The High Costs of Dirt-Cheap Fast Fashion

It is humans who cut the fabric, and humans who work tirelessly at sewing machines. And humans can only work so fast.

The High Costs of Dirt-Cheap Fast Fashion

The following is an excerpt from Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.

In order to keep up with the fast consumption cycle they have built, brands have to create a lot and they have to create it very quickly. When we buy things in large amounts or in bulk, the price automatically goes down. That’s how our economy has always worked. The more you buy, the cheaper the overall price becomes, because the only way things become less valuable is if you buy more of them.

When a store is placing an order with a factory, the bigger the order, the lower the individual price of the pieces overall because… scale is leverage. You don’t just see it in factories, you see it on websites like eBay, where an item is listed but if you buy two it gets cheaper, and if you buy three, wait for it, yup, it drops in price even further. And this reductive pricing filters down and down until it eventually reaches the bottom of the fashion and garment industry. Buyers from brands haggling with factories to get the lowest price possible for the goods being produced, which means the factory owner gets this chunk of money upon delivery to pay everyone out of, which sounds great, but it isn’t a sustainable chain. Here’s why:

As the order grows and grows, the supplier knows it will be harder and harder to fulfill. The brand also knows it will be hard to deliver, due to the scale of production and their impossibly quick turnaround time … Both parties know there is a limit to the amount any factory system can produce, because all clothing is made by human hands (though fashion is moving closer to automation every day, which I think will be another disaster).

So, whether the order is being made in a factory or on a sewing machine in someone’s home, human hands are doing the work. It is humans who cut the fabric, and humans who work tirelessly at sewing machines. And humans can only work so fast.

Image:Grand Central Publishing

So, the factory owner has to work their garment workers to the bone, night and day, in order to fulfill this massive order, because if it’s not delivered on time the brand can choose to walk away, leaving them with all the clothes (the factory owners, more likely than not, have paid for the fabrics and materials up front). And the likelihood is that if they lose this brand’s business, their own business will collapse, and therefore so will the garment workers’ jobs. But no matter how much the workers work, they can’t fulfill this order because it’s too giant. So they are forced to call up someone else who owns and runs a factory. And they have to outsource part of their order to that factory for a smaller amount than the store is paying them per garment. This outsourcing makes the target more achievable, but there is no information nor time to find out whether this factory pays its workers or cares for them in any way. There is no sense of what their labor costs, only the price of the individual garment. So, when it comes out that this second factory actually did not pay its workers and used children to do the job under brutal and dangerous conditions, yes, the big brand can claim that they didn’t know that outsourcing would happen, but they did know that asking their factory to deliver hundreds of thousands of pieces in an impossibly short turnaround was, well, impossible. And they did know that somewhere down the chain there would be a cost. A human one. The most vulnerable would be paid the lowest wage, so the brand could keep its turnover as high as possible.

Whoever holds the power in the situation gets to choose whether or not to accept the merchandise, because there are a lot of “non-binding” contracts going on. A binding contract is one that is recognized in a court of law. The brands that manufacture their clothing in countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam claim that they do it for altruistic reasons and that it isn’t about accessing the lowest wage in the supply chain. Karl-Johan Persson, former CEO of H&M, said in a Bloomberg interview that he’s worried about how changing consumer behavior will negatively impact “the elimination of poverty.” And yet, as Elizabeth Segran in Fast Company magazine in 2019 argued that this obscures the fact that H&M favors cheap labor in developing countries rather than using their factories to be altruistic. But these markets remain unregulated, and the wages are low because the countries are cash-poor (India and China notwithstanding). There is no altruism in paying extremely low prices for a garment wholesale, which will make a hefty profit, while quietly overlooking the fact that this system keeps generations of laborers in destitute poverty and ill health. Every now and then the fashion industry applauds some piecemeal action that a bigger brand does in a country where they manufacture. But what we should really be asking is why that big brand’s business isn’t lifting the people in that country out of poverty? Why aren’t the hefty profit margins being shared in the countries where many brands manufacture?

The #PayUp campaign was started by the Remake community of fashion lovers, women’s rights advocates, and environmentalists in March 2020, when much of the world had gone into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All stores were shut and everyone behind closed doors began to freak out about sales and employment, while at the same time a great many brands decided now would be a good time not to pay for the clothing they had ordered from factories, which resulted in factory workers not being paid and many losing their jobs. We heard about it happening in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, but it also happened in manufacturing hubs like Bulgaria (the coverage just wasn’t there, and people were afraid to speak up out of fear that they’d lose clients, including luxury brands).

