Life: Too High a Price to Pay for Throwaway Fashion

REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Bodies of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, lie on the ground as people gather to watch a mass burial in Dhaka May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

The recent factory building collapse in Bangladesh has brought the shocking working conditions, of the people that make many of our clothes, to light once again.

Two weeks ago a factory which supplies clothing to retailers including Primark, one of the UK’s cheapest retailers which makes huge profits year on year, collapsed killing more than 500 and injuring around 2,500 people. You’ll often here people complaining about the poor quality of clothing bought from retailers who prices are irresistibly low, but as consumers we continue to buy these products. Do we have a disregard for product quality? If we continue to support these stores, are we displaying a disregard of quality of life also? In a recent poll taken by Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert site asked visitors the following question, ‘If it was CONFIRMED a fashion store sold cheap, sweatshop-made clothes, which of these statements would be CLOSEST to your attitude?’

The options were:

I’d still buy – if it’s cheap and I like it

I’d still buy – it’s a different culture, charity begins at home

I’d still buy – as at least it means they have some work

I’d still buy – they’re all the same in reality, so there’s little choice

I’d still buy – I’m too skint to be choosy

I’d avoid it, unless I couldn’t find a cheap, viable alternative

I’d never shop there again

I already source all my clothes from fair trade organisations

The most popular answer with 23% of the vote was, ‘I’d avoid it, unless I couldn’t find a cheap, viable alternative.’ The joint least popular answer with 3% of the vote was, ‘I already source all my clothes from fair trade organisations’ and ‘I’d still buy – it’s a different culture, charity begins at home.’ These questions and responses show that it’s all too easy to end up purchasing items which have been unethically produced. We know that the low cost of such clothing indicates that the working conditions for those who have made them are not of an acceptable standard. But, it’s not only at a low level that textile workers are being exploited. Top designer brands have also been caught up in these sorts of scandals. Indie Voices’ Deborah Ross called for ‘unethical labels’ on our clothes as an antidote to the consumer ignorance to such tragedies.  ‘£3 t-shirts would come with a label stating: “Made by Bangladeshi girls, aged nine, in unsafe conditions for 1p a day. Enjoy.”’

A statement released from Oxfam on the Savar building collapse said: “When it comes to the garment industry, as consumers we are involved and with involvement comes responsibility. We can make choices that will make a difference. So too can retailers. The easiest thing is to choose not to see the story behind the brands, but we can also choose to buy clothes that are the products of transparent and non-abusive supply chains. Retailers can choose to do the same, and can hold their suppliers to account – not least by ensuring they respect standard safety measures that protect their workers lives.”

In light of this most recent tragedy many are calling for consumers to change their shopping habits, ‘boycott retailers with unethical practices’ and maybe they’ll change their ways. Surely as consumers we have been ignorant for too long. Surely life is too high a price to pay for throwaway fashion. On the other hand some argue boycotting will also hurt the workers.  If big brands decide to take their business out of places like Bangladesh what alternative work will be available to those who, yes, are paid astonishingly low wages and work in immorally unacceptable conditions. If boycotts mean that retailers withdrew completely than surely we would still be doing a disservice to the textile workers. It seems unlikely that retailers will completely remove their business from countries where wages are significantly lower than those in the UK. However, if consumers start to care more about how their clothes are made it’s possible that retailers will too.

A sustained and well supported campaign, for the improvement of the working conditions that textile workers across the world are subjected to, could be the driving force for change. Whether or not it’s enough to simply avoid buying clothes from Primark, Benetton, Bonmarchè and Mango, all retailers whose labels were found amongst the rubble, in order for them to ensure that their suppliers’ workforce are treated humanely, is yet to be seen. These practices will still continue whether or not you buy your cheap tees from them. For your voice to be heard and for changes to be considered why not take your complaint right to the source. You can urge clothing brands to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement by signing petitions like this Clean Clothes Campaign one. It literally takes seconds.

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