It’s no longer news that a big fast-fashion brand gets convicted of unethical practices. In the past, the controversy that has spurred between a brand and the general public has been about offenses regarding racial discrimination among, pro-anorexia messages, general insensitivity (of all which had been implicated on Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Hope they’ve learned their lessons).
Copyrights, which are more tricky due to the nature of fast-fashion and knock-offs, have also risen as an issue, fueled by technologically advancing production methods. I would now expect to see the Andy Warhol-stamped dresses from Christian Dior from last March being sold at Bugis Street or Far East Plaza around next month. But now, (thankfully), light has been shed on the issue of ethical treatment of the workforce. This means the conditions of working factories, sweatshops, their pay, their hours, including fringe benefits: pension, life and health insurance. The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed 800, and has definitely increased the pressure on clothing firms.
But, it’s likely that a majority of us, especially discount-hunting shopaholics, have previously pardoned the poor-conditioned, even deathly means of how fashion companies can cut down costs in order to keep prices low and appealing. It’s like the dilemma of fur. Only, the victims are really people. When are we going to drop the emphasis on making clothing cheap and affordable, if the very people making it are treated like slaves?
Let’s face it, most of us want to spend a very little amount of money for clothes. We want lots of it. We expect nothing short of quality. My friends and I did a survey, and unfortunately somewhat reinforces the ‘cheapo’ (read: cheapskate) stereotype. Out of 80 Singaporeans, 82% prefer quality. Out of 80 people, only 8 were willing to pay more than a hundred dollars a month for workwear. Most of them shop at Zara and H&M. Quite frankly, I’ve only gone to H&M to source clothes for photo shoots (oops). The first thing I thought was “no wonder people shop like crazy here. A pair of decent, fashionable high heels at $20? Comfortable skinny denim for $49.90? Mm-mm.” It’s also applicable to Zara, who make really nice workwear clothes: whose quality I can’t tell apart from the Calvin Klein Collection, and are usually only about 1/10 of the price. But the price of fast-fashion brands is not my only concern, since luxury items are somehow made affordable. The industry keeps on inventing means so people splurge themselves with things they can’t afford, e.g. low interest installments for as low as $32.70 per month for a Givenchy briefcase (kachinggg)— and lack of control of consumers themselves: even if they really can’t afford it, they find alternative means to purchase. This is what keeps it rollin’.
Here’s the thing. I’m not saying directly that cheap clothes means purchasing goods that are practically produced out of slavery. But you could bet that all the workforce that made hundreds and thousands of the same shirt, probably had very, very little to earn. Fashion consumerism is so much about numbers, figures, the profits and revenue a company publishes in their quarterly reports. People don’t to pay enough attention to the very people who make the goods: hence China, Bangladesh, among other countries companies outsource their operations to, thinking more about all the money they’ve cut down because labor and machinery and cheaper — but not thinking about the long term consequences from the negligence of working conditions.
Gilda Su of local label Rêvasseur posted a link that definitely caught my eye.
Disturbing, haunting and emotionally moving. I literally cannot imagine what surge of feelings the photographer must have experienced upon discovering the bodies, covered with rubble, remaining in embrace. The two people must have tried to save each other. The man’s bloody tears is a result of indirect murder. Su also justified why she’s very keen on who to produce with, “I work with proper, fair trade workers. It’s the only way I feel I’m more willing to pay a proper price for my production. Of course, this means a higher price tag for my customers as well. But if this doesn’t happen with more businesses, the situations in sweatshops will only get worse”. It’s true. Their lives are not just statistics, calculated in numbers, to generate even more numbers. And I’m honestly still puzzled as to why most companies don’t give a shit. I understand their priority with shareholders, but I’m sure as their audits have indicated, how imperative it is to practice ethically. Speaking in business, mistakes costs more.
In light of the tragedy, just two days ago, Suzy Menkes spoke frankly against fast-fashion, “There has to be a change in mind-set by the consumer. It’s about saying there is something morally wrong about having a swimsuit or dress that costs the same as a cappuccino.” Although I agree that consumers ought to be more well-informed and more critical in their purchasing decisions, it’s the companies that have to show more integrity. It is a delicate situation in Bangladesh, where the garment industry generates the single source of economic growth. Benetton’s CEO, Biagio Chiarolanza, admitted to having (subcontracted) production ties with the factory. However, Benetton is not willing to pull out of the country. “It’s not the solution to go outside from Bangladesh or to think in the future we can leave Bangladesh… I really believe… Benetton and other international brands can help these countries improve their condition. But we need a safe and happy working environment and we need to have better conditions.”
So, what would provide that? What would stop casualty-yielding production practices? Even tragedies in death has not deterred people from bombing buildings, corruption, war, etc. Let’s just hope that there will be more effective (and humane) means of protecting workers, as well as a shift in social consensus for companies to not treat workers like slaves of numbers and not to prioritize money to the extent of cruel practice. Don’t forget about the consumers too, although I don’t blame them as much. With a consumer culture that idealizes sales and discounts to the extreme, it will take a while for them to want to spend more on fashion items that are of more worth and not fall into the pit of ‘easier’ pay schemes. Companies ought to learn that the price they have to pay for negligence is far larger than to produce items people aren’t going to die from, at speeds we wouldn’t have had imagined.