Cut-price fashions: A price worth paying?

It can’t be denied that we all love a good bargain. In the same way that we get a glorious thrill from wearing something deliciously expensive, we’ve all enjoyed that feeling of smug satisfaction we get from telling our friends that our gorgeous new dress cost less than a tenner. Nowadays, as high street competition has driven prices to staggering lows, it’s easier than ever to pick up a few new bits and pieces without feeling the guilt of denting the bank balance. Conscience-free, surely this is shopping at its best?

But is it really conscience free? We may be spending less and less, but that has to beg the question of how companies can afford to provide seemingly brilliant deals 100% of the time. Moreover, as we can afford more, we are inevitably buying more. I know that if I go out to buy two t-shirts and discover somewhere where I can buy five for £10, I’ll come away with five.

It would be naïve to assume that our rapidly growing garment consumption has few consequences. The way in which many of our garments are produced has a significant impact on the world around us, with cotton production being a particularly serious example. Whether in the form of dangerous chemicals sprayed over cotton fields, or the enormous amount of un-recycled textile waste that we generate annually, we are dressing ourselves in clothes that are harming our environment. Aside from the impact on the natural world, fashion can also have devastating consequences for those people working excruciatingly long hours for shockingly low wages to produce our clothes.

In order to meet Europe’s desperate desire for bargain priced fashion, cotton producers in developing countries are compelled to work in horrendous conditions for staggeringly low wages. Uzbekistan is the most alarming example which, as the world’s second largest cotton exporter, sells over 800,000 tonnes of cotton annually. The country is under the fierce control of a totalitarian regime under President Islam Karimov. Responsible for countless human rights abuses, the regime uses its power to enforce strict cotton production quotas that in turn serve to strengthen the regime economically. Furthermore, the regime is responsible for conscripting hundreds of thousands of children, some as young as seven years old, as cheap or free workers for the cotton harvest. According to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the children’s failure to achieve their quotas often results in severe beatings. The official wage for an Uzbek cotton worker stands at just $6.53 a month. Compare that to the price of a Starbucks coffee or a Primark basic T-Shirt and suddenly the credit crunch doesn’t seem quite so bad after all.

The environmental impact of a rapidly growing cotton industry is similarly worrying. Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop, and as a result it is an enormous drain on water supplies. In Uzbekistan, the Aral sea is now just 15% of its 1989 volume as a result of cotton’s thirst. Put another way, the water taken for the cotton industry has caused an area equivalent to six million football pitches to become exposed on the sea bed. As a result, the local commercial fishing industry has been all but destroyed as all 24 species of local fish have been wiped out. In many areas, vast volumes of pesticides have contaminated whatever water does remain. The cotton industry is an enormous consumer of pesticides. Cotton takes up just 2.4% of the world’s arable land and yet is responsible for over $2billion worth of chemical pesticide production annually, half of which are classed ‘hazardous’ by the World Health Organisation. The EJF sites pesticide poisoning responsible for around 20,000 deaths a year and over a million hospitalisations. Clearly cheap fashion is exacting a far greater price than it appears on the high street.

A few years ago it began to look as though finally the fashion industry was going to get behind the problem of ethical fashion. In 2007 Anya Hindmarch decided to emblazon the words ‘I’m Not a Plastic Bag’ across one of her new designs. In association with Sainsbury’s, Hindmarch’s aim was to raise awareness about the environmental issue by harnessing the enormous power of fashion to influence people’s ideas. At the same time, glossy magazines began to jump on the eco-bandwagon with astonishing zeal. For a while at least, it was becoming fashionable to care.

I am in no doubt that the fashion industry was well intentioned in its move to promote the environmental issue. Certainly the attention given to the issue was important for raising awareness. However, it seems that regardless of good intentions, in some ways the very nature of the fashion industry has become a detriment, rather than an aid, to those pushing for positive change. By its very nature, fashion is fleeting. Trends come and go, slipping in and out of vogue with perpetual fluidity. By turning important issues into fashionable ones, they are in danger of becoming as transient and easily replaced as a new hemline.

It certainly seems as though this has happened with the issue of ethical fashion. Now that we’re in a time of economic recession, the magazine industry in particular has largely abandoned the environmental cause. Articles on sustainable farming or organic cotton have been replaced by features on cheap style and shopping on a budget. Several of the industry champions of ethical fashion are high-end brands, who do not fit with the current ‘less is more’ price ethos. As we’ve already seen, the very nature of budget shopping is worsening the environmental impact of the fashion industry. With the exception of Marie Claire, which has maintained a monthly page on ‘eco news’, the environmental issue has been all but forgotten.

I just can’t escape the feeling that the fashion industry has gotten bored of the environment, and by virtue of this ennui with ethical fashion, we the consumer have gotten equally bored. If the garment industry is going to market world issues as fashionable, it has a responsibility to see that those issues don’t go out of fashion until they are fixed. After all, it should always be fashionable to care.


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