Although many large fashion retailers claim to uphold humane factory standards, their enforcement practices are “as effective as the proverbial chocolate teapot,” wrote Lucy Siegel in Sunday's Guardian. The fast-fashion wave is drowning third-world factories in massive orders that they’re unequipped to produce, but also can’t afford to turn down, says Siegel:
A last-minute fax insisting that a button needs to be moved sends a poorly funded, badly managed factory into a panic. Third-world firms will never tell western retail superpowers that an order is too difficult, so workers simply must finish it.
We imagine this "panic" involves many aching fingers, few bathroom breaks, and definitely no snacks (which would not only render us incapable of moving buttons, but probably strike us dead in our desk chairs). But so long as consumers gobble up fast fashion, retailers will try to keep up the supply. The short of it: Terrible factory conditions are just as much the fault of shoppers as of lackadaisical inspectors and exploitative manufacturing giants.
It's tempting to cast retailers as Dickensian ogres but fast fashion is driven by consumer appetites. We love fashion but we also dump two million tonnes of textile waste (mostly clothing) in landfill each year, which suggests we don't value it. We get the type of fashion retail we deserve and ask for.
So, okay, obviously most shoppers would prefer that a factory worker’s hand wasn’t lost in the process of making their $16 sweater, but if Naomi Campbell has taught us anything, it’s that something pretty and cheap (or um, free, and hand-delivered in the middle of the night) can be difficult to turn down. In the end, people like to shop and look good, even when the ethics of doing so remain muddy at best. But what's the other option? If we all collectively stopped buying cheap crap, would factory workers really get health benefits, fewer needle pricks, bathroom breaks, etc.? Or would they just lose their jobs altogether? What would you have to learn about the unsavory behind-the-scenes practices of your favorite fast-fashion chain in order to stop shopping there? Tell us in the comments section.
Britain's appetite for fast fashion is pushing workers into starvation conditions [Guardian UK]