Fast Fashion and the Ethics of Travel Clothing: How to Make Better Choices

Laura Lopuch

How would you feel if you knew that the very shirt on your back was preventing the maker from feeding her kids?

Or paying her rent?

Or actively keeping her at or below the poverty-level?

Marcela Vazquez makes dresses and blouses in Los Angeles as a sewing operator. She’s lived in the U.S. for 20 years since she came here from Mexico. “This week I was able to earn $120,” she said. “However, I go in at 7:30 a.m. and I come out at 5:30 p.m.”

Here’s how that breaks down: she earns anywhere from 10 to 45 cents for each piece. 

This type of wage is called “piece rate system.” Marcela explains this wage is, “not enough to cover my living expenses. I would like to earn more. I’m not even earning the minimum wage.”

Does that give your stomach a twinge of guilt, like it does mine? Suddenly that “bargain” of a $10 travel shirt doesn’t feel so good.

Maybe you shove that shirt to the back of your closet to avoid the awful, dirty feeling that sweeps over you every time you slide it onto your body. As though, by wearing that shirt, you’re contributing to the sub-par working and living environments that were used to make that shirt. 

Welcome to the shadowy world of fast fashion. A world that routinely forces employees to work in dirty factories for pennies.

What is Fast Fashion?

Investopedia defines fast fashion as:

“A phenomenon in the fashion industry whereby production processes are expedited in order to get new trends to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. As a result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Today, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in a single week.”

Shannon Whitehead in her Huffington Post article defined it like this:  

“Fast fashion is an approach that moves garments from design to shelf at an accelerated pace, producing clothing for stores demanding low-priced, trendy styles as often as twice a week.”

Why is Fast Fashion a Problem?

Because its goal to “get new trends on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible” means these companies focus on slicing costs. In creating clothes, the biggest costs are workers’ pay and materials.

So, the fast fashion companies pay workers sub-par wages to create cheap clothing.

It’s a race to the bottom. No emphasis is placed on doing a good job, creating clothes you’re proud of, or workmanship that lasts years. 

Instead, the focus is on making more, in less time. 

 This creates several issues:

  • Long hours worked by employees
  • less-than-minimum wage pay
  • awful working atmospheres

Of course, being environmentally conscious is another big ethic that fast fashion companies violate. Reducing their carbon emissions, using fewer animal products (i.e. leather) in their goods, and sourcing materials in a responsible way are all routinely ignored.

But the biggest issue is how they treat their workers.

After all, we’re talking about humans. A human life is a precious commodity. Each person is an individual, born to this earth with a unique mix of abilities and gifts.

When those abilities stagnant or are trapped by sub-minimum wage… who knows what limited, precious gifts we’re frittering away because we’ve got them sewing long hours to make yet, another shirt to stuff into our overflowing closets? 

Fast Fashion is not a “Made In China” Problem

Let’s clear the air.

For years, China was the main sourcing country for fast fashion brands. Because labor costs were extremely low.

However, “factory workers in China are increasingly pressing for higher wages,” as Jim Zarroli of NPR writes, “Companies have responded by moving production into places where wages are even lower, like Bangladesh.”

Now India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey — just to name a few — have become popular locations for the sourcing of fast fashion companies. The problem is that these countries lack the sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure that exists in much of China.

As Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady, said: 

“Low cost means low regulation. Governments in today’s textile producing countries have little oversight into what happens in their factories, so textile companies just keep those engines roaring, running largely on coal, while they systematically dump their chemicals, untreated, back into their local water. This has all added up to the apparel industry being the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil sector, according to a 2013 study from the Danish Fashion Institute.

Speaking of oil, because of our thirst for fast fashion, we now wear more polyester—a fabric made from oil—than any other fiber.”

Yuck.

These problems aren’t exclusive to countries “over there.”

They exist on North American soil too. Specifically in Los Angeles, which houses the largest cut-and-sew apparel base in the United States. Our City of Angels is the center of the country’s garment manufacturing industry. The focus is on creating casual sportswear from brands like Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Papaya, and Wet Seal. 

UCLA Labor Center and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health surveyed 307 workers in the greater L.A. area between June and December of 2015. 

What they found is astonishing: 72% of respondents indicated their LA-based factories were brimming with dust.

