By Justin Hermstedt
The only thing better than finding a new piece of clothing you love is finding it for a good price. But when I say “a good price,” I don’t mean a fair price. I mean a cheap price.
Throughout the last decade, fast fashion has made it easier and easier to find cheap, trendy clothing. Everything else seems to cost more, but you can go to the mall any day of the week and grab a pair of jeans from Forever 21 for fifteen bucks.
The inconvenient truth of the matter is that the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, benefits from exploitative production methods overseas.
According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, 97% of clothes in the United States are made outside of the country. Fifty years ago, over 90% was made in America. This outsourcing is fueled by a 71% cotton/29% polyester arms race, in which fashion companies vie to stay relevant by having the lowest prices. Companies that resist and only use factories in the United States, such as American Apparel, are basically being run into the ground. Strictly American-made brands cannot compete with fast fashion brands because, simply, the United States has much higher standards of how workers should be treated. There isn’t some nifty technology that has allowed clothes to be made cheaper. The cost has remained the same to construct a t-shirt, but the market demands the price to go down, so factory owners must cut corners to stay in business.
It’s widely accepted at this point that these factories barely provide their employees a living wage; the minimum wage in Bangladesh is $68 per month. However, the harms to communities in countries like Bangladesh are more than just underpaid employees. A more blatant, catastrophic example was the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013. The Rana Plaza was a massive building that was composed of several clothing factories, a few shops and a bank. The day before the collapse, cracks appeared in the walls, but the man in charge mandated workers come back the next day for work, threatening to dock a month’s pay if they didn’t show up. The building collapsed, killing 1,130 and injuring 2,500.
The documentary The True Cost (available on Netflix) discusses these issues and covers the grand scheme of things, including legitimate environmental concerns.
Should you feel awful and guilty for supporting this industry? That’s for you to decide, but I don’t think so. The system itself is the actual perpetrator, while you were just fiending for some dope threads. All of this is sad, and no one wants to contribute to it, so what can one person like you or me do? Particularly as college students, it’s not feasible to buy only hand-made-in-the-USA luxury brands. Can ethical shopping also be economical? Fortunately, there are some tactics anyone can employ to shop a bit more responsibly.
Explore the vibrant world of shopping pre-owned.
Thrift shopping is an excellent and unique option. Sure, you could only see your parents pulling off a lot of the clothes, but there are always some gems that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Many stores are selective of what clothes they take in, meaning you’re mostly looking through high quality pieces for a low price. In Lawrence, check out Arizona Trading Company and Plato’s Closet for newer, trendier, branded clothes. Wild Man Vintage, Goodwill and The Salvation Army are perfect for finding some rare, frugal items.
If possible, stop supporting fast fashion.
Hear me out. As awful as it sounds, giving up on stores like H&M and Forever 21 is the best thing to do. Chances are you can find those brands at Plato’s Closet a month later anyway (for half the price as well).
Shop more efficiently.
Seek quality over quantity. Your clothes will last longer and the extra money spent will be worth it in the end. Be sure to buy clothes that you’re excited to wear. If you have no use for a piece any more, donate it; more clothes are being bought than ever before, which means landfills are overflowing with them.
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All in all, the simplest advice is to reduce, reuse and recycle. As the consumers, we ultimately have the purchasing power to shape the fashion world of the future. Think of your dollars as votes. Vote for companies you want to see survive, and more importantly what types of unethical business practices you want to see die out. Every vote counts, after all.
Photography by Maria Rodriguez