Today, only two percent of the clothing we wear is actually made in the United States. Only two percent of the clothing we wear is held to the labor standards we have secured in the United States after years of labor rights movements, strikes, unionization and slow progress. Only two percent of our clothing is dependable for having decent working conditions for all of its employees and proper compensation for work. Meanwhile, the other 98 percent of clothing we wear is made by women and children in developing countries, working in sweatshop factories with terrible conditions and far too little pay.
The growth of fast fashion in the garment industry is most easily illustrated by how clothes and trends are going from fashion shows’ catwalks to the department stores’ clothing racks in shorter and shorter amounts of time. The limitless need for new clothes in large volumes as fast as possible has led to the movement of manufacturers out of the country and into places like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, in order to get the most product for the cheapest price. We see it everywhere. Stores like H&M, Zara, Old Navy and Forever 21 are known for having the newest styles in fashion at the cheapest prices possible; you are almost guaranteed to find something new on the racks every single day.
But our rapid consumption and desire for the cheapest clothes from wherever we can find them is causing a problem in the global market.
We’re forgetting about the other human lives affected by our clothes. We’ve forgotten about the people behind our clothing; the labor of millions of women and children behind all the deals and the sales.
In 2013, a clothing factory known as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 people. The collapse, now known as the deadliest garment factory accident in history, was due to a structural failure in the building when cracks were discovered in the foundation, but employees were ordered to continue working despite warnings to evacuate. Though workers had complained about the poor state of the building and lack of proper safety exits, owners did nothing. To finish the orders for several companies, over 3,000 people were killed or injured in an event that was totally preventable. Rana Plaza was a tragedy that brought a horrifying, emerging situation to light.
And yet, in 2015, nothing has changed. Though the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” which is an agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy industry for workers, exists, various companies have not signed it — many simply expressing wishes to continue working toward safety conditions in Bangladesh on their own terms.
But with little real incentive, their work isn’t progressing fast enough. The Children’s Place, though agreeing to improve safety, still falls short when it comes to responsible business practices, as they still purchase Bangladeshi garments from factories in danger of collapsing and without proper fire safety measures. The most popular fast fashion brand H&M, though one of the first to sign the accord, has repeatedly said far more than they have actually done, as their garment factories still remain extremely behind schedule for repairs.
It’s easy for us as college students to see the price of a $5 t-shirt and revel at how cheap and amazing it is. But as we remain in awe over our cheap clothes, we ignore the fact that the fashion industry is in a “race to the bottom,” where prices are getting lower and the only place to cut costs are at the manufacturing stage. While we continue to fill our closets with hauls of cheap clothes just because we can, the conditions for workers are only getting worse. Their wages continue to decrease as we shop with no regret at the next holiday sale. The sweatshop laborers continue to have their voices silenced as companies who pay their workers a livable wage go bankrupt, because the standard for treating garment workers has fallen below humane.
But, we still have a voice to help them. Remember that as consumers, we have the power to be conscious, the power to remind these companies that we know what they’re doing is wrong. We can work to ensure our own student store provides clothing free of suffering by garment workers in developing countries. We can encourage brands to make their businesses sustainable, so Bangladesh’s growing economy benefits as well as our own. We alone cannot solve the injustices happening on the other side of the world, but calling attention to it is far better than nothing.
Fashion is a tool we use to communicate who we are and what we believe in. So is the suffering of women and children for the shirt you’re about to put on something you can get behind?