From Paris to London to Dhaka, Bangladesh
In the recent two decades, a fashion industry that once revolved around the winter ready-to-wears and biannual fashion shows of New York has been recalibrated to include its exceedingly profitable cousin - fast-fashion. H&M, Primark, Forever 21: the budget-happy names of contemporary high street fashion not only exist as closet staples, but have redefined the term itself -- no longer is it the garment but the corporation that occupies a permanent spot on our hangers. Zara boasts a turnover rate of anywhere from 230-360 styles per week (that’s upwards of 12,000 new designs a year, as if you had 33 different shirts to choose from each day), compared to the 100 or so ensembles that Louis Vuitton showcases in a year. This breakneck production model, known as quick response manufacturing, originates from a form of competitive advantage first harnessed by the Japanese automobile industry in the 1980s. Rather than relying on economies of scale or quality to gain an edge over rivals, firms now competed to shorten the amount of time between design and export, and the emphasis on efficiency over excellence deepened.
Market dominance became centered upon developing, manufacturing, and marketing chains of new products so quickly that competitor firms had no way of matching the pace. Such a model not only pushed companies to streamline their production processes, but also served to fulfill rapidly changing consumer tastes. This was exactly the sort of framework that the infant fast-fashion industry latched onto in the late 1990s. By drastically shortening the interval between seeing a design on the catwalk and appropriating it for mass consumption, retail giants like Topshop and Zara created an industry paradigm oriented around ‘microseasons’, where new designs could be churned out at alarmingly rapid rates. This had two important implications; first, the allure of a constantly updated inventory meant more customer visits and more in-store purchases; second, the swift design turnover rate gave rise to the term ‘disposable fashion’, where cheap prices and ever-changing trends normalised a culture of throwaway couture.
Director Andrew Morgan examines these issues in his 2015 documentary, The True Cost, where he brings to light a jarring side of corporate consumption. “Cutting corners and disregarding safety measures have become an accepted part of doing business in this new model,” he narrates in the film, “an accepted part” that has been briefly interrupted by fatal factory accidents in recent years. Just November of 2012, a garment factory fire on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh killed 117 of its workers trapped inside. On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza collapse killed over 1,100 workers and injured 2,000 more. In between, attempts at labor unionization have led to their activists being violently assaulted or murdered, nonviolent demands for higher-than-$2-a-day wages are met with a gunned police army. When social activist Naomi Klein made a visit to Southeast Asia while researching for her book No Logo, she “spent evenings on concrete floors in squalid dorm rooms where teenage girls—sweet and giggly—spent their scarce nonworking hours. Eight or even 10 to a room. They told me stories about not being able to leave their machines to pee. About bosses who hit them.”
These instances of human rights abuses, coupled with images of the 11 million tons and counting of non-biodegradable textile waste, all serve as a disturbing juxtaposition to the clips of H&M billboards flashing Only £6.99 and Youtube shopping hauls proudly exhibiting their purchases. The manifold sufferings that receive little attention in the global north, from Cambodian garment workers dying at work from malnutrition and dangerously long hours, to reports of harassment as a tactic to keep Bangladeshi workers complicit in health and safety violations, highlight a different dimension of the oft-repeated argument: workers would be worse off in the alternative jobs available. But the physical and environmental abuses surrounding these workers raise questions -- is pulling a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia truly that inferior of an alternative to working 16 hour days, vulnerable at all times to fatally toxic fumes and physical abuse by the factory owner? How much actual research has been done on the wages and safety conditions of these alternatives, or do they lean more towards hazy assumptions fabricated to rationalize corporate exploitation?
At the same time, it must be addressed that these multinationals do operate within the capitalist skeleton of a global economy, and in a system focused on getting the most out of as little as possible, sustainability just isn’t realistically profitable. For consumers too, it’s so much easier - and at face level more appealing - to choose budget-consciousness over environmental, not only because we live in this framework of more-for-less but also because the consequences of financial un-survival feel more immediately relevant to ourselves than chemical pollution in Dhaka. And although Bangladesh’s gross national income per capita remains shockingly low compared to that of developed nations, the garment work is argued to have given women greater autonomy in a heavily patriarchal society, while plans like Europe’s “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” have seen much involvement from corporations responding to consumer demands for greater investment in this area.
Which is why these defenses are not a cue to remain complacent. Both government committees and grassroots movements are necessary for reorienting our approach towards fashion consumption and its effects on the environment and people who may feel psychologically far from ourselves, but nevertheless inhabit the same Earth we do. And as individuals, we can begin by starting more conversations about these issues--for example, each kilogram of textile waste (about 2 pairs of jeans) emits 14 pounds of CO2, so donating unwanted clothes to clothing banks rather than second-hand shops (who have been reported to resell and/or discard a majority of the clothing they receive) is one part we as consumers can play in this worldwide issue. The point of Morgan’s documentary is this: - we don’t pay anywhere near the full prices of the fast fashion we wear. Actual humans and the planet we stand on right now are the ones paying for us to continue enjoying our discounted denim, and complacency is not an option when lives- - both others and our own- - are at stake.
Images from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HK_ElementsH%26M_Zara_20071001.jpg