When I started this blog, I started it for fun. I started it to talk about 90s nostalgia, pop culture, and thrift shopping. I didn’t start this blog to talk about sweat shops, fast fashion, and 1,127 dead people in a pile of rubble. Yet, here we are.
One thousand, one hundred, and twenty-seven.
That very long number is the number of people that perished in the Savar building collapse on April 24, 2013. You know the story by now: On April 23, a large crack was spotted in a Bangladesh Plaza that housed shops, offices, and a very large garment factory. Warnings to evacuate the building were heeded by some, but on the very next day, thousands of garment workers were ordered back to work and into the building. A few hours later, the building collapsed, and 1,127 people suffered a horrific death.
A crash that loud, and number that big, is hard to ignore. But with a crash that loud and a number that big, it’s hard to know what to say.
And yet, I feel a strange pressure to say something. I think that’s because nearly every article that attempts to offer some conscience-freeing solutions to this tragedy suggests more thrift shopping. By that measurement, people like me are star students. It’s easy, looking at my closet of 95% thrifted garments, to feel like a smug star student. Nearly every dollar I spent on clothing in the last two years has gone to the Salvation Army, BFM, or Talize. Looking at the images like this from Bangladesh, my inner monologue starts almost immediately: “Well, I didn’t buy any Joe Fresh last year. I don’t support slave labour. I can go back to reading TV recaps and stop feeling guilty.” But I don’t have a right to do that, because if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t start thrifting out of global concern. I started thrifting because I wanted to cool clothing for cheap prices. That right there is the very the same reason people go to Joe Fresh, F21 and Walmart. It’s the same game. That game has less harmful consequences when you play it in the thrift shop, but that mentality - more for less - is at the root of the fast fashion problem.
This problem needs addressing, and so, I’m going to address it. I’ll admit, I’ve sort of been waiting for someone else to say something, so I could just tweet a link to it and feel better. But sadly, the fashion blogging community has been nearly silent about this. Their silence comes from the fact that these cheaply-made garments are their bread and butter, and I’d imagine it’s hard to condemn the industry that fills up your side bar with ads. If it isn’t silence, then it’s a singular post stating that “my heart is with Bangladesh” and “I’ve donated what I spent on Joe Fresh to the relief fund”.
That last option is, of course, a good thing to do, but it’s not enough. What does it do to quell the production of the millions of garments still being produced by millions of people in other factories, in different countries? All the other retail giants (WalMart, Target, American Eagle) are still producing garments in buildings as packed, as inhumane, and maybe even as dangerous the one that fell down in Bangladesh. They just haven’t fallen down yet, so we haven’t heard the crash. Outside the fashion blogging community, various bloggers and non-profits have attempted to provide some suggestions for consumers who are aghast at what the industry has come to. This article offers up some good ideas, and rightly points to thrift shopping as a good alternative (# 6), but again, I’m struck by the last two words in that sentence: “…save money!”
Donating money to the relief fund is good. Thrift shopping is good. Don’t stop doing these things, but they aren’t solutions if the bottom line is still about saving money. So what is the solution? What can we do to foster a more responsible garment industry?
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been in and out of Elizabeth’s Cline’s anti-fast-fashion manifesto, Overdressed. This book tells us all what we all already know, but are afraid to admit: We’re killing the earth, killing creativity, and killing people, by clothing ourselves the way we do. We don’t give a shit how our clothing is made, and we don’t give a shit who’s making it. It’s an excellent, sobering read, and while the book is full of enlightening facts and figures, I think the solution to the fast fashion problem is actually found in the first few chapters: We need to go back to spending more money on less clothing.
To address how we got so very overdressed in fast fashion, Cline starts with these stats: In 1950, the average middle-class salary was $4,237. The average person spent $437 of that amount on clothing. That’s more than 10% of one’s total income for the year going towards garments. That $437 probably resulted in, oh, 20 different outfits. If we kept up with that ratio today, someone with a salary $45,000 would spend around $4,500 on clothing. But you know what the average family spends on clothing every year? $1,700. And that family could get much more than 20 outfits with that amount. If fact, if they wanted, that family could get a staggering 485 tee shirts from Forever 21 for that amount. Those cheap tees are courtesy of workers who spent most of their lives in buildings much like the one that collapsed in Bangladesh.
