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Bargain style: at what price?

Posted in Style & Travel

Bangladeshi factoryThe  uniform of one my jobs requires I wear, under a coat, a white t-shirt and a pair of khakis. I don’t think I have ever owned a pair of khakis so, a few days before I was due to start, I waltzed into a Gap store thinking my problems would be solved in a matter of minutes.

Apparently, khaki pants are going the way of the dodo – not such a great loss but one that left me scrambling: a Gap assistant showed me pants in an unflattering shade of bird excrement (no wonder the chain is in trouble); Banana Republic, my next stop, could provide me with a beige variation for $80.00; Target: zilch. Wal-Mart I refuse to shop at for labor reasons. I was out of ideas. So I shelled out $89.00 for a very nice pair of khaki colored dress pants from JCrew, not really suited for work in a hospital but, at that point, what had started as a quick shopping expedition was turning into a nightmare, and I was desperate.

A couple of days later, Zara answered  my call: $35 for a pair of slouchy khaki pants. Made in Morocco. H&M provided a heap of white t-shirts for $5.00 each. Made in Ethiopia.
These were exactly the prices I had in mind for a uniform that will be in the wash on repeat.

H&M But Morocco and Ethiopia? I hadn’t realized the lower end of the fashion industry had moved to Northern Africa.

It turns out that some European retailers, like H&M and Zara, have expanded their manufacturing to Ethiopia and Morocco respectively, while maintaining a foothold in Asia: labor costs in China and Vietnam have increased exponentially, and Bangladesh, if not poised to follow suit in the same percentage, is inching up its minimum wage too. Hence, the European behemoths are looking to closer shores, to countries where labor and land are still cheap, shipping costs, by virtues of their geographical locations, are lower, and where labor laws are stricter.

Maybe the collapse of the Rana building in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people, was the beginning of a media backlash that is forcing the fashion industry to apply more oversight, much the same way Nike had to when, in the 1980s, the truth of their fabled shoes made in Vietnamese sweatshops came to light.

But I am afraid the backlash is more media than consumer driven. When it became known that Apple subsidiaries in China were forcing workers to accept punishing overtime in order to meet iPhone demands, the media made a big hullaballoo for a few days but I was still first in line to order my iPhone. And Apple is probably not event the worst offender.

ethiopian factoryWhile I feel better having researched the business practices of H&M and Zara, I can’t possibly do the same for every piece of clothing I intend to buy: being an ethical shopper can be a full-time job. I wish some of the food industry standards could spill over to different manufacturing areas: if I am willing to pay a premium for coffee, tea, chocolate or produce that display “fair labor” stickers, I would be willing to do the same for clothing – assuming the fashion industry ever decided to implement a similar system. Which they won’t unless we, the consumers, demand it.

As sofagirl pointed out a little while ago in a style related post, at our age, we don’t need more clothes: fewer, better quality ones will suit our needs much better. For every H&M, there are a thousand offenders whose profits are built on the backs of people working in Dickensian conditions, fuelled by our inability to resist a bargain, no questions asked. It will take a long time to break the cycle but it looks like shaming companies into adhering to better labor practices can yield some success.

Image of the inside of a Bangladeshi garment factory courtesy of The Guardian

Image of Ethiopian factory courtesy of the BBC

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15 Comments

  1. camparigirl
    camparigirl

    My mother was always so insistent on good quality over quantity. Somehow, I got caught in the consumeristic frenzy. I am trying to put a stop to it.

    July 24, 2015
    |Reply
  2. Lisa
    Lisa

    http://www.peopletree.co.uk there are people trying hard to change some of the throwaway fashion habits of modern living but it is a slow uphill battle.It is clothes that can make you feel so good and honestly, how many individual shoppers are routing around on the hangers looking for an outfit are really taking time to think about the source of their clothing?. More of us are but it is still a minority……

    July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      You touched on something I didn’t venture into: the enormous amount of trash the world generates and how many countries are relying on poorer nations to dispose of their trash, especially toxic waste, which is often being sent to Africa.

