By Lauren Stanley:
Just take a moment to look down and have a think about what you’re wearing. At this moment I am wearing a pair of Cotton On track pants, and a Kmart tee-shirt. Yet after my research this week, I am wishing I had bought my tee-shirt elsewhere. Never before has the consumer been both so powerless, and so powerful at the same time. Global conglomerates dictate to you what to wear, how, and when. The masses follow blindly, triggering the rise of the ‘fast fashion’ world. ‘Fast fashion’ is a description of how the fashion industry has fallen into step with the way that current society prefers everything: fast and disposable. Gone are the days of two seasons of clothing lines per year; now there are new clothes on retailers’ racks every couple of weeks. For consumers to be convinced to buy into the constant stream of new apparel the clothing has to be affordable enough to be disposable. And, as is often the case, it’s never the retailer that absorbs the pricing cut; it’s the supplier. This is, however, where the consumer can realise their power in this cycle and vote with their feet. Cheap apparel and quick turnover of clothing is hurting people in developing countries. While you, the person buying the clothes and shoes, aren’t directly responsible for this, you don’t have to support it.
‘The True Cost’ documentary (you can find it on Netflix and online) shows how the Big Boys benefit from off-shore manufacturing in developing countries in two distinct ways: apparel and textile manufacturing, and crop growth. The former is obvious; developing countries have a lower standard of living, and thus lower standard of working conditions is enforced. Companies exploit this because it is much less expensive to pay your workers an average of $3-4/day, than $15-20/day. Oxfam outlines a ‘sweatshop’ workplace as one with poor working conditions, low wages, long hours, potentially dangerous environment (structural soundness and lack of OH&S), often with exposure to toxic chemicals. Audits have shown that the majority of apparel manufacturers that supply the fast fashion industry fit within this category, with margins being squeezed at the only place that large companies deem acceptable – definitely not their own profits. Clothing manufacturers have to cut corners, and push their workers even further or the western companies will take their money to a supplier that costs them even less money.
Several companies that sell within Australia such as Kmart, Target, Forever New, Bonds and City Chic have signed Oxfam Australia’s ‘Bangladeshi Accord’, binding them to responsibility for the garment workers in Bangladesh that contract for their company. However, governments are desperate to keep the business that these companies bring to their country.Although agreements such as these have been signed, when companies agree to upkeep the legal minimum wage of manufacturing countries, it doesn’t mean much when the home government there keeps wages very low to maintain business interest. This can be seen in a recent ABC ‘Four Corners’ interview with the CEO of Kmart. Kmart has agreed to pay the minimum wage of the manufacturing country – which happens to be only $38/month, even though a rise in this wage would impact the retail price of the garment in Australia only minimally.
As seen in the documentary The True Cost, Monsanto holds the monopoly on genetically modified crop seeds (in this case, cotton), as well as on pesticides. Interestingly enough the farmers have been encouraged to use greater and greater levels of pesticides by the seed suppliers. This, while degrading the land and surrounding environment, has also caused a marked increase in children born in those areas with mental disabilities and other health issues. Monsanto is owned by an even larger conglomerate, Pharmacia, and this company supplies medications for those afflicted with pesticide induced maladies. There is no losing for these huge western based companies. They profit from the globalisation induced manufacturing boom, they profit in an ongoing manner from supply of pesticides, and they even profit from the damage that they are causing to whole communities, and their physical environments. After all of this, when the land is degraded to the point that crop yield is down so far that the farmers cannot pay the debt that they owe for their seed bills, these companies come and foreclose on the farmers’ lands. The common-place reaction by the farmer is something that Australia struggles to prevent in our own farmers: suicide. In India alone over the last 16 years there have been 250,000 suicides by farmers, this is the largest wave of suicides ever recorded.
Women in particular are affected in this exploitation of cheap, human capital as they make up about 85% of garment workers. Oxfam Australia have found that the people that work for brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, Just Jeans, Bonds, Berli, and FILA just to name a few, have been found to be predominantly women between the ages of 17 and 24. When prominent speakers such as Christopher Hitchens and others consistently proclaim that the key to reducing world poverty is the empowerment of women, these statistics become particularly pertinent. Globalisation has given even more power to the wealthy and already powerful of the developed world. In societies that could so easily create a system of empowerment and fair trade with developing countries, it is so wrong to instead create garments that are produced for only 10-12% of the retail price.
At the risk of sounding like a corny motivational speaker, you the consumer have the power to shift this situation. Consumerism is a choice and you can choose where to spend your hard-earned dollars. Instead of dictating what I think you should do, I’m instead going to outline what I’m going to do. This year I am going to make a commitment to not shop where I know that people have been exploited so that I can wear cheap clothes over my privileged skin. I’m going to shop more at op shops, and Cotton On, I’m going to visit sites such as ASOS ‘greenroom’ and ASOS ‘marketplace’, ‘Braintree Clothing’, ‘Ethical Superstore’, ‘Fashion Compassion’, ‘Komodo’, ‘Monkee Genes’, ‘Spartoo’, ‘The Natural Store’, and ‘TOM’s shoes’. I know it’s going to cost more, but I also know this: 1. They’re going to last a lot longer than anything bought cheaply, 2. I won’t need to constantly buy clothes, 3. These clothes and shoes aren’t going to be destroying the environment through their manufacturing process, and 4. This apparel is actually going to help the people that made it to live, not just to survive.
This might sound really hard but the fabulous internet makes it so much easier. Maybe you think that it is too big a change for you, that it isn’t worth it. Maybe it’s time for you to realise that you are a global citizen and your actions, however small you believe them to be, can impact in a big way on a person that is nowhere near as privileged as you are. To steal from Uncle Ben: ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’. Use your dollars responsibly.
IMAGE: Caesar’s Palace Forum shopping mall, Las Vegas, by Andy