The disturbingly high price of fast fashion

Would you still buy an item of clothing after meeting the Cambodian factory worker who made it with blood, sweat and tears?

Despite the tragic 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, where 1129 workers died, the world’s fast fashion production seems to be growing at an even more rapid pace. Despite a few famous fashion retailers signing pledges of safe working conditions and conduct shortly after this much-publicised catastrophe, I am still left wondering: did conditions really change/improve in the last 2 years?

According to Laura Heller, global fashion brands are churning out fast fashion at a supply and demand tempo throughout the world. In an effort to meet consumer pressure, the UK, US and European retail chains are now opening in each and every country imaginable including China, Thailand and India. Most mainstream fast fashion brands have also recently started launching in South Africa.

Being in style has never been easier. Eerder dood as uit die mode is a popular Afrikaans saying my mom likes to use (translated that one would rather be dead than be unfashionable). And I think it undoubtedly applies here. Today, the idea is constantly punted that one should always (be it at the office or even the gym) be ‘on trend’. I’m sorry, but even as a fashion editor; I will NEVER spend a lot of money on workout clothing. That’s why old t-shirts exist dammit: to jog and to sleep in!

Yes. It’s nice to be fashionable, but one needs to be careful to invest in fleeting trends that are, well, here today, gone tomorrow. The consumer has a right and, in fact, a duty to demand clothing that is made ethically. And this actually means we have to start buying less and better. The industry thrives on what the consumer wants, and we need to start favouring quality over quantity.

We have become too used to getting our way. We are all a bunch of spoilt brats. I want the latest fashion now and for as cheap as possible -stat! We buy five of the same cut of tank top, sandals or earrings, just because it’s 5 for R200. Yet, at what price is fast, dirt cheap fashion really manufactured?

There are now more jobs in fashion than ever before, and many are not properly regulated. And I sometimes find it rather conflicting. On my recent honeymoon in Thailand I bought a pair of knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses for 300 Baht (about R100). Ideally I would love the real McCoy, but that would cost me R1700.

An 8-year-old girl helping her mom sell fakes at a stand helped me. For a moment, I hesitate when making my purchase; and almost immediately the mother chirps-up, offering me an even lower price.

This is their livelihood? Surely I am then helping them by giving them my R100?

Then I thought, am I part of the problem? In the greater scheme of things, how much did that pair of sunnies really cost in terms of human blood, sweat and tears? From sweatshop to street, the R1700 pair of real McCoy Ray-Bans will most likely (not always) have a much higher ethical value than that of the 300 Baht pair.

However, I understand the society we are living in today, where bang for buck is really what most people care about. Not all of us have tons to spend on our appearance. We want to look good, feel good and getting cheap fashion is often the easiest option.

But what really sickened me is the way fast fashion outlets produce heaps and heaps of trend-specific clothing – some stores re-stock every fortnight – dubbing it ‘hot off the runway fashion’.  Their PR executives boast about this as if ‘it is a good thing’, a special service they are offering their clients.

What happens to these trendy, of-the-moment pieces of clothing, jewellery and accessories that formed part of that previous fortnight’s stock?  Are they given to homeless shelters? Sorry, but I haven’t seen any Zara-clad homeless in, like, forever.

There are more sales than ever before. Why? In a vicious cycle, the output rate now actually surpasses the level of consumption. Too much fashion, too much! Everywhere.

In a recent social experiment by Norway’s largest newspaper, Afterposten, a reality TV show called Sweatshop: dead cheap fashion, tracks three doe-eyed young fashion enthusiasts as they enter the world and lives of those working in sweatshops in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh – one of the world’s largest garment manufacturers.

The three, undoubtedly privileged young people, experience the daily lives of women and men who produce our fashionable clothes. They get up at the crack of dawn, work 7 days a week from morning to night to stitch together the ‘on trend’ clothing the world so desperately craves. This, they do for a humble $150 per month. Without rest, without reward.

So much so that according to Ecouterre, Cambodian garment workers are literally working themselves to death. Suffering from severe malnutrition because of bad pay, exhaustion from working around the clock and horrendous factory conditions were reported as the main conditions of fainting spells, often resulting in death.

Living in a cube, the Norwegians experience the confined living spaces workers are forced to live in due to their lack of income. Interestingly, the Norwegians comment on the Cambodian workers’ friendly and happy demeanour. “They all seem so happy”, the one says. Perhaps because they don’t know any better?, they wonder. These workers haven’t experienced anything else in their lives. They don’t know that the average Norwegian’s bathroom is roomier than the square they call home.

Thing is, a lot of us know better.

Follow Marisa Crous on Twitter.

Marize Malan, designer of Morphe has started her own project this month, #thinktwice, that aims to shift our focus to local designers and the importance of buying local.

– Women24

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