The real cost of our 'fast fashion' consumption culture

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Thinkstock)

This article was originally published Nov. 19, 2012.

When I had my first kid, in 2003, I vowed to shop only at second-hand and consignment stores. Tiny clothes had a projected lifespan of a few months, and the potential waste seemed grotesque.

But when the second kid appeared, in 2005, an H&M opened nearby. A few more blocks, and Old Navy awaited. For four bucks, I could buy a slightly stained, cast-off onesie from Goodwill, or a brand new, made-in-China onesie from a chain. And then there was the lure of the cute beaded $15 pinafore! It was easy and I was tired. I had so much choice that I chose badly. For the second kid, I bought more, because I could.

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This week we learned of yet another fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh, this one killing more than 100 people. Before the nine-storey building blazed, workers at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in Dhaka were making clothes for Wal-Mart and Walt Disney, among other retailers. The International Labor Rights Forum estimates that since 2005, more than 700 garment workers have died in Bangladesh as a result of safety violations in buildings. Survivors of the Tazreen fire told The Guardian that managers stopped workers from leaving the building after a fire alarm and locked the doors. Then came a panicked crush; bodies were charred beyond recognition. All this for a job that earned most workers less than $40 a month.

So this is the dark side of “more.” And we are consuming more, for less money, than we used to. In 1969, Canadians spent 10.5 per cent of household income on clothing and accessories; in 2010, that figure dropped to 6.5 per cent. An insatiable appetite for makeover shows and a mainstreaming of the fashionista ideal have coincided with a total transformation of clothing production. According to a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, it now takes “fast fashion” leader Zara two to three weeks to move an item from an idea in a studio to a hanger in a store. Couture no longer trickles down to the masses. Anyone can look chic, and then chic again, a week later. Hence, the average American buys 64 items of clothing a year. Fast fashion clothes are designed for a couple of wears, as throwaway as tissue, and often as substantially tailored.

The labour required so we can live like this is, conveniently, so far away as to be nearly invisible. Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment workers, behind only China as the world’s biggest clothing exporter. But other developing countries are in the game too, with equally troubling results: Reported incidents of 2,400 people fainting in 2011 at Cambodian shoe and clothing factories have been attributed in part to poor ventilation and malnutrition. According to the Cambodian Coalition for Apparel Workers, minimum wage in Cambodia is about $66 a month, barely half of what’s necessary to meet the most basic human needs.

The Australian economist Clive Hamilton has posited that the psychology of consumption is based on income generation: We spend more because we have more to spend, like a goldfish growing to fill the bowl. (He also wrote the bumper-sticker-ready phrase: “Consumption consists of people spending money they don’t have to buy goods they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”) In this trembling economy, we might have less to spend, but how would we notice our excesses when prices are so low? Low prices are sneaky that way; in times of paucity, they encourage more purchasing.

Most labour organizations don’t call for an outright boycott of chains because the effect would be devastating to the people making a living in those factories – mostly women. But as consumers, it behooves us to investigate the work done by groups like Labour Behind the Label, which ranks companies on wage reform. Its 2011 report praised Intidex (Zara’s parent company) and Marks & Spencer, and called out The Gap for bailing on fair wage initiatives in favour of allowing suppliers to “self-regulate.”

Self-regulation doesn’t seem so effective in the Wild West of the offshore garment industry. Both Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. claimed to have no knowledge that suppliers had subcontracted work to Trazeen. True or false, it’s a shameful notion that excuses nothing and insults the dead. At the very least, reform and compensation for the families of those lost would be a more humane response than passing the hot potato. It’s no wonder that workers in Dhaka have taken to the streets; what don’t they have to protest against, really?

But these companies have little impetus to invoke fair practices when people like me are buying their jeans and hoodies for our kids, silencing our social consciences against the call of our light wallets. There’s no mindfulness in this kind of accumulation. It’s not what we should be wrapping around our children. Fast fashion teaches disposability: of stuff, of ethics and, ultimately, of people.