Today when we think of fast fashion we think of brands like Zara who release new items weekly for us to shop. Fast fashion is constant clothing releases, styles that are on trend, and retail prices that don’t break the bank. Being on trend in an industry that changes at lightning speed is difficult and production is usually the factor that slows brands down. In an effort to increase the speed and lower production costs, brands turn to cheap production methods like outsourcing. They manufacture their products in countries with poor labor laws and low production costs in order to maintain low consumer prices and high profit margins. Major corporations, such as H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, prioritize speed over ethics which causes many garment factory workers to be underpaid and receive less than adequate working conditions. I am definitely guilty of buying clothes from fast fashion brands because their clothes are trendy and work for my college budget. But over the past few months and especially during my time in quarantine, I have taken the time to understand that there is a much greater cost than any amount of money I save by shopping at fast fashion retailers.
Most garment workers in these factories are young women, ages 18 to 30, and many are mothers, struggling to raise their families and make a living wage. In Bangladesh, women do not have the same right to work as we do in America, so when searching for jobs, they take what they can get. Most often, these jobs are in fast fashion factories where the working conditions and pay are poor, but they desperately need the money.
Women working in these factories are paid less than their country’s living wage ($1,107.12 per year) and work in extremely unsafe conditions. In comparison, the United States’ minimum living wage is $67,146. American workers are also given the right to voice their complaints about discriminiation, harassment, and poor working conditions without fear of retaliation from their employers thanks to Workers’ Rights. The factory workers in Bangladesh do not experience the same rights. If they speak up about any of the wrongdoings they face every day at work, there is a fear that they will lose their jobs or experience brutal retaliation. They work long days in extremely unsafe and unjust conditions but are the backbone of these major brands. Despite their hard work and importance to the company, if their wages rise above what the brand is willing to pay, the company will find another factory that will comply with their wages and leave their old garment workers unemployed.
Retail shopping has slowed significantly and in response, large corporations have been forced to cancel orders from their factories. Factories in Bangladesh have had approximately $1.5B worth of orders canceled. Companies are refusing to pay the workers for products they are no longer selling despite production being complete. As a result of the virus and a halt in production, millions of garment workers have lost their jobs and have zero access to social or financial safety nets to help them make ends meet. Many factories have been forced to shut down indefinitely, leaving its former garment workers in severe poverty and without a job for the future.
In the future, we need to see change. If companies continue to offshore their products, there must be some kind of system to keep their workers safe. Once we go back to life as it was before the virus, we cannot allow offshoring to revert to business-as-usual. It is vital that we let brands know that we will not allow offshored workers to be treated as less than human; we have to reevaluate the power we hold in our purchases.
Millions of retail employees have been furloughed and even after the virus has been controlled, it is uncertain what the retail industry will become. In a virtual event hosted by Business of Fashion with Susanne Tide-Frater, she answered many questions about how she envisioned a more sustainable industry. She responds,
“The sustainable approach at the moment must be scratched and we need to start again. It has been used by companies to promote surface-level measures but sustainability can only work if it spans the entire company from raw materials to the HR department. [In the future I would like to see] fast fashion abolished and have fashion become local again.”
Many companies today claim their sustainable efforts in their fabric choices or in their ability to save water in the way that they produce a pair of jeans but many of these same companies are using these factories where workers are underpaid. By scratching and starting over, companies will become entirely sustainable, as consumers, can use our dollars to support ethical practices and avoid those who neglect them. Experts say the future of fashion is going local, but what does that mean for fast fashion companies and their suppliers? Hopefully these fast fashion industries can use this time of slowed production to not only respond to public health demands of Covid-19, but continue to push themselves ethically as they reshape their supply chain at every level.