Saturday, July 26, 2014
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The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

OXFORD – I confess: I do it, too. Like most Western women, I do it regularly, and it is a guilty pleasure every time. It is hard to listen to one’s conscience when one is faced with so much incredible temptation.

I am talking, of course, about cheap trendy fashion. I'll visit a Zara – or Hampamp;M, or, now that I am in the United Kingdom for the summer, the amazing Primark – and snap up items that are “cute,” effectively disposable, and so shockingly inexpensive that one does a double take.

I need to face my addiction – and so do all women like me.

Fashion has been transformed by the recent emergence of retail chains that hire good designers to make throwaway clothing and accessories that are right on trend. This evolution has freed Western women from the tyranny of a fashion industry that in the bad old days would dictate a style, compelling women to invest heavily in updating their wardrobes, and then blithely declare their entire closets obsolete – again and again, with no end in sight.

Enter the mass-production style emporia, and Western women have the seemingly delicious and liberating option of getting this summer's must-have tiny floral retro eighties print sundress – which will look appallingly frumpy by next summer – for $12. They – we – can invest in classic items that don’t age so fast, and absorb these low-cost trendy disposables as the mood hits.

These stores solve a psychological problem for us, too, since one can shop at length – a pleasure that may well be hard-wired in the female brain, owing to our evolutionary development as gatherers – without feeling sick about one’s overspending by the end of the exercise.

But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world. How do Primark and its competitors in the West’s shopping malls and High Streets keep that cute frock so cheap? By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how.

We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.

But, like any family secret that would cause us discomfort if faced directly, we Western women turn a blind eye to it. Boycotts of sweated college t-shirts in the United States led to fairer manufacturing practices, and boycotts of coffee and produce, led mostly by women consumers, resulted in fair-trade purchases by major supermarkets. And more affluent women do have a history of effective sweated labor boycotts in the past: in the Victorian era, impoverished women were going blind in the `needle trades', turning out elaborate embroideries for wealthy women, until revulsion on the part of these consumers forced conditions to better. By contrast, today, there is no major movement led by developed-world women to stop this global exploitation by cut-rate manufacturers – even though our money is the one tool powerful enough to force manufacturers to change their ways.

The reason is simple: we like things the way they are.

But it will become increasingly difficult for us to maintain our “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. To their credit, women in the developing world – some of the most exploited and coerced women on earth – are raising their voices.

For example, The Financial Times reported on June 23 that, “Hundreds of Bangladeshi garment factories supplying western buyers such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Walmart, and Hampamp;M gradually reopened under heavy police protection…after days of violent protests by tens of thousands of laborers demanding higher wages.” A thousand riot police used rubber bullets and tear gas on the workers, and hundreds were injured, but they did not back down.

Most of the two million people working in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women, and they are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning $25 a month. But they are demanding that their monthly wage be almost tripled, to $70. Their leaders make the point that, at current pay levels, workers cannot feed themselves or their families.

Economists predict that strikes and unrest will escalate in Bangladesh, and also in Vietnam, with even investment bankers quoted by The Financial Times calling wages for women garment workers in these countries “unsustainably low.”

The factories have reopened – for now. But Bangladesh’s government is considering an increase in the minimum wage. If it happens, one of the world’s most oppressed legal workforces will have scored a major victory – largely symbolic for now, but one that will inspire other women garment workers around the world to rise up in protest.

Western women, we should challenge ourselves to follow this story and find ways to do what is right in changing our own consumption patterns. It is past time to show support for women who are suffering systematic, globalized, cost-effective gender discrimination in the most overt ways – ways that most of us no longer have to face. Let us support a fair-trade economy, and refuse to shop at outlets targeted by activists for unfair employment practices (for more information, go to http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1485).

If women around the world who are held in the bondage of sweated labor manage to win this crucial fight, that cute dress at Primark may cost a fair amount more. But it already costs too much to the women who can’t afford to feed and house themselves and their children.

That $3 pair of adorable lace-up sandals? The price – given the human costs – really is too good to be true.

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