Our modern form of hunting is for fashionable bargains – we all strive to find the most clothes for the cheapest price. A pair of jeans for twenty pounds might be a deal, but a pair for seven pounds is inherently better, regardless of the quality or source. Yet these small prices come with a large ethical cost. Brands such as H&M, Zara, Primark and Mango are where the public majority shop – so why is it that we accept ‘H&M’ and ‘employee-neglect’ as near synonyms?
Most of us have heard of the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory building Rana Plaza in 2013 which killed nearly 1,200 factory workers. Not only did it result in tragedy, it also exposed the misconduct of several high street brands such as Primark and Mango. Although the use of child labour in garment production is often the first misconduct associated with the industry, and in particular Rana Plaza, other instances include salaries below minimum wage, continuous work without breaks, and staging acceptable conditions for inspections.
The issue of immoral business strategy in the garment industry is far from new. Throughout the 1990’s there was a movement of protest against companies such as Gap and Nike (brands which are still involved in scandal) that used child labour in their production processes. A pattern has developed in which the brand in question apologises for the abuses and enforces new ‘age verification technique’ or enhances the ‘employment process’. However, in reality, the change is only in location of the factory. Gap moved from El Salvador, to Cambodia, to China. Then China increased the severity of its minimum wage laws, so factories were moved to Bangladesh.
As a student in a liberal society, purchasing H&M or Primark goods is often met with cutting criticism, yet the one judging does so whilst donning a Mango top themselves. As an alternative to the aforementioned companies, a variety of ‘ethical’ clothing companies exist, companies such as American Apparel, Reformation, and New Balance. However, these companies come at a much higher commercial price than immoral ones. A pair of jeans from Reformation for example cost £125, versus a manageable £7 for the same cut of trouser from Primark. In student terms, a pair of Reformation jeans is the equivalent to eight weeks of groceries.
It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to pay over £100 for every pair of jeans in their wardrobe. It is entirely possible, and often the reality, that people don’t have more than twenty pounds to spend on a top lest they go into debt.
Fashion is a part of modern living. It has become entwined in social relations, work, art, relationships, and self-expression. While it is possible to wear clothing that isn’t on ‘trend’, it is not possible to wear no clothing at all. So, it’s as unfair as it is unrealistic to argue that fashion isn’t relevant, and buying clothes isn’t necessary.
As students, if we need a black t-shirt for our bartending jobs, or a new jumper when our old one gains one hole too many, our lifestyle requires an element of speed and accessibility, and the cheaper the better. Ideally, cheap and ethical would go hand in hand, but as we’ve seen with the Rana Plaza incident, this is far from the foreseeable truth.
It can’t help but feel as though the clothing industry is against us – the need for capitalist gain outweighs our moral responsibility as citizens of the world in their eyes. A realistic alternative to the black and white dichotomy of moral versus immoral clothing (and expensive vs. cheap) is wearing second hand items. Not only are second hand items student-budget friendly, but they also decrease revenue flow to wrongful corporations. While its not realistically possible to entirely boycott every unethical budget brand mentioned, it is possible to be aware of your role in the supply chain, and how you can minimise the damage on your end.
Image: putri macan via flikr