The true cost of cheap clothing

25 Apr

Canadian brand, Joe Fresh,made in the collapsed building in Bangladesh. Photo by Global News.

Remember Maya’s speech in “Sideways,” telling Miles what she thinks about each time she opens a bottle of wine? What was going on in the world during the life cycle of the grapes, what was the weather like, and the people who picked the fruit.

This is how I feel about clothing.

Consider what goes into a simple cotton shirt:

  • growing, collecting, and processing the cotton fiber
  • spinning the fibers into thread
  • weaving the threads into fabric
  • applying chemical treatments to the fiber or fabric (i.e. mercerization)
  • dyeing and/or printing the fabric
  • creating a pattern for the garment
  • cutting the fabric
  • choosing findings – thread, buttons, shaping materials (interfacing), etc.
  • physically putting the garment together

It’s amazing how much work goes into one shirt. Even more amazing is how cheap it can be to buy.

The Industrial Revolution brought machines to replace human labour and lower the costs of manufacturing, including  machines to speed the production and lower the cost of textile production in every stage: farming, spinning, weaving, and cutting, but a machine could never replace human hands for building cloth garments. This is why fires and building collapses in garment factories are so sad.

Last November, a fire broke out in a Bangladeshi garment factory, killing 112. Yesterday, a eight-story building collapsed with thousands of workers inside, killing 238 people at last count, and injuring over 2000.

Factory workers noticed a crack in the building on Tuesday and government officials sent them home. The next day when workers returned, the building manager told them not to worry and go inside. If they refused, they would not get paid or may lose their job. Less than an hour later, the building collapsed.

The Times of India reports that upon discovery of the cracks, the factories’ owners were to suspend operations. The Industrial Police asked them to do a structural inspection by engineers before resuming business, but the order was disregarded.

Mostafizur Rahman, Director of the Industrial Police said, “The owners of the Rana Plaza in Savar and the garment factories went into hiding fearing arrest, as the regulatory authorities and police filed separate cases accusing them of illegally constructing the structure and exposing the workers to the fatal accident.”

Retail responsibility

CBC’s “As It Happens” interviewed Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity a day after the collapse. Akter said the negligence by factory owners, government, and Western retailers is ongoing, and they are aware of the working conditions and state of the buildings but choose to ignore it. Retailers hire third-party auditors to tour buildings and often there is no documentation or follow up.

Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker’s Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., interviewed this morning with CBC’s Metro Morning, and spoke about irresponsible retailers and cheap labour.

Bangladeshi garment workers earn 18 cents an hour for work in substandard facilities, When tragedy strikes, Nova says, “Western retailers choose not to take direct responsibility for what happens to their workers, and prefer to blame the consumer because it lets them off the hook morally. They throw up their hands and say consumers demand cheap clothing and we’re giving consumers what they want.”

Like blaming the Devil for bad behaviour.

“The reality is that there is no consumer that wants to save a few pennies on a t-shirt or dress at the expense of the lives of the men and women who make the clothes,”  Nova says.

Last November’s fire sparked a movement to petition The Gap, one of the retailers fingered in the tragedy, to add 10 cents to their retail price to bring working conditions to standard in Bangladesh. The Gap has instead chosen to create its own “corporate-controlled monitoring system that won’t be accountable to workers, consumers, or independent safety experts,” according to Sum of Us.

Ultimately, change is up to us, we that consume these “fast fashion” garments, to urge retailers to give us a choice in paying extra – up to 15 cents per garment – to pay for the assurance that factory workers would be treated well at work and in safe conditions.

Tweet Joe Fresh @JoeFresh or email Loblaw, it’s parent company to ask for a small price increase to protect Asian workers.

Cost to you

Cheap clothing is cheap partially because it consists of low-grade material. The garment may look okay on a hanger in the store, but once you wash and wear it a few times, it will lose its shape and elastic recovery if it’s a knit, often the dyes run, and ultimately you have a new rag to clean with.

Low-grade fabrics could be made of anything but are commonly cottons and cotton blends (i.e. polyester- cotton). Often, fabric manufacturers add chemical fillers (i.e. formaldehyde). but these finishes wash out, leaving your garments limp and lifeless. I often think of the environmental impact of this “disposable” clothing. (Read this post for information on what your clothes go through before you buy them.)

This is a three-way street between us, the consumers, the retailers, and the factory owners.  Retailers and factory owners and managers are ultimately dictated to by consumers.  If we continue to demand cheap clothing, we must tell retailers that we want to adopt a dime-per-garment policy to help Western clothing giants pay for safe conditions for south Asian workers.

Fashion doesn’t have to make people suffer. No one wants human life as the cost of doing business.


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