that moment longer to consider if these items have been ethically sourced, or at the very least ask myself if I will wear it repeatedly and not chuck it away just weeks or even months later. By focusing on the staples in our wardrobe, we can at least grow to practice a more conscious type of fashion; one where we still enjoy ourselves, and styling new looks, but valuing staple pieces that we wear time and time again, reusing and reinventing these in favour of purchasing a cheap top to wear once only go to straight in the bin or pile up in your wardrobe the next day.