Growing up, my father had a system. Everybody in the family, whether child or adult, gets an equal amount of money allotted to them, and they would do their clothes (and shoes and bags and accessories…) shopping for the Indian festive season within that amount. Unless there was an absolute necessity for buying something during the rest of the year (such as new items for school), we didn’t think about getting new clothes. Apart from birthdays. But, we didn’t get a new sweater unless we needed a new sweater, and so on.
Though I haven’t had to obey the system for quite a while, there are elements of it I still incorporate into my shopping today. I always have a budget I’ve decided on before I go out (or online) to shop, and I put a lot of thought into what I buy. If I feel the need to restrain myself, I keep my cards at home, and take a limited amount of cash. But, this blog is not about how to save yourself money. At the risk of sounding rather sanctimonious, it is to get you thinking about how things that are affordable might be costing humanity more than what’s on the price tag.
Fast Fashion. What the hell is that? Everyone knows what fast food is – it is the deceptively cheap, finger-licking fine stuff that gives you long-term health issues but short-term happiness. Fast Fashion is pretty much the same deal, only to do with clothes, bags, shoes, watches and other accessories.
I’m not the most hip(pest?) person in the room, but even I was surprised at my ignorance, and found out about it in the most disturbing way possible last year, when I watched the documentary The True Cost. I recommend this to anyone, whether you buy one piece of clothing in a year, or a hundred. It discusses the demands of the fast fashion industry (the second-largest in the world, only superseded by the oil industry), and how the demands are outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh and India. No matter how mechanized manufacturing systems maybe, every item that is produced is still the handiwork of a woman or a man, working at a sewing machine for minimal pay and under poor conditions. Global fashion is no longer a biannual, seasonally-sustained industry, but a weekly, or Instagram-trend to Instagram-trend affair.
Consumerism, what’s new about that? And we’ve had enough first world guilt around ‘outsourcing’ low-wage jobs to ‘new’ economies. And these are problems too complex for me to understand, let alone have thoughts on without sufficient research. The documentary is also not limited in its message, tackling the subject from various, well-researched perspectives, including that of waste – one of the biggest casualties of buying too much. Even if I donate my clothes and buy new ones, ultimately, there’s too much of it anyway.
But, I am puzzled and worried at the responses some of those involved in the industry have had to this. A designer who has spoken very eloquently on this subject, pointed out how their clothes are made in Europe, and thus, are not part of the problem. I can surmise their clothes would not be considered fast fashion because of the a) price tag and b) choice of raw materials, and would be made in lesser quantity. Presumably, there would be better working conditions in garment factories in these areas (or as is more conveniently identified, continent), though there isn’t much public access to this information out there. I am also guessing (or hoping) the ethics of this extends to hiring citizens as well as migrant workers, and providing fair wages.
But, that doesn’t solve the real problem here. It exempts the manufacturer and consumer from some of the guilt (the problem of waste persists), but taking the work away from the above mentioned countries (and others) doesn’t solve the problems of the workers themselves in said countries. First of all, there is overwhelming demand – these countries are also huge markets, and most major fashion brands – whether high-street or luxury – retail here. Second, even if companies decide to produce less (though that is very unlikely), it still doesn’t solve the fact that millions of people need these jobs.
And that last statement is so blatantly obvious, but some companies choose to ignore it. Many brands hire independent contractors, and yet, if they actually send out people to check on working conditions and report on them, disasters such as Rana Plaza – a five-storey building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where hundreds of garment factory workers perished after the building collapsed in 2013 – might be avoided.
Local authorities also need to take greater interest and sterner measures in the working conditions, but there are two aspects to the problem: a) if there are workers willing to work for such long hours, for such low wages and continue doing so at the risk of their lives – then taking work away from them will only worsen their situation and b) producing new clothes just to keep up with the feverish intensity with which stores push these items to customers and ignoring how they get made ultimately reflects badly on the company itself.
I realised this when I went clothes shopping in a chain store for my birthday last weekend. There were several pieces I liked. A posh brand (for a high-street store) had some particularly nice dresses that looked good (nay Instagrammable) from afar. Up close, however, I was shocked by the slipshod nature of the tailoring. The material also was of much poorer quality than the price tag demanded. I was even more surprised to see women wearing several items of such quality in that very mall. Did they not notice, or did they not care?
Perhaps, based on my own shopping experience, this is just how things are. I am Indian, I could see all the “Made in India” tags on these clothes (as well as a few multinational brands that also had the same tag). More over, the manufacturing information – such as the factory where the piece had been made – was also provided. Now, do I ask the brand, or the manufacturer why my product, which I had bought during the festive season, continues to bleed colour on every wash? Or do I look for other (and presumably more expensive) options for better quality, ethically produced clothing?
But, I’ve already done that. I know people who regularly buy directly from handloom workers and I’ve done the same on occasion. But, these quality pieces are abysmally low-priced, because they haven’t been through the whole chain of commerce. And I have not paid more for them, even if I know they’re worth more. Just like fast fashion brands, I haven’t been able to resist the offer of something cheap.
But, I’m neither an economist nor someone from the fashion industry. I can see some of the problems, but I don’t know what can be done about them. Even if I did, as only a consumer I wouldn’t know what I could do about them. As a consumer, perhaps I could try buying less – take inspiration from my father’s budgeting system. Make full use of my possessions, reuse if possible (Indian moms have been making cleaning rags out of old clothes forever). Perhaps, I could try to establish communication with those whose clothes I purchase. I’ve written to smaller companies in the past, sharing both positive and negative feedback, and they’ve been just as communicative. I once wrote a gigantic, multinational corporation about the drawbacks of their product (it was not a clothing item), and was surprised by their considerate response – though they did not ultimately make changes to the product, they were courteous.
The point I’m trying to make is, demonising the companies will not help. Avoiding them, or not making them take responsibility for their manufacturing practices by compelling them to cancel their business with these manufacturers won’t help either. What can make a difference, or at least start the process of potentially making a difference is discussion, taking into consideration the necessity of jobs, the necessity of clothes, but not the inevitability of having to spill blood for them.
P.S. Obviously, I am not an expert on this topic and I welcome the opportunity to be further educated. Please feel free to chime in.
What are your views (and practices) with regards to fast fashion?