Those stats alone tell us that the way we dress ourselves now is not “just the way it is”, nor is it “how it’s always been.” Presently, we can’t imagine investing such a large sum into our wardrobes, forgetting that our grandparents and great-grandparents were doing just that. Many of them were poor, hard-working immigrants, and yet they were spending lots of money on better-made, ethically-produced clothing, and they still managed to build thriving lives for themselves and their families. When we tell ourselves that we can’t possibly find another cent in our current budget for clothing, we’re lying. We have the money to spend, we just don’t want to spend it. I just don’t want to spend it.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I save a lot of money thrift shopping, and I brag about it. A lot. Where does that saved money go? It goes to phone data overages, food, beer, and the Apple Store. But what if I took that “saved money”, and put it back into the small minority of people who are attempting to manufacture clothing ethically? What if, when I felt the need to “splurge,” I splurged on items that are made in Canada? On items that are made by businesses that pay attention to human rights? On retailers that won’t wait for a building to collapse before they realize something is terribly wrong? That would be a solution.
I know, and you know, what we have do it, but man, it’s hard to do it.
Many people have a canned rebuttal for this kind of thinking. They’re quick to offer up something like this: “…But those sweat shops have saved economies! And employed millions of people! If you don’t shop there, you’re leaving them with nothing.” You know what I think that is? A load of bullshit. It’s not all or nothing. Would we ever propose that, since women prostituting themselves can’t find work outside of prostitution, we should support that industry, because they’ve gotta eat? Absolutely not. There is always a place to draw the line, and we should always strive to do better.
There is a third way. Yes, millions of people are employed in sweatshops, and they have jobs, but they deserve better jobs. They don’t just deserve jobs that pay them enough to eat, they deserve jobs that pay them enough to feed, house, and educate their families. Right now, they are “dependent on their own exploitation,” and that’s not good enough.
We’ve established that in order for there to be some change in all of this, we need to spend more money. Now here’s the crazy part: we wouldn’t even have to spend that much more. Cline says it best here:
Garment workers overseas are still only earning about 1 percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce. The Worker Rights Consortium has found that garment worker wages could be doubled or even tripled with little or no increase for American consumers. Clothing companies have enjoyed decades of cheap foreign labor and the resulting profits, but what exactly are the tangible benefits to us, the American [or Canadian] consumer? We own more clothes than we can wear, the quality and craftsmanship of our wardrobes is at an all-time low, and the U.S. manufacturing base can’t compete on wages with the developing world, costing our country countless jobs. One of the tools we have to change these dynamics is to not just demand that clothing companies stop using sweatshops, but to demand they pay those who make our clothes a living wage. It’s achievable, and the benefits would be far-reaching.
If we really believe that, we need to pass on that message to the powers that be with the medium that always speaks the loudest: our wallets.
This isn’t a pipe dream, and I’m too much of an idealist to think anything else. In a recent interview with NPR, Cline points to some of the transitions that have occurred in the food industry as beacons of hope, and I can attest to small examples of that in my own life. Just this morning, I walked past Williams Coffee Pub on my way into the office. I stopped for a coffee. I could’ve purchased the house blend, but instead I spent an additional $0.10 for the fair trade blend. Ethical coffee isn’t a novelty anymore, or something reserved for only the hippiest and dippiest coffee shops, it’s standard practice. Even in the coffee aisles at big-box grocery store, major brands like President’s Choice now offer fair trade alternatives. I can only assume that companies like President’s Choice started providing these options as a response to their consumers’ desires. It’s worth noting that President’s Choice is owned by Loblaw, the same parent company as Joe Fresh. So, we can surmise that Loblaw would provide ethical clothing alternatives, if they sensed a desire for it from their consumers. We need to show them that we desire the same thing for the fashion industry.
This is the part where I should leave you with an inspirational list of things to do, articles to read, and places to shop. The truth is, though, I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve gotten nearly 1800 words down, and I’ve gotten a few things off my chest, but I’m still struggling with what to put back on. So, I’m going to do that thing bloggers do when they encounter their own limitations with the English language, and missappropriate the words of somebody far more eloquent.
Thanks for reading, friends. Let’s all continuing struggling with this, ok?