I am a proud bargain-hunter. If there’s a coupon, I’ll clip it. If there’s a sale, I’ll shop it. In fact, paying full price for something feels like defeat to me. My love for finding deals is partially because I’ve had to survive on a limited budget for a long time. Living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and putting myself through school meant having to scrimp and save in every way possible. But I also bargain hunt because I like the thrill of it. I pride myself on not falling for savvy marketing ploys or paying more for something because of a brand name. In my mind, it’s me against the big guys and with each buck I save, I win.
Or at least I thought I was winning until I learned that my affinity for all things cheap was actually fueling the exploitation of people halfway around the world who had far less than I did.
Let me explain. I love clothes and luckily for me, I’ve come of age during an era when clothing is cheap thanks to to the overwhelming presence of fast fashion retailers. For those unfamiliar with the term, fast fashion retailers are stores that sell on-trend clothing at rock bottom prices. They can do this by producing large quantities, using cheap materials, and turning merchandise fast. They are stores that sell $8 dresses that last maybe two or three wears before falling apart. They are everywhere these days and are becoming increasingly the norm in shopping centers across the country.
The problem with fast fashion is that due to the size of these retailers and the massive amount of product they churn out, it is almost impossible for them to ensure that the people actually making the clothes are being treated fairly. It’s a multi-layered problem. First, there’s the issue of lack of transparency. Almost all retailers have some sort of auditing program in place to make sure their factories are up to standards. But it is easy for a factory owner to clean up their factories and coach workers into saying the right things when an auditor comes. A factory worker who feels lucky to even have a job is not going to speak up for herself if she risks losing it.
The use of subcontractors is also a huge problem. Many factories will get orders from retailers to produce garments. But the factory owner may outsource some of the work to another factory. This may happen because the original factory has simply too much work or because the factory owner knows the work can be done at a cheaper cost, reaping more of a profit for himself. This happens without the retailer's knowledge, although it is a retailer's responsibility to be aware of how much production capacity a factory can take on. Sub-contracted factories will not undergo the same auditing procedure as the original factory so especially in countries who do not have a minimum wage or the right to unionize, it is very difficult to ensure these workers are being treated fairly.
The young women who work in these factories have little if any knowledge of their rights, and rarely resources to fight back should these rights be violated. If you’ve never been told that you deserve a break during a 12 hour shift, are you going to ask for one? Probably not, especially if you are one of the few people who has a job.
What truly breaks my heart is that according to the most recent data, the global apparel market is valued at $1.7 trillion. 1 Yet there are many places around the world where women choose prostitution over employment in a garment factory. Not because prostitution is a lucrative career but simply because they can earn marginally more by selling their bodies than toiling for 12 hour days in a factory. It’s a simple choice of survival over starvation.
I soon found that I could no longer walk into a fast fashion retailer without envisioning the impoverished women and children who made my clothes. In place of the thrill that I once got from purchasing a shirt for less than I’d pay for a glass of wine, was the guilt of valuing my convenience and vanity over the well-being of others.
Contrary to popular belief, paying workers a living wage does not result in significantly higher retail prices. In fact the cost of labor for a $14 t-shirt that is made in Bangladesh is only 12 cents! 2 Tripling the wage of workers would result in only a 78 cent increase in retail cost. If my 78 cents means a worker in Bangladesh can take home three times as much money everyday to feed her family, I’m more than happy to pay it. And I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be. Unfortunately though, ethical production is still a niche market. So you will rarely see ethically made clothing even close to the prices of fast fashion retailers. Because economy of scale has not been actualized by these retailers, their prices are sadly exhorbitantly higher than most high street retailers.
Because I still live on a limited budget, I could not realistically invest in these brands all the time. So I came up with a strategy to live out my beliefs.
When I need something right away at a low cost, I go thrifting. The price of the garments is comparable to those at fast fashion retailers. And the quality is better, I promise. Most thrift stores won’t accept items from fast fashion retailers based on quality.
When I need to buy an item that I will wear frequently (shoes, undergarments, a handbag), I do research. I find a product that I really love and I make sure it’s been sourced ethically. It takes time and money. But both are investments I am willing to make. The pride I get from wearing garments that I know are ethically made, far surpasses the pride I once got from scoring a deal at a fast fashion company. It’s even better when someone compliments me on my purchases because it gives me an opportunity to tell them what I’ve just told all of you; the importance of holistic consumerism.
If nothing else, I’m an advocate which is free. The more people who know, the more people will care. And what I hope is that if enough people make the conscious decision not to shop at fast fashion retailers, these companies will have no choice but to put more of an effort into ensuring that their workers are being treated ethically and getting paid fairly.
Until then, I’ll keep frequenting thrift stores and investing in clothing that makes me look and feel great!
Written by Tahlia Prindle.