Fast Fashion: Who’s Really Paying the Price?

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Werner Wittersheim, “Köln / Cologne (Germany): Primark” under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

The brown paper bags are ubiquitous. It is impossible to walk down Washington Street or anywhere in the Downtown Crossing area without seeing them. They can be the size of a lunch bag or the size of a suitcase; either way, the hands they are held in swing them back and forth, content with their purchases.

I’m talking about the Primark bags.

Since Primark opened it’s first US store in Boston this past September, it’s been bringing in crowds of fashion savvy bargain hunters, with lines going out the door to get in on weekends. The different sections of women’s, men’s, children’s and home means there’s something in the store for everyone. And it is so irresistibly, miraculously, unbelievably cheap. It’s placement in America’s college city is perfect, considering it’s the exact price-range for a college student’s budget.  (I admit, I even have fallen victim to “Primania” and actually wrote about it.)

But all of this money-saving goodness doesn’t come without some sort of catch. The reason these clothes can be priced the way they are is because the people who make them don’t get paid nearly enough for their labor. While we may want to brush this off as “That’s just the way it is,” the issue is much more serious than that. The overworked laborers and unacceptable working conditions amount to a deadly equation. Using Primark as an example, a factory in Bangladesh where their products were being made collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.  Primark had to add a page to their website explaining their “ethics” after the Rana Plaza incident.

This is a problem bigger than Primark itself. “Fast fashion” was propound by stores that have been in the US for a while. In every major mall, there is at least one H&M or Forever 21; sometimes both. These stores have started a “retail revolution”, turning the traditional department stores on their head because of their low prices and quick merchandise turnaround. No one can compete with the ever changing array of displays that seem to happen on a weekly basis inside a Forever 21 or H&M.

These rapid demands, combined with the lightning lifespan of current fashion trends, mean companies produce stock at incredible speeds. In order to keep up with demands, companies switch suppliers based on whoever can manufacture the fastest. This means compliance with Western workplace standards get lost in the process.  In “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper”, reporter Michael Hobbes discusses the stark difference in time clothing gets made now:

“These days, there’s no such thing as cycles, only products. If a shirt is selling well, Wal-Mart orders its suppliers to make more. If headbands inexplicably come into fashion, H&M rushes to make millions of them before they go out again. This flexibility means that factories have to compete on the number of clothing lines they can produce and how quickly they can switch from one to another. Chinese manufacturers that once made four products at a time now make 300. Locke profiles a Honduran supplier that used to have around two months to prepare orders for Western brands—buy fabric, cut T-shirt shapes out of it, sew them together, send them to stores. Now they get one week.”

(This Huffington Post long form piece goes into great detail about the labyrinth that is overseas worker exploitation.)

Yet, the scope of this issue can be overwhelming for a girl who just wants a cute, cheap dress for Friday night. Whenever I see conversations about the morality of buying certain products online, the phrase “There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism” is often repeated. Meaning, the market is out of the hands of a regular consumer. But I don’t think this fact has to mean people accept this system as the way things must be.

The number one question people always ask when confronted with this issue is “What can I do about it?” Besides giving money to non profits that may or may not even help those in sweatshops (see ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ controversy), there is little that the average consumer can actually do. One buying practice that I’m certainly glad has become socially acceptable is going thrift shopping or buying consignment. While the original piece itself may have been made overseas, it’s good to use an item for as long as possible. Avoiding new purchases whenever you can is not only ethical, but a big money saver. Seriously looking at an item before checkout and asking yourself, “Do I really need this?” can go a long way.

My only other suggestion would be to embrace the normcore lifestyle. Normcore (a portmanteau of normal and hardcore) is the idea that fashion should be simple. Its pieces are timeless, classic articles of clothing that could be worn in any era, because they are unbranded and plain colored. Going normcore may be the one true fashion trend that stops this madness, because it is decidedly anti-fashion.

It’s a lot to take in, but the next time you see someone holding that brown paper Primark bag, reconsider if you’d want to be holding one yourself.

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