A few years ago I was addicted to shopping like Robert Downey Jr was to… well, pretty much everything. Dumbly running around Topshop like some crazed Kardashian with a black American Express card and no-where to be, I would sequester myself in changing rooms for hours trying on a dozen coloured variations of what was essentially the same thing.
When it came to making purchases, the rush I got was big and sparkly and sequin fueled. But the weird thing was, it was never really about what I was buying, more about the excitement of getting something that was all shiny and new. I remember looking in my wardrobe, absolutely teeming with clothes, and melodramatically proclaiming that I had absolutely nothing to wear. Everything was old and ugly and had been worn a million times.
But then something happened. The Rana Plaza, an eight-story garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1129 people. It was a tragedy that occured thousands of miles away from my cushy little bedroom with its clothes-spewing wardrobes, yet I was suddenly confronted with the reality of the lives – and deaths-of the people who made them.
Watching the harrowing footage of the aftermath of the building’s collapse, the blatant disregard for human life in developing countries of Western fashion companies became terrifyingly tangible. With practically non-existent legislation to protect their basic rights as workers, and impossibly low wages, I realized that I was essentially buying into, and condoning, slave labour, all so I could have a cheap, new dress.
On top of workers’ conditions being sidelined in favour of minimizing overheads, costly – but necessary – environmental regulations are ignored. In an exposé on the monumental environmental impact of the fashion industry, the New York Times shined the spotlight on Savar once again. The polluted canal which runs behind a local primary school means that fainting and retching are commonplace in classes, and that pupils are always clued up as to the season’s in colours – all they have to do is look in the canal.
Bangladesh’s garment and textile industries have contributed massively to the water pollution disaster, with rice paddies full of toxic wastewater, fish and wildlife dying, and waterways inundated with garbage. But it’s not just Bangladesh: the environmental consequences of an industry that demands dirt cheap, mass-produced goods reverberate all over the globe.
I don’t waste time on the internet scrolling through clothing websites anymore. I don’t waste money on impulsive online splurges. I don’t read magazines that try to convince me to buy loads of pointless shit. My attitude towards stuff with a capital S just feels so much healthier. Now, I realize that I don’t need a new top or jacket, and more importantly, I don’t particularly want one.
But it’s not to say I’ve stopped buying clothes completely. I do still shop – albeit a lot less – just when I do, I buy second hand. From charity shops, vintage shops, and sustainable fashion brands like the Reformation, who take pre-existing fabrics and use them to create beautiful new clothes.
With that said, I know that boycotting is only a short-term solution, like putting a plaster over a gaping wound. After all, it would be pretty much impossible to convince everyone in the world to stop buying impossibly cheap, new clothes. The real solution lies in the long-term struggle of holding fashion companies to account, ensuring that they are rigorous in ensuring that humanitarian and environmental legislation is implemented.
To this end, Greenpeace are attacking the issue with their Fashion Detox campaign, which has successfully called for global fashion leaders like Nike, Zara and H&M to pledge to work with their suppliers to eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals into water systems. 20 companies have already committed to the detox, although there are still many like Disney and GAP which refuse to change.
Humanitarian organisations like Labour Behind the Label and the War on Want are also calling for the implementation of better legislation, in this case to prevent the exploitation of workers in the textile factories. Their websites, while raising awareness, also give consumers the opportunities to find out for themselves exactly how their favourite fashion brands are treating their workers so that not just the stuff in your wardrobe, but the story behind it, becomes tangible.
The fact of the matter is that our “Right Here, Right Now” attitude means that that cute dress from Urban Outfitters comes at a cost far greater than what’s seen on the price tag. Just like the fumes that invade the heads and lungs of Savar’s citizens, our desire to have flashy, new things regardless of its effect on human or environmental life has seeped into our collective psyche.
And whilst the fashion industry hides its terrifying exploitation of labourers and the environment behind notions of creativity and individuality, at its core, it is an industry about profit; about European shareholders sat in a boardroom talking numbers. By buying into it as it is, we are choosing to ignore the exploitation and gross inequality and accept the glossy façade fashion puts forward to hide them.
Beth is an English Literature student at UCL. She spends her time dreaming about a world in which people care for the planet, patriarchy is a mere memory and Prince is her best friend.
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