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The human cost of fast fashion

Lauren Dixon-Paver faced a dilemma a couple of weeks ago when she needed to get a new pair of pants: for over a year now, the 25-year-old graphic designer has made a concerted effort not to buy new clothing from fast-fashion retailers. Dixon-Paver, who also runs a YouTube channel which focuses on craft and sewing tutorials, has been a consistent critic of the fast-fashion industry for two reasons: the ways in which it oppresses workers in far-flung countries, and encourages mindless shopping. She got her first sewing machine when she was 12, and has been making much of her own clothing since.

The fast-fashion industry exploits people in far-flung, often Eastern, developing countries, using cheap labour to quickly mass-produce clothing that keeps up with trends. These trends are quick-evolving, and as soon as something’s outdated, people simply don’t want to buy it anymore; Bloomberg reported in March last year that H&M had a record piled-up inventory of unsold garments worth more than $4 billion.

A report compiled by Oxfam Australia called ‘Made in Poverty: The true price of fashion’ highlights the human cost of fast fashion. The report, part of the ‘What She Makes’ campaign, surveyed 470 workers at factories in Bangladesh and Vietnam, and found that they live on “poverty wages,” with many earning the equivalent of just over R5 an hour. 100% of the women surveyed in Bangladesh, who are employed at factories which supply brands including H&M and Cotton On, are unable to make ends meet.

Jehan Ara Khonat, co-owner of modest fashion and lifestyle store My Online Souk, says analysing the social structure of trends is integral to understanding how fast-fashion operates. “As soon as the fast-fashion industry catches on to what’s trending, an elite group creates something else to differentiate themselves. Fast-fashion companies make it available for the masses, and the cycle continues.”

READ MORE: SA cottons on to fast fashion

What She Makes

The What She Makes campaign is calling for big clothing brands to pay the women who make clothes that they sell a living wage. “The women who make our clothes do not make enough to live on – keeping them in poverty. Despite long hours away from their families, working full time plus many hours of overtime, big clothing brands do not pay garment workers enough money to cover the basics of life – food and decent shelter,” the campaign website reads.

According to the report, available on the website, one factory owner in Bangladesh reported the extensive measures a company had taken to keep the clothing they produced safe in case of a fire, but a lack of interest from the very same company in fire safety measures for the workspaces where the people who sew the clothes spend the better part of their day.

One of the workers that Oxfam spoke to, 20-year-old Fatima, lives in a two bedroom apartment with 10 other people, including her landlord, and sleeps on the floor. When Fatima gets paid late, she stresses about paying rent on time and getting money to her sick mother, who lives in a rural area in Bangladesh. As is sometimes the case with outsourced contracts, Fatima’s seniors don’t always pay her and her colleagues their full agreed-upon wage. “The owner doesn’t know about this, that the line chief keeps our money,” she says. If Fatima has low wages some months, she forgoes her budget for food, sending the money to her mother instead.

Another woman that Oxfam interviewed, 22-year-old Forida, earns the equivalent of R3.50 an hour. This is below the minimum wage in Bangladesh, because deductions have been illegally taken from her overtime wage for mistakes and not meeting unrealistic daily targets.“I feel embarrassed when I am scolded in front of so many people [when I make mistakes] and then I feel bad about myself because I’m not able to do the work properly. If I could do the work properly, then I wouldn’t be scolded so hard and this makes me cry.”

Forida and her family – her husband, mother-in-law, and toddler son – live in a hot and cramped compound with six other families, including her landlord’s. There is just one toilet and place to bathe for the whole compound, and two shared cooking areas. Her income usually runs out before the end of each month, leaving them without food. “If we were paid a little more money, then I could one day send my son to school,” she says. “I could provide food for the last week of the month. We could live happily, we could lead a better life.”

As part of the campaign, Oxfam have initiated a company tracker to monitor the progress that brands are making, with both Cotton On and H&M ranked as having taken action to be transparent and committed to change.

But for now, stories like Fatima’s and Forida’s still remain a reality. “People are working in awful conditions to make clothes for us, so we can buy fantastic bargains,” says Dixon-Paver.

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Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel was previously a member of the M&G’s online team. She holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand

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