‘Fast Fashion’ has ben under a microscope in recent years for the environmental, sociological and economical impact its having on a global scale. Companies have felt pressure from both consumers and share holders to produce cheaper items with higher profit margins, and in order to meet these demands in years gone past they’ve simply turned a blind eye to production methods and standards. On April 24th 2013 the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500. This event threw working conditions for those in the manufacturing stage of garment production into the spotlight, and consumers began looking to brands to ensure better working conditions and a living wage to those in their employ.
In the four years since this tragedy we’ve seen some companies use their substantial buying power to foster positive change. Most notably Westfarmers Group, which is the company behind Kmart and Target Australia, began making changes to their business structure to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the changes can be clearly seen at the retail level. While this is indeed a positive and commendable step, sadly they are one of the few companies to have taken such action, and it is a small step in what will be a marathon effort to improve the fashion industries practices towards the people producing these garments and the environment in which they are made.
Consumers have become more aware however, and are no longer turning a blind eye to how the goods they are purchasing are being manufactured. Apathy on behalf of the larger corporations has led to the rise of Peer-to-Peer e-commerce sights and smaller retailers making specialty items in smaller quantities. These avenues are having success in the retail space, as proven by businesses like Etsy which has grown to become one of the largest web-commerce stores by sales volume in the US. The downside to smaller production is often increased cost and therefore a higher price tag for the consumer. But surely now that we’ve become more aware of the true cost of cheap goods we’re willing to pay a bit more for a clear conscience?
Sadly not. When asked in an AP-GFK poll if they liked the idea of locally produced clothing, 75% of respondence answered in the affirmative. However when shown two pairs of jeans, one made locally and one made oversea, 67% of those polled where influenced primarily by price leading them to select the pair that came from an overseas factory.
What role does income play in peoples buying decisions? Very little apparently. The same study showed no difference in those whose household earnings exceeded $100,00 a year. In fact those in lower income households where more likely to express a desire to spend more in order to buy locally produced items. However the end decision remained the same.
The statistics change when you start talking about specialty items, because often the price tags aren’t all that different. What does this tell us? Well, first of all, paying more at the retail end doesn’t guarantee better practices by the manufacturers. Sadly higher price tags just mean greater profit margins for big companies. Secondly, price is still one of the primary concerns for consumers. But does better conditions for workers and more ethically sourced products have to mean higher prices?
Kmart and Target Australia are still providing clothing at ridiculously low prices, and while they have not yet reached their goal of ensuring every worker receives a living wage, they have increased their sourcing transparency and ensured all their suppliers comply with local law regarding working conditions and pay. There is an important difference there; While in Australia our minimum wage is also a ‘living wage’ (ie, what you need to earn working 40 hours a week to be able to provide basic living conditions for yourself) this is not true in most other parts of the world. In Bangladesh for instance, the minimum wage sees factory workers paid roughly $98AUD a month, while the ‘living wage’ would be closer to $358AUD a month.
While this is a step in the right direction, however small, its important to remember the exploitation doesn’t start in the ‘cut-make-trim’ stage of production. The textile workers who spin the fabric, those who work in the dyeing factories and even those who farm and pick the cotton are all underpaid and working in inhuman conditions. While companies are beginning to put pressure on factories to pay better wages and provide better conditions they are usually unwilling to pay more to ensure this happens and often, in an attempt to keep lucrative contracts and still turn a profit, factory owners falsify audits in order to appear compliant.
When we look at companies that are already producing ethical clothing through all stages of the manufacturing process we see prices increase by as much as 300%. This often alienates a large portion of the market who are mainly price driven leaving those who are producing eco fashion in fierce competition for what little market share is left. This leads to smaller profits, which in turn larger companies point to as an example of why they can’t afford to ‘go ethical’.
So what’s the answer? Where is real change going to come from? Well, ask Etiko founder Nick Savidis and he’ll tell you responsibility ultimately lies with the consumer. While consumers are still happy to look the other way and wear cheap clothing that has been made at great cost to the environment and those in vulnerable situations (overwhelmingly women and children) then companies will continue to sue whatever means they can to decrease their costs and increase profits.
The bottom line is this; Fast Fashion is already costing us, just not in the hip pocket. In order to see real change made we’re going to have to open our wallets and pony up.