Imagine this scenario:
You’re shopping at Target. That doesn’t require any imagination so scratch that; it doesn’t involve enough imagining. And your kids are definitely with you if you’re at Target, so there’s not a whole lot of actual shopping going on. Imagine you’re shopping in the designer jeans section at Macy’s with your best shopping friend. Not in the clearance section either, the full-price designer jeans.
All of a sudden your friend (who has seemingly become quite “enlightened” lately) tells you she knows for a fact XYZ Company employs forced labor to produce its jeans and that workers at its factories are often abused and paid a substandard wage. Would you try the jeans on? I’m going to guess no. How would you feel toward XYZ as a brand? You would be angry with them, right?
Now imagine you are approached by a researcher doing a study, and you’re asked to rate five brands of jeans that differ along four measures—the style (boot cut or regular cut), the wash (regular or dark), the price and, lastly, whether the company used child labor.
You’re told that due to time constraints, you can only view information about two of the four measures before you come up with your ranking. Be totally honest with yourself: Which two would you choose?
This was an actual experiment, conducted as part of a study by researchers at Ohio State and the University of Texas at Austin. The results were published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
When asked which two criteria they would use to rate the jeans, more than 85 percent of participants opted to not find out whether the company used child labor.
According to a write up about the study on NPR online,
“If we’re actually told that a specific product was produced in an unethical way, we won’t want to buy it. Yet given the choice, most of us would rather not know the backstory. We won’t make the effort to, say, download an app or check out a website that could give us ethical ratings of manufacturers. And the reason we avoid this extra checking-up is at least partly that we’re unconsciously afraid of being upset by what we’ll discover.”
The thing is, we likely would be upset by what we discover.
Two reasons: Cheap clothes and fast fashion.
Clothes became cheaper because we started manufacturing them in developing countries, where production costs are a lot lower. Today we spend a much lower percentage of our incomes on clothes, around 3 percent, and produce them almost entirely overseas.
In 1960, the average American household spent 10% of its income on clothing and shoes, 95 percent of which were made in the United States.
Today, we import 98 percent of the clothing we purchase, so only 2 percent is made in the United States.
“Trendy clothing is cheaper than ever, and cheap clothing is trendier than ever.” —John Oliver
So the question becomes, how do the big brands compete when the clothing is so cheap? The answer is simple: large volume and low quality. To keep their prices really low, retailers have to sell a ton of clothes, and in order to sell a ton of clothes, brands have to produce them quickly and cost effectively. This is the essence of fast fashion retailers H&M, Forever 21, and Zara.
These retailers design clothes to fall apart. Their bottom line depends on it: They need you, the consumer, to buy often and in excess. The clothes typically only last a few washes before they start to fall apart, and then you have to go out and buy more.
Also because of fast fashion, we move through trends at lightning speed now. In the early 90s, there were two to four fashion cycles per year, they were centered around the seasons and planned months in advance. Today, there is no such thing as cycles, only trends, and they are changing constantly. H&M and Forever 21 receive new inventory every single day. This “trend cycle” explains why we feel like we can never catch up to the “it” style of jeans—is it the Boyfriend? Wait no, that was last fall or spring maybe? Now? It’s the Ex Boyfriend. I’m not kidding, look it up.
Add all of this together, and we’re buying way more clothes. According to the 2013 article “Why America Stopped Making Its Own Clothes,” In 1960, the average American bought fewer than 25 garments a year. In 1991, it was around 40. Today, each of us buys, on average 70 pieces of clothing per year, or more than one per week. That amounts to almost 20 billion garments per year, or around 28 percent of all the clothes in the world.
There’s a high environmental toll as well, because we’re throwing away more clothes than ever, overloading landfills and secondhand stores, which can’t keep up. Textile waste has increased by 40% since 1999. Appropriate to mention, because Earth Day is this week. We’re shielded from the environmental and human impacts because our clothing is being produced overseas—the problem is far away.
So hang with me, I’m about to bring it a little closer.
Cheap clothes equal cheap labor. According to Jenna Lusk in a May 2015 article for the Village Blog, most of our clothing is produced in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Most Chinese workers make about $1-$2.50 an hour; in Bangladesh it’s less than $1. It’s true the cost of living is lower in these countries, but these poverty wages don’t even begin to cover basic necessities like food and shelter. Women often work 14-16 hours a day just to meet their families’ basic needs, which doesn’t enable them to send their kids to school or save for the future.
“The reality is, the fashion industry is a 3 trillion dollar a year industry, and only 2% of apparel companies source from suppliers that pay their workers a fair and living wage.”—Shannon Whitehead in “The True Cost of Fast Fashion”
And wages aren’t the only problem. Sweatshops employ children to meet demand. Men, women, and children are victims of indentured servitude: As of 2016, there are an estimated 27-30 million people in slavery across the globe. Working and living conditions are often unclean and unsafe. Almost three years ago to the day, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza complex, which housed several garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500, most of them women. The cause was substandard construction—adding floors on top of floors without proper support—and owners had been warned several times it wasn’t safe.
That’s hard to hear about. All of this is hard. The idea of children being forced to work, women being trafficked and enslaved, mothers and fathers being mistreated and underpaid just for trying to provide for their families, it’s very hard. The world is full of so much hard. We have enough to fight for in our own lives; we have enough difficulties facing us in our marriages, with our kids, at our jobs, in our finances. What’s wrong with a little willful ignorance every once in awhile?
Therein lies the problem. Because there are people behind the clothes we wear.
Every item of clothing, every piece of jewelry, every accessory has a story to tell.
Every factory worker getting paid a substandard wage or being treated unfairly is a person, made in God’s image. And as Christians, we should care, and not only that, we should stand up for the vulnerable and advocate on their behalf.
Right about now you might be thinking, “This is all good information, ethical fashion lady, but what does it have to do with me?” or “Fashion? Seriously? She obviously doesn’t understand my life.” This does have something to do with you, I do understand your life, and I’m about to tell you about some very small steps you can take toward becoming a more conscious consumer.
Because “in order to make purchases that support our values, we must be willing to be conscious, thoughtful consumers—even if it means spending more on quality items.” (“The Case for Thoughtfully Buying Expensive Things”)
Excerpted from an April 21, 2016, presentation I gave on ethical fashion and continued here.