Because this system of outsourcing has little legality or contractual obligation to bind a brand/corporation into playing fairly, many corporations just assumed they could walk away and leave their factories with their garments, some made, all textiles bought, and even some mid-shipment. Now, the factory usually pays for the materials for the clothes up front, so the factory owners are already out of pocket at the start of the chain (they receive payment from companies once the clothes have arrived at their shipment destination), so in this case, not only are they in debt, they are also unable to clear that debt and pay for the costs of the factory, workers, and shipping, too. A year on, in March 2021, Alison Morse reported on the Remake website that many brands still haven’t paid their bills and are using this situation as a point of leverage to renegotiate with factories for more favorable prices wholesale—exploiting people at their most desperate. In addition, many brands have demanded discounts on their payments to their suppliers, relying on the force majeure clause in their contracts to shed responsibility for any financial loss incurred. How can this happen? Because there’s no safety net for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The system of outsourcing labor overseas for lower prices has similarities to the gig economy, which I saw sweep into the job market shortly after I graduated from university. In my lifetime, I’ve seen full-time jobs in many fields become contract work and zero-hour. Where our parents’ generation had the option of working full-time in a slew of industries (“I just want to say one word to you: plastics”— The Graduate), we simply didn’t have as many options if we wanted to be salaried. Why do big companies do this? Easy! It’s cost-effective. I’ve never had a full-time, salaried job in my working life. And at one point in time, I wanted that most. That means I’ve also never worked for a company that has offered me health insurance, sick days, paid time off, or vacation time. For many years until the Affordable Care Act was passed, I was one of the millions of uninsured Americans (which means that if I got sick or broke a bone without insurance, I may have spent the rest of my life in medical debt).

When you make full-time positions freelance positions, you’re ultimately paying less as a company (even if you have to pay a freelancer a better day rate than you pay your employees daily), because you as a corporation aren’t paying for all those other things, which I would argue are definitely human rights. And when you outsource your labor jobs to another country because labor is cheaper there (due to years of exploitation and extraction), you’re skimping on fair payment as well as all the things I listed above, not to mention safe working conditions.

It’s much easier to get rid of a freelancer, whether you are in the legislated world or the unlegislated one. There are very few safety nets in place when a company chooses to terminate a contract for whatever reason. Or in the TV world… don’t call you again. Been there, done that. It’s always fun, that moment where you’re not even sure what you did in particular, and they didn’t even so much as write you a goodbye email (looking at a few previous employers here, and you know who you are if you’re reading this book). I can only imagine how garment workers, factory owners, and those with far less than myself feel when this happens … every week. People who are below the poverty line, and therefore below human decency.

There is always a human cost.

I spoke to Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which was formed as a Global South lead from Asia to bring a labor and social alliance between garment producing countries and consumer regions to address poverty-level wages, gender discrimination, and freedom of association in garment production networks. Bhattacharjee told me,

Colonized countries became politically independent when they brought their own government systems into existence expecting freedom. But what has really changed in the world today is the growth and the power, or capital, and that of Global North capital which is essentially global companies or multinational companies (some of whom have more power than whole countries). We are now living through a time when the power of capital embodied in these multinational companies is all powerful and they definitely dictate the conditions in the developing countries. Partly because there is a global belief about what a development model should look like—it is about the growth of capital, acquisition, and extraction, rather than distribution and regeneration and all that. So, the multinational Global North dictates the types of conditions that workers in the developing countries should have or the types of laws there should be on environmental regulation.
What should be happening is that the resources of that country should be regulated in the interests of amassing profits to multinational companies. Instead, what is actually happening is extraction; the multinationals are extracting the most profits for themselves, so although the workers in developing countries do get jobs, there is no talk put into what kind of jobs these are. These are jobs which are really robbing workers of their humanity, dignity, decency, they’re going into debt. What we have is a very impoverished workforce, and the profits really end up in the hands of the multinationals, which only really enrich them and their home countries. So, when we think back to the model of colonialism, which is really extracting value and then taking that value to the colonizing, then this model continues today. But the agents of that have changed. The form has changed.
Because of the good work that activists in consumer countries have done, there is now some information out there about the lives of the workers who produce this clothing. Every consumer has the right to know under what conditions an item was made—be it labor conditions, environmental conditions—just like ingredients written on food packaging. It should also contain what the other hazards are that lie behind the product—the living and the dangerous and subhuman liv ing and working conditions of the workers—what has gone into buying this piece of clothing at the price it is being sold for. A garment piece is often being sold at a price that does not reflect the cost of production and therefore it hides within it certain hazards. It’s really important for consumers to know the conditions under which that piece of clothing was made. If they wear that piece of clothing, they should know that they are wearing something that were necessary to produce it at the price paid for it.
Fast fashion is not just demeaning workers’ lives, but destroying the planet because of its overconsumption of water and the destruction of oceans with microfibers. So, what we need is a system of production and consumption which is attentive to what we need for our sustainable lives and for the planet. Companies still need to make a profit, but we are currently operating at an extreme greed level—we need a much more balanced approach where people and planet are prioritized and companies can make a profit, but with a focus on regeneration, redistribution, and the balanced planet.

Excerpted from the book Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism by Aja Barber. Copyright © 2021 by Aja Barber. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing/Balance, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Writer and consultant Aja Barber hails from Reston, Virginia, and currently lives in London with her husband and their two cats. Her Instagram video “Why Performative Allyship is Triggering”, which called out brands and influencers for monetizing the Black Lives Matter movement, has accumulated over one million views. The video also put a spotlight on the disparity between fast fashion brand billionaires and their unpaid factory workers during the Covid-19 economic downturn. Aja is a hugely influential voice and passionate about racial justice and exposing endemic injustices in our consumer and fashion industries.

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