• JeLisa "JL" Marshall

Pennies for Profits: The True Cost of Fashion

Updated: Jun 12

Who doesn’t love a good bargain? Snagging that super cute shirt from your “brand new items” shopping list at a lower than low price can make you feel like you hit the jackpot. However, have you ever stopped to think about how you were able to pay what you paid for it? The clothes you buy are oftentimes made under unfair working conditions. Nowadays, clothing factories in countries like Bangladesh and India are heavily utilized for development and production. Who are their clients? Fashion retailers. Mostly based in countries like the United Kingdom and United States, these retailers outsource their business to foreign factories to capitalize on low wages and lack of workers' rights. The “savings” created are what allows many of the clothes you like to wear to be sold for little to nothing.

So, how did this all begin and why should you care that it ends?

The fashion industry has its origins in the production of cotton. While the crop had been grown and used for centuries as a necessity in places like Mexico and Peru, it was the spread of European colonizers throughout North America that helped make it a global commodity. Starting in the early 1600s, indigenous peoples were displaced from their lands and replaced with enslaved peoples who were forced to work plantations for free. By the late 1700s, business was booming. The invention of the cotton gin – a machine that separates seed from staple – sped up the labor intensive processing of cotton. This meant Americans could produce bales quickly and cheaply thus increasing its trade in the international market. By the early 1800s, cotton was the leading American export.

Who received compensation for this work? Business owners. What was the main purpose for the cotton? Providing raw materials to textile mills for the mass production of clothing and goods. Who worked at these textile mills? Mostly women and children. It is this system that constructed the industry we have come to know around the world as fashion – generating a whopping $2.5 trillion to date.

Forever 21, Washington, DC via Flickr user Mike Mozart. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Now, here we are in 2021, so much time has passed yet not much has changed. We perpetuate forced labor by participating in “fast fashion.” Fast fashion being defined as clothing made cheaply and quickly to market runway or culture trends. Who are some of the biggest offenders? Boohoo, Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo and Zara. These brands fail to meet the mark across the scoreboard in terms of sustainability, traceability, transparency. This means not all details regarding their supply chain are disclosed to the public so we cannot precisely know who makes their clothes or whether wages and working conditions are fair.

It is estimated that the industry employs about 60 million people worldwide with 40 million people living in modern slavery. The average wage in Bangladesh – a country with one of the lowest labor costs and top export values in apparel manufacturing – was just raised last year to an equivalent of $94 USD per month. However, advocates say that wages need to be about $180 USD in order to live comfortably. Not to mention, their workers’ rights are infringed upon daily with the constant push for overtime work and threat of punishment for even thinking to protest or callout problems – leading to tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse.

One of the biggest, full circle issues right now is the forced labor in China. More than a million Uighurs - indigenous peoples to the northwest region of the country - are being held against their will to pick cotton by hand and work in factories. This has been happening since 2017 in an effort to provide “re-education” through cultural assimilation. Sound familiar? Only recently has the United States announced a block on imports coming from Xinjiang, a region where 85% of the cotton in the country is produced. A press release shared last summer calls out several big brands linked to Uighur forced labor, which includes Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Victoria’s Secret and many more. This is yet another example that shows just how convoluted the fashion supply chain is and why it is important to have practices in place to protect human rights.

While this information may make the world seem bleak, there is hope. You can make a difference by reexamining your buying habits starting today. Do you really need to buy that super cute shirt new or can it be old? Shopping secondhand is a great way to treasure hunt. A lot of times, there may only be one of each item. So, if you’re looking to standout in the crowd with your haul, you can. Should you not have access to a local thrift or vintage store, there are many options available online. If that too is not feasible for you, have fun with your neighbors and host a community clothing swap!

You can also demand that retailers do better by people and the planet. Join a petition like the PayUp Fashion Campaign or write a letter to your local policy leaders and advocate for sustainable fashion. If you must buy new, shop with intention. The next time you’re in search of a discount, think twice. Look at the brand and the price tag and ask yourself if the people who made your clothes could have been paid and employed fairly and feel good knowing the pennies you spend earn retailers profits that do not equate to the true cost of fashion.

The Author: JeLisa "JL" Marshall

JeLisa "JL" Marshall is a fashion supply chain professional based in Seattle. She believes the industry should be more sustainable and started a conscious style consultancy, The Stylist Way, to help drive change. She loves all types of art, nature and plant-based food.