Fast fashion affects more than just the fashionable

Forever 21, which has a store in the Briarwood Mall, has been under scrutiny in recent years for copyright issues.

There is something rewarding about finding a good deal. It usually helps us to justify buying “that thing” solely because it’s such a bargain. But sometimes the purchases we make are not as valuable as we allow ourselves to be convinced. 
Clothing fashion giants like Forever 21 and H&M offer customers a wide and constantly updated inventory of currently trending clothing items at startlingly low prices, where customers are persuaded to come back week after week. It works—really well. 
“Fast fashion” retailing has changed the landscape of the clothing market. Legacy department stores are losing a significant consumer base to the increasingly popular shopping experience, primarily middle class families and college students. 
Young people and parents flock to these stores without questioning the prices. In our Throwaway Culture, no one is asking if we really need so much surpluss. 
“Charlotte Rouse and Forever 21 are cheap, and I’m on a budget,” said MCCC student Staci Storms.
The clothes don’t last as long from those places, so it’s best to buy basics such as tank tops instead of wardrobe staples like coats, she said. 
Searching clearance racks for affordable items can be a lot of work. So when an entire store’s prices are kept at an affordable price index, it means a lot to shoppers who can find what they want in a fraction of the time they’ve been accustomed to. 
The clothes of these stores have no distinct look—it’s constantly changing, derivative of current trends, and will seamlessly blend in with what everyone else is wearing. In fact, it’s become more common for friends to be seen wearing the same exact piece.
Middle college student Stefani Harasim says that she prefers H&M’s fashion sense better than Forever 21.
“I like Forever 21, but H&M is kind of cheaper and I like their style, but I got my earrings from Forever 21,” she said.
The range of clothing and accessories these kinds of stores have is a measure to offer shoppers the chance to complete their look without having to shop anywhere else.
Walk into one of these stores and you may find the two story, overly bright florescent lighting, large crowds and excess of merchandise intoxicating. You’ll notice a few of this season’s new arrivals like a Classic Maxi dress for $15.90, or a Ribbed Knit pencil skirt for $9.90. 
But what’s not on most shopper’s minds is how these low prices can be sustained. Or that Forever 21 has faced over 50 copyright lawsuits for stealing designs of actual fashion industry artists.
H&M’s profits climbed 17 percent in 2014, which is leading to the opening of 400 new stores, so they’ve made their business model work very well. Taking a look at exactly what that model is reveals how they may be cutting the corners so easily.
We know the quality of the clothing isn’t as genius in engineering, the material not as luxurious—because that’s okay with us. Instead of two high quality items to rotate, we have six that will wear out fairly quickly. Then they’re soon replaced with a current, trendier version.
Katie Wicker, a middle college senior student, believes you will get what you pay for.
“If I’m paying more for it I’d expect it to last longer, but if I’m only paying so much for I don’t expect it to last long,” she said.
Repeating the clothes we wear has become such a heightened concern that we’re over-purchasing new items at an averaging biweekly basis. The uncomfortable fabrics, questionable craftsmanship and low wear life of these clothes make consumers feel better about throwing them out in a couple of months anyhow.
As far as knowing why these clothes are so cheap, like most people Wicker really just hadn’t considered it.
“I probably don’t want to know, to be honest. It’s probably a really sick twisted child labor story,” she said.
The working conditions of all laborers is a concern, and the International Labour Organization estimates that 260 million children are employed in the world, 170 million which are engaged in child labor, which the UN defines as any work under a counties legal age limit to work or that is unfit for children. The ILO reported that from 2000 to 2012 there was a decrease in child labor in the world by 30 percent, but there are still many children who are willing to work for low wages, often being persuaded with promises of a raise that will never come.
In the mid 1960s, 95 percent of the US’s clothing was made at home. Now fifteen years into the 21st century, 97 percent of our clothing is made abroad. This has made two of the richest men in the world the owners of fashion clothing producers that are H&M and Zara. Now one in six people in the world are in some way working for the global fashion industry, one that has reached the coveted position as the world’s second largest polluting industry, right behind oil. 
So who is making these clothes? H&M is the biggest clothing producer in Bangladesh, which has the lowest minimum wage in the world, which comes to about $38 a month, or around $0.20 an hour. This must save fashion companies incredible amounts of money, because no one is paying over the minimum wage. At the beginning of this where H&M was one of 37 companies who were caught paying workers in the U.K. less than minimum wage said it was due to a computer error. 
The working conditions and safety of these employees is highly questionable—in 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh producing for companies that include H&M, Gap and Walmart collapsed—killing 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500. Following this tragedy, a safety inspection of active clothing factories in Bangladesh lead to 35 of them being shut down. 
With each exposed unfair labor practice new measures for safety are instilled, with PR-ready donations made by the clothing giants that supply these unethical systems—yet the fundamental issue is the support of a system that works against human beings. 
Although these people need jobs, there is little in the way of accountability in many countries that make large amounts of exported goods, and for every shut down manufacturer another will start up and acquire the contracts they need from US giants. 
Companies sidestep the blame for the poor conditions of workers making their products—because they can blame the agencies they use that determine where it’s best (or cheapest) for these clothes to be made. It’s not just a problem of outsourcing—in 2012 a surprise investigation into garment manufacturers was carried out in the Southern California area, where 93 percent found violations. 138 workers were owed $326,200 in backpay, and workers were found not being paid not by hour but by how much they sewed, and without time-and-a-half pay for overtime work as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
US shirt printing company TS Designs has figured out how to sustainably produce its own t-shirt that is ethically made—from the Northern Carolina organic cotton it’s made from, environmentally friendly print and dye system to it’s transparent supply chain. When you input a code printed on every shirt tag on their website, you will be meet with the a name, photo and contact information of every person who’s work went into your garment, such as the farmers who grew the cotton to the person who dyed your fabric. So what does this t-shirt cost? In 2013 it would set you back about $14, which was estimated to be $6 more than a shirt made abroad. 
It’s true that we feel good about helping out other people. Yet it’s not as simple as buying a pair of TOMS, a company which has figured out how to capitalize on any goodwill consumers may have. The  popular shoe company uses developing countries to support it’s marketed “One for One” policy, where for every pair of shoes purchased  another pair will be made and distributed to developing countries. The one thing TOMS does not talk about in it’s One for One program is the threat of barefoot school children contracting hookworm, and it’s horrible effects on the physical and mental capacities of it’s hosts. A fraction of the money spent to make those twin pairs of shoes, that may last a year in these conditions, could be spent to build working latrines and concrete floors that would substantially fight the spread of hookworm in the first place.
We can hope that we as consumers continue to question where and how the things we buy, wear and eat are made. The real cost of a good bargain is more than imagined by many, but we can hope for a continuation of implanting ethical practice everywhere. All people deserve to lead a safe and fair life—a basic human right that we Westerners often neglect to consider for anyone but ourselves. Hopefully consumers will continue to ask what value really means to them.