Disclaimer: I am not an expert on fast fashion or on the production processes of the fashion industry. My aim is simply to share with you, the reader, my thoughts on this issue, and to encourage you to think seriously about what goes on behind the production of fast fashion.
Under a year ago, before I thought seriously about handmade fashion, I used to be a fast fashion consumer. Living in a wealthy country like Singapore, with close proximity to less affluent neighbours who are an integral part of the fashion production system, it’s inevitable that consumers often play fast and loose when it comes to buying and discarding clothing. With new clothing collections being launched by blogshops (online boutiques selling clothing at lower price points than brick and mortar shops) on a weekly basis, and high street brands running regular sales promotions, and a “fashion wholesale heaven” like Bangkok just a short plane ride away, it was little wonder that I often found myself buying new clothing (and discarding new clothing) extremely frequently. I had no qualms about spending on cheap, poor quality garments (because I could afford to just donate or toss them if I didn’t like them anymore) and never questioned where my clothing came from.
My introduction to the sewing community has changed all my perceptions of all that. First of all, I realised that I didn’t wear 75% of the clothing I bought regularly because they either didn’t fit right or weren’t comfortable. Second, rather than buying something I only liked because I wasn’t sure if I would find something better, with a little effort I could make something I loved and customise it to fit my vision perfectly. But most of all, now that I have first-hand knowledge of how much time, effort and skill goes into the designing, drafting and creation of a quality piece of clothing, I simply no longer feel that buying cheap, low-quality clothing is justifiable.
This is how I see it: Assume that there are two pieces of clothing that are perfectly identical in style, quality of fabric, finishing and workmanship. The only difference is that one was hand-made by a seamstress mum of two who is selling her wares on Etsy, and one was made in a garment factory in Bangladesh and is being sold in a high street fashion store or in an innocuous flea market stall full of fast fashion clothing. Would a regular consumer pay a premium for one over the other? I think they would, I know I would have. What’s the difference then, between the garment in the Etsy store and the garment in the retail store? Both types of clothing involved human effort and the same number of steps to achieve the end result. Are we saying that one human being’s time worth more than another’s? No. Is the price differential due to a difference in skill level? If the garments are identical, I don’t see why it should be a factor. Why then are we willing to fork out so much money for items that are perceived as “hand-made” and “hand-crafted” and that have come out of a “creative enterprise”, but are reluctant to pay even a fraction of that amount for the effort and skill expended by someone in a garment factory in a distant country?
By continuing to maintain this mindset towards fast fashion and continuing to support the tyranny of fashion brands over their suppliers / producers in garment factories, we are contributing to squalid and unsafe conditions that these men and women find themselves in when they report to work every day. By demanding ever lower prices, fashion brands are applying pressure on garment factories to churn amount huge amounts of clothing at low costs – eventually, something’s got to give. Maybe workers’ salaries get cut, maybe factories compromise on the quality of the equipment used, or maybe they neglect to maintain the building and factory environment their employees work in.
Some people may argue that fast fashion provides jobs for unskilled workers and gives them a source of income (ie. the same kind of mindsets that the upper classes had towards workhouses in Victorian England). Possibly, but at what cost? On 24 April 2013, it cost the lives of 1134 garment workers employed by companies working out of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
But let’s not forget the garment workers in other countries as well. Actually, let’s not forget all workers in all industries working under these conditions due to the increasingly ridiculous demands of our consumeristic societies.
This is a long essay, and I don’t usually talk about serious issues on this blog, but I thought it was important to remember this on the 2nd-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. How do you feel about fast fashion and the production practices of fashion labels? Do you know of any articles or organisations that you think others would benefit from? Let me know in the comments below!
If you would like to get involved and do something about this issue, there are numerous movements and organisation targeted at improving the plight of garment workers. I have listed some here, but please do let me know if you are aware of any others:
Fashion Revolution (#FashRev and #WhoMadeMyClothes)
Ethical Fashion Forum