Imagine you’re out at the mall shopping for a new shirt. When one catches your eye, you lift it from the hanger to touch the fabric, center the seams and assess the fit. In doing so, you’ve most likely unintentionally pressed your fingers onto the fingerprints of a garment worker thousands of miles away; you’ve sized up this shirt in just the same way a quality controller in Bangladesh would before steaming it and preparing it for shipment. You’re connected intimately with the people who sewed your garments in overpopulated, dimly lit corridors on the outskirts of bustling cities for something like 50 cents an hour whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.
Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (Matthew 25:45b)
Just over a year ago, thousands of garment workers in the industrial city of Dhaka, Bangladesh were asked to get back to work at Rana Plaza, a multi-use facility with several floors devoted to manufacturing clothing for American and European retailers, despite the very visible presence of cracks in the walls. Within hours, the building had collapsed, killing 1,133 people in what is now considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history.
Rana Plaza is not an isolated incident. Last May, a fire broke out at another Bangladesh factory, killing 8; in November 2012, a factory fire in Dhaka killed 117; and in December 2013, 7 Chinese migrant workers in Italy died in a factory dormitory fire. A mixture of real economic need and lack of regulation in developing nations, while proving wildly profitable for corporations, comes at a cost to human life. Fast fashion kills.
But how did this all begin? In the early part of the 20th century, America had a thriving clothing and textile production industry, employing close to 1 million people in 1980. But clothing production is still largely manual, requiring a large, reasonably skilled workforce; as such, in countries with humane workforce regulations, it accounts for a very large part of company costs. As import quota restrictions were lifted into the early 2000s, more and more companies moved their production overseas, where they could get away with paying their workers a much lower wage for the same output.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. (Matthew 6:19)
Lower costs mean lower prices for consumers, and we’ve become addicted to them. Where consumers may have once shopped twice a year, following traditional fall and spring fashion seasons, they now browse for new products every three weeks.
It’s an instant gratification, impulse buying culture, and it thrives on excess. And while some would argue that fast fashion democratizes fashion to the extent that it allows a wider variety of income levels to participate in creating fashion, it has had unintended consequences on the way we see ourselves. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes in his book, Liquid Life, the speed and variety of the fast fashion industry encourages us to lose ourselves in a cycle of endless self-curation—we form and re-form our identities with each new garment, conditioning ourselves to a “permanent state of ambivalence and unsettledness.” Fast fashion kills our spirit.
Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)
When you add in rapid depletion of natural resources and the back-breaking work of growing and producing the fibers that make our clothing, you end up with an industry that is unsustainable on every level. Fortunately, people are waking up to the harsh realities of the clothing industry and they’re starting to do something about it.
Fair trade systems that promote fair wages and overall sustainability have permeated every step of the production process, providing needed resources to workers in developing countries and guilt-free garments for consumers. Additionally, Americans have shown an increased interest in supporting domestic companies, from individuals on Etsy to larger producers such as American Apparel. Several companies with U.S.-based production and claims of manufacturing transparency have opened within the last year to apparent success. Though recent sales reports show only a small increase in global fair trade sales overall, the buzz generated from last year’s successful Fair Trade Month and the newly launched Fashion Revolution Day, which marked the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, are sure to increase demand for products produced by more ethical means.
Of course, buying something with the name of the person who made it for you is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t a long-term solution. In addition to purchasing in more thoughtful ways, we need to consider our addiction to cheap goods and work to reduce our overall consumption. And rather than boycott “Made in Bangladesh” garments, we need to lobby our country’s corporations to provide fair wages and thoroughly audit factory conditions.
Above all, we need to see garment workers as regular human beings walking beside us through life. We need to see them as children of God, as people with full rights under the banner of heaven, as people with full stories to tell if we’re willing to listen. One thousand one hundred thirty three real people died on April 24, 2013. Their deaths, though never justifiable, signaled a turning point in the industry. We must continue to work to change the industry and change lives.
Leah Wise received a degree in Religious Studies from Florida State University. She lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her grad student husband and pet rodents. She blogs on fair trade issues in the clothing industry at stylewiseguide.com.