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Who’s paying the most for our obsession with fast fashion? 

Throwaway clothes and fast fashion have been bad news for many years now, but something about it keeps us all going back for more. Even when we have wardrobes full to bursting. We all know the manufacturing processes harm wildlife and the environment. But do we know who else is suffering? In order to produce such a high volume of garments for alarmingly low prices, brands have turned to sweatshops to meet demand. Nobody wants to support the poor treatment of workers, but it seems such a faraway problem that it gets overlooked. The instant thrill of getting a new outfit makes it easy to forget the work that went into producing it.  

Huge labels based in the US and Europe are wise to the fact that they can get their pieces made for a fraction of the cost when they base their factories in poorer countries. Staff can be paid very little for up to 12 hour shifts when worker’s rights and welfare are much lower priorities. Because economies struggle in these nations, people are desperate to hang onto any employment they can get. Few if any are in a position to challenge their employers, or seek better conditions.  

Hand pulling threads
Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Women in the workplace

More than 75 million people are currently employed by the textile and clothing industries around the world. Women and girls are disproportionately affected; fast fashion is kept running by an 80% female workforce. They’re paid less than their male counterparts, sometimes as little as half the living wage. On top of this, they’re also more at risk of verbal and physical abuse in the workplace. Poverty is a huge contributing factor, forcing women into unsafe jobs to support their families. Factory work is often one of the only occupations open to women in some countries.

It paints an unpleasant contrast. Women clamoring for cheap clothes, oblivious that they’ve been made halfway around the globe by girls often of primary school age. Considering the ongoing fight for gender equality in many parts of the world, it’s important not to forget garment workers. Exploitation is rife in fast fashion, hitting those at the bottom of the ladder hardest.

High targets and unpaid overtime do not make for healthy conditions. Women are tasked with making 20 shirts an hour at some sites. Lax safety regulations mean that in the past few years, hundreds of people have been killed in fires and building collapses while working in factories. This corner-cutting and disregard for the welfare of employees has led to dangerous working environments where machine injuries are common.  

The fast fashion lifestyle

Workers in a textile factory
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

Influencers also play a role in this problem. It’s virtually impossible to scroll down the Instagram feed without seeing a celebrity endorsing a new line of clothing. The people advertising these ranges are almost always young women with millions of social media followers and paid partnerships. This combination has given rise to a consumer culture like no other. Promo codes are offered and enthusiasm about the product can seem genuine, spurring thousands of people to make purchases straight away. The target audience is young and impressionable; keen to follow the latest trends and susceptible to constant ads. While marketing has always been a clever art form, it’s taking darker turns as competition mounts.  

Phrases like ‘Made in the USA’ are proudly emblazoned as signs of ethical principles. This ignores the fact that sweatshops are just as real in America too. Los Angeles isn’t immune to questionable business, and undocumented migrants have been found making clothes for fast fashion giants. Vague terminology and the careful cultivation of an ‘ethical’ image can mask a lot. The current shift towards supporting more socially responsible brands is encouraging, but it’s not always being followed up with action.  

Demand is sky high

Releasing an entire collection each week has become the norm. As more brands are ramping up the amount of stock they have available online, others have had to follow suit to stay in the game. Some stores are adding 2000 new styles every 7 days. Anyone can see this just isn’t sustainable, and the ethics of supplying to that demand must be called into question. Rather than providing a reasonably sized range of better-quality garments, companies have chosen to slash prices and find the cheapest labour they can. 

The longevity of these clothes doesn’t factor into their production either. They’re hastily made from low quality fabrics and designed to fit in with very fleeting trends. Fast fashion has a frequent turnover which means that what’s being sold one week is out of date the next. Items get sent to landfill in no time at all. As a result, it adds insult to injury that garments which have come at such a high human cost barely even get worn.

sign reading 'less'
Photo by TheBlowup on Unsplash

Shopping smarter

So without having to make your own clothes, what can be done about buying new threads? Well, quite a lot! 

Choose vintage and second hand. It’s easy for us to say that, but choosing vintage is a great way to ensure you’re getting better quality. Older garments were made to a higher standard and designed to last. They also eliminate the harmful manufacturing processes that are endangering workers and the environment. Switching to charity shops is also a good way to sidestep questionable brands, and helps wonderful causes. Upcycling your clothes can give them a new lease of life too. By sourcing your style from elsewhere, you’re keeping your cash away from companies that don’t value their workers.

Shop for the seasons of the year – not the new seasons dropping online every few days. Being mindful about what goes into your wardrobe means you get great clothes that will serve you well all year round. Aim for higher quality garments that you can mix and match rather than current trends that date quickly. 

Common sense to the rescue. That entire outfit sitting in your cart for less than 30 quid? The odds are it hasn’t come from somewhere that’s looking after its employees. None of us want to be spending crazy amounts, particularly when money is tight, but it just isn’t right to push that cost onto other people. Do a little research on the labels you love. Plenty of brands have resources to tell you about how they’re improving their practices. It’s not always possible to trace your clothes right back to their source, but the more information that have, the easier it is to make smart decisions about future buying habits. 

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