These comments assume that the only cost of cheap fashion is the cost to our wallets and that the only reason we may feel guilty about purchasing cheap fashion is that we're spending our potential savings or racking up more credit. The Australian mainstream media today ran a "cheap fashion" story, with the long (and poorly punctuated) title "The twin test: One twin is wearing a $199 Cue dress the other is in a $50 Target dress. Can you tell the difference?" The focus of the article was the aesthetic differences between the two dresses - the fit, the cut and the feel of the fabric. While mention was made of the country of manufacture (the $199 dress is made in Australia by an accredited Ethical Clothing Australia brand, whereas the cheaper dress is a cotton/elastane mix and was made in China), no comment was made about the possible implications for labour conditions.
One reason the "Twin Test" article resonated so much with me today is that it was juxtaposed against the horrific news of more than one hundred deaths in a factory fire in Bangladesh. Twelve of those people died after jumping from windows to escape the fire (due to a lack of emergency exits). I'm not trying to suggest that the cheap Target dress in the article above is linked to factory worker deaths, or even that Target uses factories with unsafe labour practices and conditions. Target Australia, like many big brands, has an Ethical Sourcing Code, which is very easy to find and download from their website. This is self-monitored, as per the guidebook to their code:
"Target will monitor compliance with this Code, and we, or our representatives, may visit factories to ensure compliance with this policy. Any violations of our Code will be reported to the vendor for follow up and corrective action. Vendors are required to cooperate with the entire process. Where there are egregious violations and/or the vendor/factory does not demonstrate a willingness to comply, Target reserves the right to discontinue business with the vendor/factory."
This monitoring seems pretty wishy-washy to me. They "may" visit factories to ensure compliance, they "reserve the right to discontinue business" in the case of "egregious violations." I'm not trying to pick on (or target) Target in particular. I only mention them because they are featured in the "Twin Test" article and I thought they would be fairly representative of other big Australian retailers. (Out of interest, I spent a few minutes searching the Myer and David Jones website but was unable to find any ethical sourcing policy, just mentions of their philanthropic works. K Mart has an Ethical Sourcing Code, similarly worded to Target's, which is unsurprising as they are both subsidiaries of the same company. I could not find a similar policy on Big W's website.)
What I am saying is that our appetite for cheap fashion, and retailers' desire to feed that appetite, means that manufacturers have to produce garments more and more cheaply. This inevitably means that somewhere along the line, corners are cut, and the least empowered workers are the ones who ultimately suffer. Most (nearly all) big labels and chain stores out-source the production of their garments to third parties. This way, when disasters such as today's factory fire occur, the label can protect their brand name and wash their hands by severing their ties with that factory and condemning its unsafe practices.
How do you ensure that the people who made your fashion did so in a safe working environment, under fair conditions? Unfortunately, this sort of information does not appear on a clothing label along with the washing instructions. There is nothing to distinguish whether it was made in a "good" or "bad" factory. When I'm in a store and spot clothing I like, the first thing I look for is the place of manufacture (yes, even before the price). Unless it's made locally or fair trade, I will avoid it. Individual items of clothing may be more expensive but I am buying far fewer clothes than previously. The only way to ensure that workers are treated fairly is for consumers to demand it and to be willing to pay more for fashion that is produced under better conditions.
Even the "Twin Test" article concedes, "...cheap clothing can often cost more in the end because enthusiastic bargain-hunters buy more items than they really need." It's a pity the more important, human, cost is not mentioned.
As usual, this post is longer than I intended, with half the content. Another post on this topic, and a page with reading suggestions, coming soon!