‘Fast fashion’: The real cost of buying cheap clothes

 

By Krista Hessey

After watching The True Cost, a documentary that explores the negative impact of the global fashion industry, Ryerson fashion communication student Kelly Ann Nguyen reflected on her own shopping habits.

She began developing a concept for her fourth-year capstone project that would allow people to visualize the social costs of purchasing unethically manufactured clothing.

“What I want to do is create a direct translation,” said Nguyen. “For example, when you’re spending 20 bucks on this shirt, it is costing five Bangladeshi women their lives.”

The result is Current(cy), a print publication that aims to raise awareness of the unfair labour practices and unaccountability of clothing brands that manufacture their clothing unethically. Nguyen uses infographics to highlight the different issues garment workers face in countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh. Current(cy) will be unveiled in the spring of 2016 in Toronto.

Recent controversies include the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 workers and injured an additional 2,500.

Kelly Ann Nguyen with some of her infographics. (Krista Hessey / Ryersonian Staff)

Kelly Ann Nguyen with some of her infographics. (Krista Hessey / Ryersonian Staff)

It was the worst industrial disaster in the fashion and textile industry. Yet Nguyen couldn’t recall the tragedy, despite her closet being full of Zara and H&M — brands that outsource their production to developing countries like Bangladesh.

“Fast Fashion” — a term used to describe the speed with which designs appear on the catwalk and are replicated by retail brands — has now become synonymous with humanitarian issues, wastefulness and exploitation.

Several popular brands have pioneered this concept through rapid offshore production that allows consumers to buy trending styles at low prices. Many consumers, however, are unaware of the conditions in which their clothing is produced — low wages, long hours and unsafe working environments.

“Fashion is very glamorized. People consume and they just don’t think about it and because it is so cheap now it is so invisible,” said Nguyen. “You can buy a shirt for as much as you can buy a meal at McDonald’s.”

Nguyen’s interest in fashion peaked near the end of high school. Soon she was being recognized for her fashion savvy.

“Having good style made me feel good about myself,” said Nguyen. “I wasn’t thinking about where it was coming from.”

Fashion is a $1.2-trillion global industry. The average Canadian family’s spending on clothing increased by 819 per cent between 1961 and 2014, according to a study conducted by the Fraser Institute. In 2013, the average Ontario household spent $3,680 on clothing and accessories, according to Statistics Canada. 

“The consumer has to put pressure on the brands,” said Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution. “Each time someone sends an Instagram or tweet to a brand it has the same impact as 10,000 letters or complaints.”

Fashion Revolution, a global NGO, was born out of the shock of the Rana Plaza collapse. Each year on April 24 — the disaster’s anniversary — Fashion Revolution ignites a global campaign that aims to commemorate the workers who lost their lives and help raise awareness of the “true cost of fashion.”

Fashion Revolution harnesses the power of social media, using hashtags like #haulternative and #whomademyclothes and challenging users to be “fashion revolutionaries.”

Increasing awareness of the unethical aspects of the fast fashion industry has pressured brands to shift away from the “quick response” manufacturing model.

While a number of European and American companies have taken efforts to make garment production more sustainable and provide living wages for workers, Canadian brands have been slower to jump on the bandwagon.

“Major Canadian brands making these levels of commitments to the people and communities who make their goods are few and far between,” wrote Michael Lavergne for Canadian Business in 2014. “And with growing consumer awareness around the social and environmental costs of cheap fashions, they may be losing customers because of it.”

Lavergne is a board member of Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian NGO that aims to raise awareness of the unethical and unsustainable aspects of the fashion industry.

The group achieves this through public events, including WEAR (World Ethical Apparel Roundtable) held annually in Toronto just after Fall Fashion Week, education programs implemented in elementary schools throughout the GTA, and working directly with businesses.

Now when she shops, Nguyen starts conversations with the shop owners about the clothing.

“It is a matter of asking questions,” she said. “We do research on everything we buy, so why not clothes?”

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 18, 2015.

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