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Amy Gutman: The clothes we unthinkingly pull on each day are knit into a global web of meaning and impact. In this photo, a clerk rearranges a display at H&M on 34th Street in New York City. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Last year, I co-led a writing and photography workshop for teen girls in foster care. One  photo, taken by a student, has haunted me ever since: An extensive shoe collection, neatly arranged, with obvious pride of ownership. As I recall, there were sandals, there were sneakers, there were slip-on flats. Maybe eight or 10 pairs, altogether. In any case: a lot.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have nearly as many pairs of shoes. The fact is, no one really needs that many. But shoes — cheap shoes — are what we have, and we have them in abundance. Cheap consumer goods — shoes and clothes — are what remain to fill the void when pretty much everything you’d want a kid to have has been stripped away.

I remembered the photograph last week as I read about the ongoing failure of efforts to monitor suppliers churning out the flimsy clothing known as “fast fashion.” More than four months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza  building in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment factory accident in history with a death toll of 1,129, factory inspections in low-wage countries remains sporadic, fraud-riddled, and often superficial, The New York Times reported.

Cheap clothes are cheap for a reason: Factory wages in third world countries are below the World Bank poverty line, a fact that’s even more disturbing when you consider that overseas garment workers earn an estimated 1 percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce, according to Elizabeth L. Cline in “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.”

Moreover, low price tags are sustainable only because none of this clothing lasts for long. Consumers in perpetual purchase mode are integral to the price points.

What made the young photographer’s shoe collection so profoundly poignant to me is my sense that the poor and vulnerable come out badly on both sides of this equation, production and consumption alike. Whether you are making cheap crap or buying cheap crap: You lose.

In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, photo, Bangladeshi garment workers manufacture clothing in a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. (A.M. Ahad/AP)

In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, photo, Bangladeshi garment workers manufacture clothing in a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. (A.M. Ahad/AP)

But of course, it’s not only poor kids who fall prey to the lure of fast fashion.

As Cline admits in her book, before her own awakening, “I checked the labels on my eggs, but not on my T-shirts.”

This is not uncommon. People shop for organic locally sourced produce, wearing a skirt from Old Navy or jeans from the Gap. Cost is often cited as the reason, but Cline isn’t buying it. These are choices, she says.

“I’ve seen guys in my local coffee shop working on $1,800 Apple laptops and wearing $10 Wal-Mart shoes. Americans spend more money on eating out in restaurants every year than they do on clothes. It’s not that we can’t pay more money for fashion; we just don’t see any reason to.” 

Clearly we need to look harder. If the human cost of fast fashion isn’t sufficiently compelling, consider the industry’s out-sized environmental footprint. Another recent piece of reporting, also from The New York Times, describes the “toxic stench” that often wafts through a Bangladesh primary school. There, students can see what colors are in fashion by looking at the polluted canal behind their classroom. “Sometimes it is red,” a teacher explains. “Or gray. Sometimes it is blue. It depends on the colors they are using in the factories.”

Americans spend more money on eating out in restaurants every year than they do on clothes. It’s not that we can’t pay more money for fashion; we just don’t see any reason to.
– Elizabeth Cline, author of 'Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion'

Less visible than the disasters that make headlines is the pervasive erosion of any meaningful connection to what we wear — though happily this is one place there are signs of progress.

In search of inspiration?

Consider the blog, Very Sweet Life, which chronicles Brooklyn artist Sarah Kate Beaumont’s quest to make everything she wears since 2008. In my former home of Northampton, Mass., Beehive Sewing Studio + Workspace, a pay-by-the-hour sewing machine rental and collaborative work space, just celebrated its first anniversary. Closer to where I live now in the Boston area, I recently noticed a shop offering a basic sewing class. For the less crafts-inclined among us, there are thrift shops and clothing swaps.

“Mass produced clothing, like fast food, fills a hunger and need, yet it is non-durable and wasteful. Home sewn garments, similar to home cooked foods, are made with care and sustenance. In a sense, clothing can be nourishing,” Beaumont writes.

