Cheap. adjective. Relatively low in price; may describe an object that is worth little.
“Where is that shirt from?”
This should be a simple question. It is not.
In high school, I hated being asked about my clothes’ origins. They were often thrift store finds, which was not hipster cool in my small town. “Oh, my mom found it somewhere,” was my default answer.
I don’t mind owning up to my thrift store duds now, or to the LOFT 40% off sale or the Gap clearance rack.
But recently, I’ve learned just how complex the answer to “Where is that shirt from?” could be. My t-shirt’s origin is much more than the store from which I purchased it.
I’ve been researching. And now, I can tell you that the cotton that makes up each fiber of your t-shirt was grown somewhere, likely Texas, maybe India or Uzbekistan. It was then shipped to a factory, spun into thread, and woven together into fabric. Another factory sliced the shape of sleeve and trunk. Those pieces were sewn together and ironed and packaged before they were shipped away for me to pluck from a pile.
Real people, in Vietnam and Bangladesh and China, helped.
I do not think about this process or these people when I scout bargains. Instead, I think about how much I’m paying. Most of the time, I wish it were less. Clothing companies know this. Consumers like me are one of the reasons that clothing prices are dropping, especially at retailers like Forever 21 and H&M. I’m not the only one snatching up camisoles for $1.99 or t-shirts for less than $10. Even I, with student loans and a teacher’s salary, can afford these! These prices seem too good to be true!
Mostly because they are.
There is a cost to all this cheap fashion.
It’s no secret that the quality of these bargains isn’t stellar. Take, for example, the Old Navy dress I snagged for $10 last spring. I loved it. I wore it nearly once a week. And now, less than 6 months later, it has not washed well. It’s pilling. The arm holes are sagging. It feels tired. I can already predict its fate: it will languish in my closet for a while, being worn less and less, before it gets tossed in the Goodwill bag. Its story is not unique. The average garment in a woman’s closet is worn just 7 times before it’s tossed. Seven. That number seems ridiculous, but if I think of how many times I wore that dress before it started fading, it doesn’t seem so outrageous.
Beyond causing me wardrobe angst, cheap fashion also has huge consequences for workers around the world. In the pursuit of lower and lower prices, most companies have moved their production overseas. Overseas labor isn’t all bad. It provides work to people in developing economies, and garment work is often one of the better options for people living in poverty. But shifting production overseas also removes many of the regulations companies must follow to protect workers. Nearly all companies claim to follow countries’ minimum wage laws, but those laws mean very little. Minimum wage is different from a living wage, where workers can meet all their needs with the wages they receive. For example, in New York, a sewing machine operator would make about $1660 per month. In China, it’s $147 per month. In Bangladesh, it’s a mere $43 per month. That means that $1.43 per day has to cover rent, food, and all other living costs. Bangladesh may be an inexpensive place to live, but it’s not that inexpensive .[i]
In addition to the terrible pay, garment factories are often less than pleasant places to work. Disasters like the Rana Plaza factory collapse are unsettling proof. In 2013, employees complained to management about cracks in the building’s structure. Soon after, the eight story building in Bangladesh collapsed. It killed 1,135 garment workers. [ii]
It’s hard to determine who is to blame. Factory owners may seem to be shirking their responsibility to their employees, and that’s certainly true in some cases. However, factory owners often feel powerless themselves. Fashion companies may demand that factories pay their workers more or update factories without increasing the prices they are willing to pay for goods. Other times, they ask for clothing to be produced on tighter and tighter deadlines, for cheaper and cheaper prices, leaving factory owners few alternatives than to work their employees for more hours or lose the job entirely.
The clothing we want, at the prices we expect, is hurting garment workers around the world.
So what do we do?
The world economy and political sphere is complex. The more I learn, the more complications I see. Does decreasing the demand for cheap fashion hurt those same workers we want to protect? Is it better to support them, even when they’re getting ripped off, than to take our business away entirely? Do better working conditions mean that fewer jobs would be available overall? Is there any way to fix this issue, beyond eliminating greed on the parts of corporations and consumers?
I don’t have those answers.
But I do know a few things. I know that I, with all my Western dollars and sensibilities, cannot dictate how the world should work. It is not my job to say what the Bangladeshi government should set as its minimum wage, or to tell China what rights its workers should have. These are countries with cultures and economies and people much different from my own. And besides, it’s unlikely that I alone will convince even one clothing company, much less an entire country, to change the way it audits its factories or the prices it squeezes from its manufacturers.
On the other hand, I also know that a better way is possible. Proof? A bunch of college students were enraged by the conditions under which their campus t-shirts were produced. They convinced their campus stores to purchase from Alta Gracia, which is known for its humane work environment and the living wage it pays its workers.[iii] Another example: ABLE, formerly known as FashionABLE, is launching its AccountABLE campaign to actively publicize how its employees are treated, in every element from the safety of its factories to the wages and benefits employees receive.[iv] These are just a few of the companies who are committed to treating every person in their supply chain with dignity and humanity.
I also know that I have the power to consciously choose how I spend my dollars. It’s tempting to complain about being a poor, student loan-saddled teacher who can’t spend the money on sustainably sourced clothes. But that’s not true.
First, a reality check: I am not actually poor. Not in the slightest. I need nothing. Not food, not shelter, not even clothing. My closet is full of perfectly good outfits that are functional, and even sometimes attractive. I may want a flannel dress or a cozy cream sweater, but not obtaining them does not threaten my health, or even my true happiness.
Then, there’s the issue of my spontaneous (read: unnecessary) clothing purchases. I may consider myself a budget-conscious shopper, but a $16 sweater? Or a $10 tee? I’ll snag those with little hesitation. And those deals are often the items that get begin to look shabby after a few wears. Instead, I could save those dollars for purchases that are more purposeful, for both my closet and the world’s garment workers. Rather than nabbing the first cheap black dress that looks decent, being frustrated by its quality, then replacing it every spring from now until forever, I could be more intentional. I could consider the ethics of the company, the materials, and whether my investment will last longer than one season. This will take a little more care and a whole lot more self-control. But if my actions can help create a more sustainable supply chain, and a better wardrobe to boot, it seems worth it.
Will I ever again set foot in an H&M? Yes. Will I ever buy clothes that are not fair trade certified? Yes. But will I also do my very best to be a responsible consumer, who truly understands where my t-shirt came from? Yes.
P.S. Want to join me in supporting sustainable clothing companies? Check out a big ol’ list of my favorite resources here.