Savar, Bangladesh factory collapse (credit: A.M. Ahad/Associated Press)
As I cleaned and purged my closet over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the 1,127 workers killed in the garment factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh. It happened just a little over a month ago and yet it’s already left the fashion conversation. It was a true fashion tragedy, one that affects all of us, whether we consider ourselves to be fashionable or not. Each one of us most likely owns at least one item from the labels that were manufactured in this shameful factory. Are they now less loved knowing where they came from? Let’s hope so. To think that over a thousand people could have been saved had the factory supervisors listened to the warnings that the building’s structural capacity was about to fail. They had production demands to meet and they decided it was perfectly fine to take the risk.
At the same time, Zara (who was not involved with the Savar factory) is facing allegations of operating an Argentinian factory with “degrading” conditions, where workers “were forced to start work at 7am and continue, without a break, until 11pm six days a week.” Daniel Piette, Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Director, accurately described Zara as “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world.”
Why devastating? Well, unlike most fashion labels that produce two to four collections a year, Zara does at least twelve. The world’s most successful fast fashion retailer drops a new lookbook every single month, and is infamous for its lack of advertisements. That’s smart, as advertisements would make no sense: it has no time for that as their garments move too quickly to even be preserved in any moment in history. This fast fashion giant operates 5,887 standalone stores worldwide and employs about a gazillion people. The current allegations are certainly not the first time Zara has been accused of unfair worker treatment: it happened in 2011 as well. That’s not to say that all Zara’s products are manufactured in these type of conditions. If you look at the labels, you’ll find that most shoes are manufactured in Spain, and many of its silks and knits, in Portugal and Morocco.
When I read Dana Thomas’s Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster four years ago, a few facts stuck in my mind. One of them was that Topshop generated up to 300 new designs a week. The idea of fast fashion guilt is an interesting one. There is a lot of conversation of where our food comes from, and whether it’s from a sustainable source. While the slow food movement is booming, the slow fashion is dying. And it’s so easy to blame consumers and their insatiable weekly, if not daily, appetite for something new. We spend our days clicking on many “wants” and “needs” on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and whatever the latest thing is and, yes, we want. Who’s to blame for that? What came first, the chicken or the egg?
Heidi Merrick ($437, Made in USA) vs. Zara ($79.90, Made most likely in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Brazil)
Cheap and cheerful is never really that cheerful. I find that the feeling of a new purchase high diminishes pretty quickly after buying something from a fast fashion chain. Where is the money going? In the meantime, there’s been a heavy decline in garment manufacturing in Canada and the US for decades now, because most companies choose to manufacture overseas to save on cost, so we can have that plain tank top for $20 versus $40. Yes, there is consumer demand for the affordable, but there has to be one for the responsible, some kind of moral calculator. I’m not proposing a boycott on fast fashion, but rather an awareness of knowing that a garment’s life exists beyond the realm of the cash register and of our closets.
“Cheap-and-not-so-cheerful: Fast fashion claims more victims in Bangladesh” by Nathalie Atkinson, The National Post
“Thoughts on Bangladesh and Cheap Clothes” by Searching for Style