More than half of the workers reported that excessive heat, and dust accumulation was due to poor ventilation that rendered it difficult to work, and even to breathe.

And that, my friends, is where the term “sweatshop” came from. 

You see, the inherent problems of fast fashion aren’t ones that exist “over there.” They’re problems printed into the very pattern of fast fashion because of its focus on fast, cheaply made clothes. Even right here in the USA.

Paying Less Than Minimum Wage is Illegal in America

Maybe you’re wondering: Isn’t it illegal if these workers in LA aren’t making the minimum wage? They’re in America. If they’re not making the minimum wage, doesn’t that mean they’re working in a sweatshop?

Exactly.

In 1999, California passed an anti-sweatshop law. This legislation guarantees a minimum living wage and workplace protection for garment workers. Except this law isn’t being enforced. Just six years later in 2005, a study found that this law was mostly unenforced by the state labor agency entrusted with the task. 

Even more, countless recent studies found that wage theft, suppressed wage, and poor working conditions are thriving in the L.A. garment industry. 

Not to mention that 32% of workers reported workplace injuries in the last three years. 11% of those workers did not report their injury to their employer. But here’s the kicker: over half of those who reported their injuries said their employer reacted negatively. 

How would you feel if you had a workplace injury — like accidentally driving a sewing machine needle through your finger because you were rushing to fill a quota — and your boss scoffed at you?

That’s what I thought. 

Maybe we need to rethink the ethics of that “Made in America” label.

 

Impact of Fast Fashion

Keeps Workers in Poverty

A 2016 Department of Labor investigation found that garment workers in Southern California received an average of $7 an hour. Some workers earned as little as $4 an hour.

Here’s the math, assuming a 40 hour work week: $280 per week. Totaling $14,000 per year with two weeks off for unpaid sick days and holidays. 

$16,240 is the 2017 Federal Poverty Level for a 2-person household. For example, if a single mom is working as a garment worker and making about $14,000 a year, she falls below that poverty level. 

The Garment Worker Center helps Los Angeles workers with wage claims. Based on information from those claims, the Center learned that workers earn an average of $5.15 an hour.

That’s much less than the $7 an hour that we just did the math for. 

Promotes Waste

Instead of focusing on producing quality clothes that’ll last you a lifetime, fast fashion’s focus is: “Get ‘er done ASAP. And don’t spend any money.”

Meaning your clothes, purchased for $15 total will last a couple of weeks. Give or take. We’ve all had that bargain basement top fall apart on the first wash. Yeah. That.

And when you’re traveling and wearing fast fashion, your shirt will likely fall apart before you get home.

Producing clothes that wear well and last for years isn’t what fast fashion is about. As Shannon Whitehead writes

“With new trends coming out every week, the goal of fast fashion is for consumers to buy as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible.” [emphasis added]

When you spend money on cheap clothes that are likely to fall apart in weeks due to shoddy craftsmanship — it’s HARD to produce high-quality when you’re paid on output — the end result is this:

This is a picture from fashion designer, Stella McCartney’s most recent campaign. The models are photographed in a landfill in East Scotland. 

Chances are high that a landfill, just like this one, is where your fast fashion clothes will end up. The average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually

We’re not talking about clothes donated to charity shops or sold to consignment stores. We’re talking about clothes that are thrown into the trash.

Here’s the kicker: because most of our clothes are made with synthetic, petroleum-based fibers, it will take decades for these garments to decompose. 

How’s that for taking care of the Earth to ensure it’s still beautiful for our kids and grandkids? 

Waste = More Than Clothes

When you buy fast fashion clothes, you’re supporting more than an industry built on shifting sands of the rapidly changing fashion world.

You’re supporting the idea that your money is meant to be thrown away.

That it’s not worth more. That you shouldn’t bother to spend a little more upfront on a piece of clothing that will last for years, and make you look good.

Going deeper, the root of this behavior means that you believe you’re not worth spending money on.

Think about it: when you fork over your hard-earned cash for a shoddily-made shirt or dress, one of the things your behavior is saying is, “I don’t believe I’m worth buying high-quality clothes for. I’m not good enough.”

My friend, that’s a waste. 

As Nancy Tillman says in On The Night You Were Born

“There has never been anyone like you, ever in the world.”