      July 24, 2015
      |Reply
      • Lisa
        Lisa

        Yeah – not sure why I got onto that but I have always loved clothes and buying and it is a guilty pleasure. I had just put a bagful in the clothing bank but I also volunteer in a charity shop and the humongous amount of donations of clothing ( and some barely worn, although a lot goes straight to trash) does make you stop and wonder where its all going….

        July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      It can drive anyone absolutely mental if you start thinking ethically about every single product we buy in that way. Obviously action needs to be taken at the level of institutions but I am grateful for every organization that spends time and resources refocussing our attention. Make up and beauty products is another area where animal abuse and toxic ingredients go wildly unchecked.

      July 24, 2015
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  3. The problem with fashion lies not only in how little they’re willing to pay to get garments made – how about ecology? In a society where we’re encouraged to buy new things each season and forget about the ‘old’ stuff we bought four months ago, where do the old rags end up? Fabric, right after plastic, can be the ultimate destroyer.

    It’s very sad that Western societies are willing to not question why that pretty dress costs only $40… And I’m not even going to talk about technology. The suicide rates of workers who make mobile phones is a sad, very seldom talked reality…

    July 24, 2015
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  4. Last week I bought amazing khakis from Gap! But they weren’t cheap, about $69, but they fit me so well! 🙂

    July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Kudos to you – they even gave me a 40% coupon when I walked in and I just couldn’t find a single thing I could possibly want (but maybe I was irritated about the khakis)

      July 24, 2015
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  5. Here’s the thing, back in the day when clothing was manufactured in the USA, clothes were more expensive. A well made pair of khaki pants should cost more than $35.

    Material costs are the same so what changed? What we pay people who make the clothes. Instead of workers in Western countries making union wages, it’s workers in non Western countries making peanuts. I stopped shopping at Zara, H&M, etc. because the quality stinks and also their price points are not realistic. Plus all they do is rip off other designers (big and small). I have an issue supporting a company where the owner is one of the richest people on the PLANET but the folks who make the clothes don’t have basic human rights.

    COS seems to be better but as it’s owned by H&M, I’m doing my homework.

    July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Obviously you get what you pay for and yes, the quality at all low end stores suck – it’s a little bit easier for you, in Italy, where yo can still find decent quality clothes for equitable prices. Here in the States it seems we are stuck between very low end and much higher prices, with nothing in between worth considering.

      July 24, 2015
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  6. The “race to the bottom” in the clothing industry….It puzzles me too why retailers don’t recognize that some consumers would pay more for sturdy ethically made goods.

    July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      The systems are in place and the money is rolling in….I am curious how the hike in minimum wage will pan out here in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco: many restaurant owners are predicting doom and gloom and being unable to stay open. Somehow, I think they will find a way.

      July 24, 2015
      |Reply
  7. Winston Moreton
    Winston Moreton

    You know I think it doesn’t matter much anymore about global corporates paying peanuts to foreign labor now because the foreign nation economy is boosted and its currency gets stronger and then the foreign workers have enough money to go on holiday in our countries where the currency has gone to hell. Japan is an old example. China more recent. The Kathmandhu brand has heaps of khaki online – made in China to support my thesis.

    July 24, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Well, that is exactly why many companies are taking their business away from China (loads of Chinese on holiday here too…). I would imagine they will run out of poor countries to exploit – maybe not in my lifetime – and will be forced to raise prices. And we will be force to put an end to our gluttony.

      July 24, 2015
      |Reply
  8. I also have to wear khakis at the hospital and stopped wearing the nice pair I bought years ago except for those times because the idea of replacing them with something from current selections seems absurd. And you’re completely right, Gap has gone off the rails with some of their selections. If it’s ‘affordable’ it barely holds up during one season (a knit sundress lasted only 5 washes before holes started showing up-it’s in the rag bin now). If plain old consumption is the ultimate goal, I guess everyone is fulfilling their role, at costs not completely considered, I fear.

    July 24, 2015
    |Reply

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