The true cost of cheaper fashion

Many of our fashionable and inexpensive clothes are made in places like Bangladesh where workers, including children, are struggling in conditions that might shock you.

In Bangladesh young women are looking at sewing machines in a windowless workshop. Elbow elbows in the stifling heat, they assemble jackets. Together, women need to sew hundreds of jackets an hour, more than 1,000 a day. Her daily wage is less than $ 3.

One or two weeks later, the same jackets are referred to as the hottest “back-to-school” items of the fall and are being sold to teens in American malls for $ 14.99.

Jackets are just one example of what is known as fast fashion: fashionable clothing that is designed, created and sold as quickly as possible at extremely low prices. New looks arrive at the shops every week or even every day and they cost so little that many people can afford to fill their new wardrobes several times a year and throw them away when their style is outdated.

Channels like H & M and Zara quickly introduced fashion in the early 2000s and have since spread to the clothing industry. As a result, global apparel production has more than tripled since 2000. The industry today produces more than 150 billion garments per year.

Fast fashion items can not cost much at checkouts, but they have a serious price: tens of millions of people in developing countries, some children only, work long hours in dangerous conditions. labeled misery workshops. Most textile workers are rarely paid to survive.

Fast fashion also harms the environment. The garments are made with toxic chemicals and shipped around the world, making the fashion industry the second largest polluter in the world after the oil industry. Every year, millions of tons of discarded clothing are dumped.

“A lot of what we’re throwing has not been worn often,” says Over Dressed writer Elizabeth Cline, The Extremely High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “Clothing has become a form of cheap entertainment.”

Until the 1970s, most American garments were made in the United States. Apparel production, like many other industrial goods, began to move abroad, where labor costs were lower. In 1990, half of the clothes sold in the US were made in the United States. Today it is only 2%.

Most American apparel companies are now manufacturing their wares in Asian developing countries (see map below). Workers earn a fraction of what American workers earn and have less protection. Lower labor costs result in lower prices for buyers (who then buy more clothes) and higher profits for retailers. This has helped fashion become a $ 3 trillion global industry.

Today, many of the 75 million textile workers live in China and Bangladesh, the two largest apparel producers. Workers often earn a few dollars a day. Many are women in youth.

“They are sometimes the first in their family to have a real job, so the family is eager to get them to the factories as soon as possible,” says Michael Posner of the New York University’s Stern Center for Economics and Human Rights. York. “It’s a very difficult existence.”

In fact, textile workers often work in thick, windowless rooms with the fumes of chemicals used to make and dye clothes. If they dare to miss a day because they are sick, they risk being fired.

That was not an option for Taslima Aktar. The 23-year-old could not afford to lose his job at the Windy Apparels factory in Bangladesh when his manager last year refused to see him for a persistent fever, she accepted it.

A few weeks later, Aktar fainted at work. After her resuscitation, her boss sent her back to her sewing machine. Shortly after, her heart stopped and she died.

“We know that the same thing can happen every day,” says one of Aktar’s colleagues, who told his story in Slate.

Picture of class magazines

G.M.B. Akash / PANOS (child worker); Andrew Biraj / LANDOV / Reuters (collapsed factory)
A 13-year-old boy in a textile factory in Bangladesh; The collapse of clothing factory Rana Plaza (right) in Bangladesh in 2013 claimed more than 1,100 lives.

A deadly accident

Until April 24, 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, many people did not think about how their clothes were made. The deadliest accident in the history of the apparel industry killed more than 1,100 workers and injured another 2,500. The factory, cluttered with too many floors, workers and equipment, clad clothes for global brands like Benetton, Joe Fresh and Mango.

After the accident, many major brands have committed to improving conditions in garment factories. Around 200 large clothing companies have joined forces to develop plant monitoring programs in Bangladesh. In recent years, these programs have trained about 2 million workers in security procedures. The companies also hired independent engineers to visit their factories.

Even in southern China, many factories now offer safer working conditions and better wages than they did ten years ago. In some regions, the minimum wage of clothing workers reached $ 312 per month last year, up 42% from the previous year.

However, better working conditions and better wages have a price. Some factories in Bangladesh have had to reduce their production capacity to pay their employees and repair their buildings. This means that factories can respond less to massive orders from large brands. As a result, major apparel companies could shift their businesses to even poorer and less regulated countries, experts say.

Other installations can not afford to make the necessary structural improvements to their safety. (Of the 2,000 Bangladesh factories surveyed, only 79 passed the final inspection in March 2017).

This is one of the reasons why dangerous working conditions persist. Last year, 13 people were killed in a clothing factory in India. In June, another fire injured more than 20 workers in Bangladesh. Some jumped out of the third-floor windows to escape the flames.

Ecological damage

Fast fashion also pollutes the environment. The industry consumes large amounts of water and other natural resources. Producing enough cotton for a pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water, which is equivalent to about 105 showers.

Polyester from petroleum releases dangerous gases into the air. And a quarter of all US pesticides are cotton. (The United States sends about 70% of the cotton it grows abroad, where it turns into clothing.) Some of these pesticides can cause asthma and other health problems as well as chemicals pollute fresh water.

The damage does not stop once the clothing is made. Americans throw on average more than 70 kilos of clothing and shoes a year. Most are burned or stacked in landfills, where synthetic fibers take hundreds of years to decompose.

“There are many other problems in the fashion industry: air pollution and water in China, poverty and low wages in Bangladesh,” says Cline. “Rubbish happens in our own backyard.”

Many big brands are required to improve production conditions.

As more and more people became aware of the unpleasant side of fast fashion, the demand for ethically made garments has increased. In the US, hundreds of start-ups make clothes made from recycled or organic fabrics. These companies use materials from US factories where they can better control working conditions. Big brands are also trying to be greener. For example, H & M offers its customers a credit for the recycling of clothing at points of sale.

“I think we’ll see the big fashion brands become leaders in sustainable clothing, making them affordable and accessible,” Cline predicts.

But experts agree that garment manufacturers need to do more than just make an effort to tackle fast fashion issues. Local factory owners, global retailers and consumers play a role.

According to the experts, when teen shoppers who are in fashion fast, learn how their clothes are made and think carefully about what they are buying, it can make a real difference.

“It’s everyone’s problem,” says Posner, “and it’s up to everyone to come together to solve it.”

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