Every time I walk into H&M I feel a great sense of excitement and wonder. The gigantic three-story building is heaven for the latest affordable fashion pieces everyone needs- whether it be a fur coat for winter, or a cute crop top for the next festival, it seems H&M has it all. I mean, who can resist a cute $40 jumper with a funny sentence on it? Not me, for sure. But as I run my hand through the rack of their self-proclaimed “quality” cardigans and keenly transfer money into my card so I can purchase yet another rather cheap leather jacket I can’t find anywhere else, I can’t help but feel a weird pang of guilt.
It should come to no surprise that brands like H&M, whose motto is literally to offer “fashion and quality at the best price in a sustainable way”, that in making their clothes the “best price” for purchasing, they come at a greater cost to those making them.
Of course, this isn’t unique to H&M – brands like Zara, ASOS, CottonOn, Esprit, and others are part of a growing population of brands that brand themselves as fast fashion.
So what exactly is the problem?
It really should not come as any surprise that the factories hired by brands like the ones I mentioned before to make their cheap and fashionable garments aren’t exactly of the greatest caliber in terms of their factory OH&S, and the living wages paid to their workers.
Scandals like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (from which still haven’t seen any convictions despite it resulting in 1,100 lives being lost and many others wounded) are emblematic of this problem. A multitude of other scandals such as factories employing 14-year-old workers who were forced to toil for 12 hours a day in Burma and their “best class” factories being far from the best: with practices of “wage cuts for arriving only a few minutes late, inadequate sick leave practices, restrictions on toilet breaks, and faintings at the factory floor” – and let’s not forget the negative impact on our environment. Or, the horrific case where unpaid laborers for Zara‘s manufacturing company had to resort to the extremely desperate measure of sewing calls for help in the clothes they made, which stated
“I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.”
Complaints made by the staff of an ASOS warehouse alleged that they are afraid to take any toilet or water breaks for fear of missing targets and subsequently being fired.
But can we do anything about it?
Sure, we can raise our voices, protest outside stores, raise awareness with our tweets and facebook posts, be outraged, but with every 50 boycotters, there’s 300 lining up outside the store and all the way around the block. How do you explain to broke uni students who are working two jobs and on Centrelink that they should opt for a more expensive option when purchasing their essential cotton t-shirts just because it’s ethically made when they could purchase a 20$ stylish T-shirt from a store like CottonOn? How do you persuade a fashionista on a budget who just wants that totally cute teddy coat from H&M‘s newest winter range to opt for the pricier option or just completely boycott the brand? Especially when they make it look so damn appealing.
And for many of us, not shopping at fast fashion brands is simply not an option. The reality is that affordability and looking chic has never been more appealing and who doesn’t like a good bargain? I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to splurge on cheap clothes, and it is definitely not my place to call upon their conscience to do better because some of us simply can’t afford to. Maybe a good alternative for those who oppose expensive fashion, but don’t want to support fast fashion, would be to just source clothes from op shops – where everything is cheap, and it’s a never ending mystery bag of outfit potential. Plus, you’re recycling and it turn, helping the earth – you get a pat on the back!
If large companies decide to continue employing (read exploiting) workers in third world countries who are so desperate to just have a job that they don’t really care about unfairly long hours or unfairly wages, then we don’t really have much of a choice.