Fast Fashion: Who Really Pays the Price?

Photo by Tembela Bohle on

Most workers in Indian based factories earn so little that a month’s wage could not buy a single item they produce

Student Commentary 

By Janet Kimani / Staff Writer

During the counterculture revolution  of the late 60’s, fashion came into the spotlight as a huge part of the way the youth expressed themselves. From then onward, brands started to feel the pressure of matching supply with the growing demand, and the boom of globalization in the 90’s provided the much sought-after solution. Many Western fashion brands expanded their scale of production into developing countries, predominantly in the Indian subcontinent, in order to save on production costs while keeping up with rapid supply rates. In this way, fashion lovers in the West could keep up with the latest fashion trends without “breaking the bank,” a seemingly win-win situation. However, the less known side to this tradeoff is who has been on the losing end of the deal. In reality, the true cost of manufacturing fast fashion has involved exploitation, forced labor, and even loss of lives. In the literal sense, fast fashion has become to die for.

Fast fashion is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Therefore, the proliferation of sweatshops predominantly in the Global South was a direct consequence of the need to cater to the high demand for fast fashion. An investigation into these scenarios should quickly expose the dehumanizing working conditions that the workers are subjected to. Sweatshop workers are forced to work impossibly long hours with forced overtime and no compensation. Several workers have reported  not even being allowed to have bathroom or water breaks. Moreover, these workers are paid starvation wages whereby, for instance, most workers in Indian based factories earn so little that a month’s wage could not buy a single item they produce.

Apart from this, due to the patriarchal context of many of these countries such as India and Bangladesh, it is predominantly women who are subjected to work in sweatshops since garment work is perceived to be a “woman’s job.” As a result, these women are often subjected to both physical and sexual abuse from their male supervisors and face additional discrimination when they report these abuses to the police—as they are simply not believed. In addition, the buildings where these shops are located often have poor ventilation and unregulated safety standards. The poor conditions of these buildings has led to many incidences of fires and building collapses leading to hundreds of injuries, and inconsolably, thousands of fatalities.

The most infamous example of such a catastrophe is the tragic collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh, Rana Plaza Factory in 2013, which killed  1,135 garment workers. This incidence was the largest loss of life ever recorded in a manufacturing incident, and as bereaved Bangladeshi protestors rightfully pointed out, the incident was not merely a tragedy, but a killing. The reason being that the factory collapse was as a result of poor regulation and negligence, an issue that was unfortunately not novel but rather recurring.

In spite of this, however, many fast fashion consumers, the majority being in Europe and the United States, remain either oblivious or unmoved by the abhorrent situation. What then is the solution? Who is to be held accountable: the big brands outsourcing production, or the consumers fueling the demand?

Undoubtedly, the consumer yields the most power in finding the solution to this conundrum. Therefore, we as consumers ought to leverage our consumer power to demand accountability from the brands exploiting the less privileged in other parts of the world. These companies ought to monitor their supply chains by implementing regular, randomized inspections on factories abroad in order to ensure that the necessary health and safety regulations are being followed. This is especially crucial in times such as these, whereby factory workers  have the additional burden of protecting themselves from the  looming threat of the COVID-19 virus. Additionally, we as consumers should also cut on our consumption of fast fashion, opting for more ethically produced clothing, even inexpensive alternatives such as thrifted clothing.

It is both immoral and unacceptable for people in one part of the world to pay with their lives just so others can seasonally rotate their wardrobes. We are all part of the problem, and as such, we all have a part to play in the solution, each of us in our own little way.

Read Janet Kimani’s article on racial trauma  recently published by The New Global Order. Read more in a JCU interview by Elisa Aceri