Wolf: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

In the eighteenth-century America Quakers (at least a few of them) refused to eat sugar grown on West Indian plantations because it was grown by slave labor. Patriots refused to drink tea that represented the tyranny of the English government.

Women consumers have often been at the forefront of these types of consumer boycotts. Today women have led consumer-boycotts of sweated college t-shirts, coffee and produce.

In a column at Project Syndicate: A World of Ideas, Naomi Wolf challenges women to think even more deeply and more morally about their shopping habits. Of course this lesson applies to the consumer practices of men as well.

Here is a taste:

I confess: I do it, too. Like most Western women, I do it regularly, and it is a guilty pleasure every time. It is hard to listen to one’s conscience when one is faced with so much incredible temptation.

I am talking, of course, about cheap trendy fashion. I’ll visit a Zara – or H&M, or, now that I am in the United Kingdom for the summer, the amazing Primark – and snap up items that are “cute,” effectively disposable, and so shockingly inexpensive that one does a double take.

I need to face my addiction – and so do all women like me…

But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world. How do Primark and its competitors in the West’s shopping malls and High Streets keep that cute frock so cheap? By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how.

We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.

But, like any family secret that would cause us discomfort if faced directly, we Western women turn a blind eye to it…

Most of the two million people working in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women, and they are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning $25 a month. But they are demanding that their monthly wage be almost tripled, to $70. Their leaders make the point that, at current pay levels, workers cannot feed themselves or their families…

Western women, we should challenge ourselves to follow this story and find ways to do what is right in changing our own consumption patterns. It is past time to show support for women who are suffering systematic, globalized, cost-effective gender discrimination in the most overt ways – ways that most of us no longer have to face. Let us support a fair-trade economy, and refuse to shop at outlets targeted by activists for unfair employment practices (for more information, go to http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1485).

If women around the world who are held in the bondage of sweated labor manage to win this crucial fight, that cute dress at Primark may cost a fair amount more. But it already costs too much to the women who can’t afford to feed and house themselves and their children.

That $3 pair of adorable lace-up sandals? The price – given the human costs – really is too good to be true.

Something for all of us to think about while we hit that Fourth of July sale at the mall.

2 thoughts on “Wolf: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

  1. A taste:

    “But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.”


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