You are one of a kind. You are special. 

You deserve high-quality clothes that were made with care, love, and pride in craftsmanship by people who are paid fairly for making them in working environments that are safe and an environment you would want to work in. Imagine how those emotions living in that fabric will feel against your skin.

How they might seep over into other areas of your life — like finally charging more for your services, indulging in expertly cooked meals, or allowing yourself the freedom to chase your dreams. 

How you spend your money has consequences. What you invest in affects others and matters to them, directly. It should matter to you too.

 

Vote With Your Dollars

When you give a company money, you’re implicitly saying: “I support the work you’re doing.”

This idea is the root of charity. When you give a small business owner in Africa $25 over Kiva, you’re saying: “I love what you’re doing. I want to help you do more of it.”

This idea doesn’t die on the vine when you go shopping.

By spending money — sometimes a lot of money — at stores, you’re throwing your weight and support  behind their company beliefs and model. If they’re employing low-wage workers who are toiling away in awful, dust-filled, rat-infested factories for more hours a day than is safe — you’re approving their behavior. 

You’re saying: “Yup, what you’re doing is right. Here’s my money. Do more of that.”

I challenge you to vote with your dollars — like I’m now doing. 

How Should You Shop?

Maybe you’re wondering: how can I get an inside look into the brands that I should support with my money? 

Great question. Now that you’re eyeing your shopping choices more critically, you should peel back a company’s pretty outer layers to see how their clothes are really being made.

What are you looking for?

In a word: this –> 

“We spend months finding the best factories around the world—the same ones that produce your favorite designer labels. We visit them often and build strong personal relationships with the owners. Each factory is given a compliance audit to evaluate factors like fair wages, reasonable hours, and environment. Our goal? A score of 90 or above for every factory.”

That is Everlane’s mission statement. Talk about hand-on-heart inspiring. 

Buy From the Top Ethically Conscious Brands

Baptist World Aid put together a report which grades many top brands on how ethically their company is run. A company gets high grades if it properly reduces the risk of forced labor, child labor, and work exploitation in their supply chains. 

In short: they aim to determine whether this is a company you’d be proud to support with your money, by wearing their clothes on your back and furthering their beliefs in your world. 

Here are a few of the companies that treat their workers well and operate in a sustainably-conscious way: 

The Naughty List: Worst Offenders

  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Forever 21
  • Hollister
  • Pink
  • Victoria’s Secret
  • Icebreaker

How to Shop

Be Mindful

Think about the messages you’ve been subconsciously giving yourself when you buy low-quality, cheap fashion. 

For years, I bought cheap clothes and accessories, thinking I was saving money in the long run. My first pair of Oakley sunglasses changed my mind. 

This was quality. This is what paying for an expensive, long-lasting item feels like. This is what it feels like when that item doesn’t break on you in week two. 

I started telling myself I was worth high-quality items. That I was saving more money in the long-run by buying high-quality because they would last years. 

Case in point: those sunglasses are going on 8 years strong, baby. 

Good On You App

Within seconds, find out if a brand treats its workers ethically. 

Plus, this app gives you ethical alternatives to a brand that might not rate well.

For example, I searched Gap, found they could improve the frequency of their supplier audits, and reducing carbon emissions. Good On You recommended Amour Vert or Annukka as smart, ethically-conscious alternatives.

Ask The Hard Questions

Ask yourself: 

  • How would I feel if by buying this shirt, I was supporting a company that treated its workers like crap? 

Ask of the brands you buy:

  • Where do you source your clothes?
  • How do you treat your workers?
  • Do you pay your workers in a way that supports their development vs keeps them in poverty? 

Depending on the answers you get, maybe consider changing your shopping methods.

For me, that means no more Victoria’s Secret. I’m astonished that Victoria’s real Secret is they underpay their workers and don’t value their lives. 

Your Challenge

Now is the time to go forth and make a change.

I want to leave you with one last thought: How will what you now know change your behaviors? 

Knowledge is power. And so is buying power.

I challenge you to deeply think about your fashion decisions, what your buying choices might reflect about your self-worth and companies you support. If those answers don’t sit well, I challenge you to make a change for the better. 

I know I’m going to. Will you join me? 

 

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