This post became very different from what I originally intended.
I’ve just watched a sobering and heartbreaking documentary about the costs of “fast fashion”, most severely felt in outsourced sweatshops (in this case, Bangladesh). The costs of the uncompromising and uncritical search for profit are most devastating in these types of places, clearly visible in the recurring catastrophes with enormous death tolls that result from unsafe working conditions while producing merchandise for fast fashion brands. It is not just that accidents tend to happen in factories with careless safety standards and that everything else is fine. The problems associated with outsourcing for maximised profits are really structural: pollution, toxic waste, severe consequences on health (in one village where pesticides are used 60 kids were born with severe mental and physical disabilities), psychological problems (like when mothers need to leave their children to work in poor conditions), only to name a few.
In the rich world, we have become accustomed to always search for the best bargain for our wallets. This has become even simpler with online shopping. A Google search for “white shirt” gives over 500 shopping options, and with more options available it’s easier to choose the cheapest one. While this may seemingly benefit our wallets (of course we are still buying something), our consumer choices have far wider implications as we may be supporting business models that lack ethical or environmental responsibility and accountability. This is directly harmful to many less fortunate people. When we consume we seldom think about the process the garment went through in order to get to the shelf. What do you actually think about when you read “Made in X” on a clothing tag?
It is actually unbelievable how disconnected we are from the people who make our clothes. In America, 97% of clothes are now made overseas? 97%!!! There are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world today, many of whom don’t share the same rights or safe working environments as in the rich world. Essentially, people are exploited so that the rich world can satisfy its materialistic needs. A series of studies published in the Motivation and Emotional Journal found that materialistic needs in fact have negative effects on us as well. The more we focus on material values and status the less happy and the more depressed and anxious we tend to be. One could actually be forgiven to not think differently: every day, everywhere we go, we are confronted by advertisements screaming to us in every direction that consumption equals happiness or success.
There is of course nothing wrong per se with advertisement or making business abroad. The problem arises when this is done without any serious commitment to ethical considerations.
In this case advertising is, to put it bluntly, just another word for business propaganda. It works especially well when successful advertisers tie their campaigns to messages that suggest that your needs will be satisfied once you consume the advertised product. Think about all the hair commercials that you have ever seen. The protagonist starts out upset because their hair is dry, however, once they use the advertised shampoo their hair magically becomes super shiny and silky smooth. They are then happier, more loved, and appreciated by the people around them. Oh, if only shampoo could do this for me and solve all my life’s problems!
Have you ever thought about the fact that most necessities in life, the things that we actually NEED – like buying a home, health insurance, student fees, and sometimes even food – is expensive, while buying lots of clothes for the sake of WANT are often relatively cheap? Is this just a form of consolation for us, to make us feel that we are “rich” just because we can afford more things, even if at cheap prices?
Don’t get me wrong, it is generally a good notion that more people have access to products they want. But there seems to be a problem when most people (again, in the rich world) struggle to make their basic ends meet, while cheap products are readily dangled in front of their faces and sold as a requirement for success. Especially as these products come with the aforementioned hidden, and truly horrible, costs far away from our own societies.
Many will say that outsourcing creates job opportunities in poor countries, and even if they are not great opportunities they are “at least something”. Of course it’s great to make opportunities, but in the process you can’t compromise peoples short-term safety (health and safety standards) or long-term safety (side effects of pollution and unviable economic models to help people out of poverty). I don’t think those types of opportunities accurately describe or are worthy to be called “at least something”.
My original post was supposed to be about giving advice on buying fast fashion in the least harmful way. In fact, this originated from my experience with a certain pair of fast fashion jeans that I found to fit me really well and to be very durable. As I am 5’2” it is difficult for me to find a pair of (nice looking) pants with a perfect fit without alterations (in my experience more expensive brands generally only tailor to taller women). My aim was to realistically address the issue of fast fashion as it seems unrealistic for most people to radically change their lifestyle immediately.
Before watching the documentary I told myself that until a sustainable brand comes out with jeans that fit my body size well, I will, at times, purchase these jeans. I have, however, changed my mind. I already own some of these jeans and will of course not get rid of them (this would just contribute to more waste!), but I will make it a mission to find sustainable denim that will fit most figures flawlessly.
This economic model of unbridled search for profit has no barriers, its logic dictates that it only works if it can always expand without any limits. However, our environmental system – that is, Earth! – has limited resources and cannot therefore support the unbridled quest for monetary profit that is at odds with a sustainable environment. In 2015 our annual demand for goods and services that depend on nature (fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption) went far beyond what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year. Last year, in order to supply our demand on nature we would have needed 1.6 Earth’s, but we only have one!
The documentary I saw is called “The True Cost” and can be watched on Netflix. I read through some (critical) reviews, but found criticisms to mostly relate to cinematography or to be otherwise irrelevant or weak responses to the issues presented in the movie. I highly recommend the film. If we want to help make a change we need to become more aware of the issues involved.
Here is a trailer.
Photo taken from: http://truecostmovie.com/