It was April of the eighth grade when I made a secret pact with myself. Until the end of the school year, I was going to wear a different outfit each day. It was my quiet attempt to express my creativity through fashion and to maintain control in a changing world.
I succeeded in my fashion mission. But as I planned to implement my "never wear the same thing twice" rule in high school, it became increasingly important to chose quantity over quality on frequent trips to the mall. I was better served spending my allowance on four $10 shirts than on one $40 shirt. At the ripe age of 12, I began placing a high value on a low price tag. The cheaper the better.
This dangerous attitude would permeate the next 20 years of my life. I had no idea that I was perpetuating a global, man-made fashion disaster that was annihilating people throughout the developing world and wreaking absolute devastation on our planet.
Through my teen years and 20's I shopped at Forever 21, H&M, Urban Outfitters - the usual fast fashion suspects. I mean, who didn’t? When super cute dresses are $20 a pop, why not buy a new one for every event?
I knew that most apparel and accessories were imported but for most of my life, I was woefully uneducated about what that actually meant. I didn't know that the lust-inducing, perfectly styled mannequins in department store windows had likely been dressed in clothing that was produced by people so impoverished that they were forced to sleep on the factory floor after working a 12 hour shift.
Like most people, I had no idea that the reputable, successful stores that I shopped at were capable of hiring production facilities that used cruel practices like child labor. I didn't know that it was commonplace in our industrialized global economy to beat or starve workers just to keep down labor costs.
No, I chalked the low price of my clothing up to a cost of living difference between America and developing nations. I made sweeping, misguided assumptions about corporate oversight of the production line. Modern companies can't get away with treating people poorly, right? There's gotta be someone in charge of stopping them from abusing workers, right? Wrong.
If I could go back in time, here are 4 reasons I would give myself to stop shopping fast fashion. Immediately.
In developing nations, many full-time workers can’t afford to eat daily. The skilled craftspeople fabricating the newest fashion trends are paid so poorly they often can’t afford even the most basic housing. Some literally starve to death so they can feed their children.
When these talented yet impoverished craftspeople, most of whom are women, join together to demand a wage above abject poverty, they are beaten or fired by their employers.
In Bangladesh in December 2016, 3,500 workers lost their jobs because they wanted a salary that would afford them the luxury of eating and having a roof over their heads. On the current salary of around $54 per month, Bangladesh clothing industry workers can afford to eat or rent a room. They can’t afford to do both, let alone feed their children or pay for medicine, healthcare, or other expenses.
The thousands of workers who were fired - for wanting to eat daily - were manufacturing clothing that's currently sold at Gap, Zara and H&M.
The Rana Plaza factory fire that killed 1,138 in 2013 made headlines because of it's magnitude. But according to the Guardian, deadly factory fires killing hundreds happen more regularly than is reported. Fashion conglomerates claimed to have committed to changing their ways after the Rana tragedy - but they haven't followed through. In 2016, the Wage Alliance reported "78,842 garment workers in Bangladesh continue to produce garments for H&M in buildings without fire exits.”
In Cambodia there is an epidemic of workers fainting en masse or dying on the job from starvation. For many of the 700,000 clothing industry workers - 25% of whom are starving - part of their salary must go to feeding their children or other relatives. There’s just not enough leftover to feed themselves.
Even with a recent minimum wage increase in 2017 from $140 per month to $153 dollars per month, the workers are still living far below the poverty line. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance placed the lowest recommended living wage for Cambodia at $285 per month - almost double what garment industry workers are making, despite their 70 hour work weeks.
How could we possibly have created such an unjust system and why do we keep participating in it? Is that $12 top worth it knowing the suffering it caused?
When America wiped out trade restrictions with NAFTA in the 90’s, small and large businesses alike began outsourcing production to unnamed, unseen, low-wage factories abroad. As a result, American consumers started viewing the goods that we had once valued - clothes, home decor, electronics - as disposable. It was our great societal reward for outsourcing the production of our belongings to developing nations. More stuff.
Over the last 50 years the average price of a clothing item has gone from $160, in today's dollars, to less than $25. In 1960, we bought an average of 25 items a year and we now buy 70. We are spending less than half of what we used to spend but we are buying 3 times more stuff!
In fashion, the ever-decreasing cost of our goods is not merely a sign of technical progress, as I think many of us choose to imagine. The low cost of our goods is a symptom of systemic detachment from the people that make our clothes and the very real human pain they endure while doing so. The fashion industry exists in it’s current form because we are oblivious to the heinous conditions of manufacturing abroad.
As long as we keep buying cheap fast fashion that was made in China, India, Cambodia, or Bangladesh, corporations are going to keep beating and starving their workers. It's up to us to demand change!
Like many, I used to wear something once then put it in the back of my closet. Every few months when I ran out of space, I'd fill trash bags with clothes, accessories, and shoes that had only been worn a handful of times (or less) and I would donate them to Good Will. I was giving back! I thought.
I didn’t know that my donations most likely ended up in the landfill, where they probably remain today. I had no idea that 85% of all clothing eventually ends up in the trash. Nobody told me that 11 million TONS of clothing are discarded annually in America alone. And those sparkly dresses from Forever 21 - not biodegradable.
The biggest problem I see with my story of detachment is that it’s completely normal. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste a year! That’s approximately 102 shirts and 42 pairs of jeans - per person. Per year! Between 1999 and 2009, the volume of textile trash rose by 40% and it continues to rise because of our obsession with consumption.
It's time to ask ourselves why are we so wholly detached from both the unethical way our goods are produced and the devastating environmental consequence of discarding them?
In a never-ending quest to grow profits, fast fashion mega-stores and boutique luxury lines alike require that we stay detached from the production of our goods. It's crucial to their bottom line that we stay so dizzyingly caught up in trying to keep up with the latest trends spotted on fashion bloggers at star-studded runway shows that we don’t have the time or energy to look at what’s behind the alluring exterior.
In the modern global economy, fashion businesses profit most when consumers are blissfully unaware of the deforestation, pollution, sickness, poverty and even death caused by the products they sell us. The more we see the true human and planetary cost, the less likely we are to buy goods produced under such immoral conditions.
Our only shot at minimizing the devastation is to re-connect with the production of our goods.
For more on my Journey from fast fashion addict to conscious consumer, check out part 2 of this blog where I detail the steps I took to start saying "NO" to unethically produced goods.
The jewelry in this post was handcrafted by me for Annachich Jewelry and the dress is made in the US by Leith. I've also included links to must-watch documentaries on this topic.
What are your favorite ethical brands? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.