The Real Cost of Cheap Clothes

The fast-fashion industry faces ethical issues relating to working conditions, fair wages, sustainability, fairtrade and practicality. The availability of cheap clothes has resulted in the average consumer purchasing 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000.


Countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and China come to mind when discussing sweatshops, however, the LA Times documented unethical practices in the U.S.:


“The U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories from April through July of 2016 and found that workers were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour days spent sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less and TJ Maxx.”


Bangladesh does, however, have some of the worst conditions in the world including ridiculously low wages, dangerous working conditions and an industry that pollutes the home of its workers. The Rana Plaza disaster claimed 1,134 lives after the commercial building collapsed in 2013. The factories housed there manufactured cheap clothing for retailers like Walmart, Benetton, Primark and Joe Fresh. Workers were forced to return to work despite concerns stemming from cracks found in the walls in days leading up to the disaster. Allegedly, the factories were pressured by the retailers to complete orders on time. Despite this catastrophe as well as numerous accounts of poor working conditions, the demand for fast fashion shows few signs of subsiding.


The New York Times returned to Savar, Bangladesh to document the changes since the disaster in April of 2018. Bangladesh exports more clothing than any other country other than China. Manufacturers save money because of low wages and their willingness to ignore regulations, standards and laws. Despite an agreement between some of the world’s largest clothing retailers and labor unions to improve conditions, major problems persist. The production of these clothes leaves behind an unacceptable amount pollution. With a population of one-million, Savar’s people suffer waterways clogged with toxic waste causing mosquitos to thrive and disease to multiply. 


Fast fashion takes an enormous toll on the environment. According to the Department of Commerce, 27 billion articles of clothing were imported to the United States in 2016. The manufacturing and cost of importing the clothing from around the world uses up resources and leaves pollution in its wake. The average American throws away 70 pounds of shoes and clothing, many containing synthetic materials that take centuries to decompose, every year. There are a multitude of environmental transgressions for which the clothing industry is responsible.


Participating in the demand for fast fashion contributes to unethical issues that cannot be solved without transforming the way we think about clothes and what to wear. That cheap tee-shirt worn only several times contains a cost far greater than the low price you paid. Making smart consumer decisions and purchasing durable goods made by artisans and workers in acceptable working conditions contributes to changing our world that currently has an unsustainable and insatiable appetite for cheap goods.