Unless they have lived under a rock for the last few years, most people would have heard something about the production of clothes and the sometimes less than ideal conditions under which they are made: in factories with safety issues where workers slave long hours for a pittance. Though this may be the worst scenario and there is a whole range of factory models, the rule of thumb is: the cheaper a piece of garment, the less the chances that any of the (slim) profits are going to the workers.
So far, so clear. Consumers are quite informed and a growing number wants to know where the clothes they wear come from. And a recent experiment with a vending machine dispensing 2-euro-t-shirts showed that most consumers would not buy them if they would know the background story. So, why do people still buy cheap clothes? The answer to that question forced itself onto me, a fashion journalist who has been writing about RMG production in so-called low-wage countries for more than two years, just a few days ago.
I was out in a mall with friends, generally browsing a few shops, when we entered a clothes store. Wanting to just accompany my friends, I entered with the intention not to buy anything as a) my closet is full to the brim, b) I am trying to cut down on consumption and c) I did not know the brand whose store we were entering. My friends looked here, there and I browsed around too, checking labels for production origin; a habit that seems to come with the territory.
"Made in Bangladesh"'. 'Aha, one of those companies', I thought. I looked at another one. "Made in China". Not bad. Contrary to popular belief, China is not the cheap labor country that it once was but is actually one of the few that has raised its wages on par, coming close to paying living wages. Which is why buyers have been looking elsewhere to produce their clothes. I continued browsing when it happened... Across the store, my eyes fell on the most perfect blue-and-white striped hoodie - and it was on sale!
A sweater for 7.50 euros?
My heart started beating faster as I made my way over to the rack. There it was. I reached out to touch a sleeve and get a feel for the material. Cotton. Nice and soft, not too thick. Perfect for a summer evening. I picked the hoodie up by its hanger and checked the label for confirmation - 80 percent cotton, 20 percent polyester. Okay. And while I was at it, I saw the price tag. 50 percent off! Bringing the price to a mere 7.50 euros. And that's when realization struck.
Sweatshop labor. Poor teenage girls probably slaved over this piece of clothing, probably sewing parts of it together till late in the night to support their families. All so that someone like me could fill their closets with another piece of clothing they didn't need. With a sigh, I hung the hoodie back on the rack and walked away, looking for my friends.
They were busy in the beachwear section, looking at different brightly colored bikinis. I walked over. "Found anything?" I asked. "Just looking", they replied. "You?" "I think so but I'm not sure. Want to see it?" They nodded their heads, so we walked over to 'my' hoodie. There it was, still looking extremely cute and comfortable in all its blue-and-white glory. "I kind of like this", I said, holding it up. "Nice", said one of my friends. "And cheap", said the other, pointing to the price tag. "I know", I sighed.
Then they spotted something else, walking away and leaving me alone with the hoodie. 'Maybe I should try it on', I thought and had slipped it over my head before I knew it. Ah, perfect, I knew it. Perfect feel, perfect fit. Damn it. I quickly put it on the hanger again, put it back on the rack and walked away.
Can't buy sweatshop labor. Nuh-hu. I tried to remember something about the brand but my mind was blank. I had not heard anything about this particular one, a fairly new entrant to the market. Maybe the label would give me a clue to the brand's parent company? I checked and again, it did not ring a bell. Plus points though for providing quite a bit of information on the label. Unlike some companies that produce in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, you-name-it and don't mention anything. As if their garments just materialized out of thin air.
Okay, one last look. Maybe 'my' hoodie was not made in Bangladesh. I searched for the label yet again. It was. I sighed, ready to walk away. But then I changed my mind, grabbed the hanger and made a dash for the check-out. "I'm taking it, just paying for it", I shouted to my friends who were by now ready to leave the store. "Okay, we'll be at H&M", they said. I nodded. "Meet you there."
Nobody was at the check-out. I looked around. No one in sight. Giving me time to ponder my purchase. But by now, I was determined. I was getting the hoodie. Just then, a friendly sales person wished me a good day and rung up the total. "That'll be seven forty-nine", she said. 'Ridiculously cheap', I thought, handing over the money. She packed my hoodie into a plastic bag, handed it to me and that's when guilt struck - what had I done? I grabbed the bag and rushed out of the store. Into the next fast fashion paradise to meet my friends.
What can be learned from this episode? I think a whole lot because it was interesting for me as a supposedly well informed fashion insider to feel sucked into the same sales spin as a 'regular' consumer. Apparently, no one is immune to purchase power. Psychologically, there is a lot to be gained and marketers have been milking consumers' weaknesses for ages. I still do not quite know what made me change my mind (against better jugdement) and buy that hoodie. Only that nothing seems to get in the way of a woman in love with a garment, especially if it was love at first sight.
The consumer dilemma
Should we beat ourselves over the head every time we buy cheap clothes? Probably not. After all, if everyone stopped buying those clothes, those would feel the impact first who need their jobs the most desperately - the workers.
Should we seek out the best deals and let price be the only purchasing criteria? Probably not. Buying clothes has become complicated, a tightrope walk. After all, no other industry has seen their prices decrease (despite inflation) in the last forty years.
What we can do is make informed decisions, research brands that we like and that we don't. Buy from the ones that we want to support and let them know that we appreciate their efforts. That we, as consumers, want more transparency and that we care who made our clothes and how they live with their salaries.
After buying that hoodie, I went home, still feeling guilty, and read up about the company. Yes, they produce in Bangladesh and some of their labels were found when the Rana Plaza building collapsed that fateful April morning in 2013. But they were also one of the first to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. And that made me feel better.
Photos: eflon / Takashi Hososhima / Bangladesh Alliance