I was on my way to get my hair done like any proper upper-middle-class female should be, when I ran into one of the numerous carts around Dhaka that sell clothes.
There’s a persona I take on when I’m shopping from these carts; I pretend to casually look at the selection when an inner monkey in my head is jumping and burrowing into it to find gold. Which I did. A cardigan and a pair of leggings. With H&M labels. They HAD to be mine!
That little monkey inside me was already handing my wallet to the vendor. In the end, I got away with paying about five US dollars. My new permanent outfit (that would last for about a month before I found my new permanent outfit) was born.
I have purchased H&M clothing from H&M outlets in different parts of the world. That cardigan would have cost me an even fifteen dollars at least. That’s a 600% markup to what I paid for it here. Six times the amount of money going into H&M’s pockets. So I wondered, why did the cardigan actually cost so little?
Well, here’s what’s going on:
In economics, externalities are the costs of production that are not factored in when making profit calculations. Externalities include pollution, labor exploitation, and socio-cultural influence among many other hidden impacts of industrialized production. In the fast fashion industry, all these externalities, if added up, would result in a much lower profit projection for large corporations. And we can’t have that, can we? How else is the trickle-down effect going to keep functioning?
Labour exploitation is a fancy name for what is essentially modern slavery that has taken hold in the fabric of modern society. The global production industry is an oligarchy. These small number of giant corporations control the markets. There is a competitive requirement ‘for poorer countries to offer the cheapest workers and the most flexible (unregulated) conditions’ (Delahanty, 1999).
In order to do that, the sub-contractors in these countries lower the prices to get the business. Which they do by exploiting the most vulnerable of the labor force in the country: poor women (and, don’t you worry, I am going to break down exactly how women’s labors are exploited in another piece). Which results in incidents like the Rana Plaza fire. Go figure.
Women are hired because they can be underpaid, and so they are underpaid and overworked, but because they are women, they also have a second job: that of managing their homes.
My cardigan cost the unpaid time a woman sacrifices to afford to survive in a society that so drastically undervalues her. My cardigan was born in a system that has cost the lives of numerous women.
The cardigan that had bonded with my soul was part cotton and part polyester. It was an amalgamation of fibers, dyes, and chemicals from agricultural and industrial sources. The cotton and dyes used were most probably produced in India. The seed used to make the cotton plants are all owned by one company, forcing poor Indian farmers out of business and leading them to suicide as this company takes over their lands and earnings.
The chemicals used to produce the dyes have been causing birth defects and disease like cancer for years without anyone caring. The clothing industry is also the second-largest industrial polluter in the world (Fleming, 2015).
My cardigan cost the lives of fathers, husbands, and sons. My cardigan was born in a system that has cost the lives of numerous men and women.
Standing in front of a mirror, I put on the cardigan. I admire myself in it, the way it fits me, how the navy blue sets off my warm-toned skin so perfectly, how it hit that sweet spot between my bottom and my hips. I feel better when I look better. At that moment, it occurs to me: material objects are inextricably linked to my identity. What?!
Since the 1990’s, the world has seen a 500% rise in consumption in the clothing industry (Titze, 2015). As fashion seasons change, clothes are disposed of without a second thought. Now you may be wondering, well, clothes aren’t just thrown away! Surely, they must be given away to thrift stores, secondhand stores, etc. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, my friend.
Only about 10% of clothes are sent to thrift shops. The rest end up in landmines. Clothes, as you must know, are non-biodegradable. So you can imagine what happens in landfills.
We have become a society that actually associates emotions with material objects. Not objects of necessity, mind you.
Objects of vanity. Our self-worth has become reliant on the things we own. Before you disagree with me, think about how much thought you put into what the color of your shirt says about your mood, or that on a bad day, there is always lipstick; and ‘if you give a woman the right shoes, she can conquer the world’. Yeah, it’s the shoes that did it. Social activism has become mainstream enough to be marketable.
Buy a pair, we’ll donate a pair. This is fair-trade and organic. Your identity as a jock/nerd/introvert/feminist/etc. is inextricably linked to purchasing the right T-shirt or supporting the latest Internet cause (speaking of which, my next article is going to be on what actually happened to Boko Haram)
My cardigan cost the portion of my self-worth they had to buy before they could sell me their idea of how I should look.
Over the ages, clothing has served different purposes. In the very beginning, functionality such as protection from extreme heats and colds, insects and illnesses prompted humans to delve into the fascinating study of textile engineering. As we grew into different tribes, clothing served as a way to distinguish ourselves from one another. When we created religions, we decided how much of the human body was appropriate for viewing and how much was shameful. Clothing has always been interwoven to our identities. But only in the modern era has clothing become a disposable commodity, much like food products and cosmetic products.
With the advent of globalization (read: the imposition of Western imperialism, capitalism, and consumerism), this sector has had the opportunity to grow so rapidly and to such an extent that it has inevitable and silently ingrained itself into our economy and, more frighteningly, our culture. Material things are more abundantly, speedily and affordably available than they have ever been before.
This birth of a global consumerist culture means that there are endless demand and therefore endless supply. In the name of progress, we as a society, don’t stop to step back and take a look at what is going on.
Ultimately, the fast fashion industry is one of the largest businesses on the planet that, due to globalization, has created an intricate and un-unravelable net. It is a source of income to hundreds of thousands of people in countries ranging from the United States to Cambodia. Being aware of these conditions does not mean I change my purchasing pattern. To be frank, fast fashion is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy at the moment, and no amount of political or social rebellion on my part is going to make any changes to that (right now).
I love clothes. I love everything about them. In a culture of individualism, my clothes are crucial to my identity. “It is a fundamental part of what we wish to communicate about ourselves as individuals,” Orsola de Castro, a fashion designer on the documentary The True Cost so aptly puts it. However, as an educated, employed citizen, I hold something inevitably more powerful in my hands: purchasing power. I decide what I want to buy and how much I want to pay for it. I do not let any marketing company or any fashion trend dictate how my identity is formed and shaped.
I don’t want my cardigan to cost what it means to be human. I don’t want to have sacrificed my humanity to a piece of cloth.
Tashfia has a degree in Civil Engineering. She is a passionate feminist and a human rights activist. She currently works at a school as a Fellow for Teach for Bangladesh, an NGO dedicated to overcoming educational inequity in Bangladesh. The topic is near and dear to her heart because most of her students’ parents are garments workers.
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