While few of us have the time, talent, or commitment to self-craft our own wardrobes, the perspective strikes me as a useful one. It reminds us that the clothes we unthinkingly pull on each day are knit into a global web of meaning and impact. It reminds us that a collection of cheap shoes are both far more — and far less — than they appear.

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  • Joe

    I’m not sure it is ever possible to buy clothing which is not drenched in suffering. Unless you make it yourself, preferably from scrap materials.

    It is a nightmare – of course even a sweatshop job is an income for someone who really needs it, what about them?

  • Nik Louis

    September 28th and 29th there will be the annual American Field clothing show in Boston’s South End. Everything MADE IN USA! http://americanfield.us

    • AmyGutman

      Excellent! Thanks for the info–I will share on my FB page where a conversation on this topic is raging. (People want to do better but trying to figure out HOW)

  • JPo

    Not all clothing is made in sweatshops. Not all clothing factories cause suffering. Yes, some do, and it’s a tragedy. A factory can be a valuable source of income for locals and improved economy for an area, if it’s run properly. Unfortunately, it’s very very difficult to monitor an overseas factory from the US, but if you are able to sell an article of clothing or shoes for very cheap, there’s more of a chance that the workers are not being paid well. The deplorable conditions of these factories that have been in the news are awful, but they are not all like that.

    Cheap retailers like Old Navy and Walmart are also able to provide their merchandise for low prices because they order millions of units so the cost per unit comes down on the factory end as well. It’s much cheaper to run 1 million units through production than it is to run 100,000 units at a time. Your cheap clothes will also probably be made of more synthetic, cheaper fibers with fewer seams and less embellishments than a well-constructed cotton jacket with working pockets and lots of zippers.

    Exploitive factories with horrible conditions is a terrible issue, but they are not all like that. There are several ways to bring the cost of a garment down that don’t include mistreating workers. Still, consumer education is a good to way to contribute to improving the issue.

    • AmyGutman

      Appreciate the perspective! And yes, this is a complicated topic. Mainly my hope is to encourage further thought on / awareness of the issue. I for one am pretty new to this issue. Progress not perfection . . .

      • Jpo

        I’ve been in the fashion industry for 7 years, and I was really nervous about inadvertently working for a company that took advantage of cheap labor. That would really crush me! But yes, I’ve learned a lot about rules and regulations since then.

        I hope people do learn more about the items they purchase, make thoughtful choices and realize that there is always a reason something costs less. I liked your article!

        • AmyGutman

          Thank you! Appreciate you reading & taking the time to comment.

          • Joe

            Of course, an additional complication is the complexity of the process. It may have gone through 7 or more factories to get from the cotton field to the finished product. Owners often cut corners, the use of homeworkers is widespread.

            It is certainly true that larger volumes mean lower prices due to economies of scale. However, it is also undeniably true that the whole clothing industry depends on the kinds of wages we’d find totally unacceptable. How then does anyone measure exploitation? Is sitting in a factory for 12 hours making products on minimum wage a ‘sweatshop’ or a useful wage.

            I’ve been in factories around the world, and I found one of the worst I’d ever seen at home (here in the UK).

            The thing is a minefield.

  • Elle

    Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extravagant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a minimum, a pair of workout shoes, sandals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of varying heights — and then they have some if not all of those in different colors and styles, depending on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in America with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The average woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.

    • AmyGutman

      Which is exactly the problem, to my mind. I grew up in Indianapolis. I had boots, sneakers, school shoes, dress shoes. That was pretty much it. I was a kid! That’s really quite enough shoes.

  • http://cityintheciel.blogspot.com/ Laura

    Thanks for this article – this is something I have been struggling with the past few years. The slow/DIY movement really resonates with me, and I like how you can have a lot more control over the supplies involved. But still so many of the things that we use and buy come from far away, and with unknown social or environmental costs (whether it is fast fashion or something expensive!). As another commenter mentioned, while from our perspective some of these jobs seem terrible, in some cases they are the best available in the area. Difficult questions!

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