What is the true cost of the clothes we wear?
One Saturday morning, like any proper upper middle class woman, I am on my way to get my hair done, when I run into one of the numerous carts around Dhaka which sell clothes.
Like a moth to a flame, I am drawn to this cart -- they are treasure troves of brand names for a fraction of the price, how could I resist?
I have struck gold: A cardigan and a pair of trousers with H&M labels. They have to be mine. A bit of haggling and about $5 later, I am the proud owner of my new favourite outfit (until I inevitably run into one of these carts again, that is).
What should my cardigan actually cost?
At any H&M outlet, that cardigan would have cost me an even $15 -- at least five times more than I had paid to this vendor. What was going on here? And what should my cardigan actually cost?
Economists use the term “externalities” to define costs of production, which are not factored in when calculating profits. In industrialized production, this includes pollution, labour exploitation, and socio-cultural influences, to name a few. In the fast fashion industry (truly, in any industry), these externalities, if accounted for, would result in a much lower profit projection for large corporations.
The global garments production industry is an oligarchy. A small number of gargantuan multi-billion dollar corporations control every aspect of production. It goes without saying that minimizing the cost of production maximizes their profits.
So there is a competitive requirement for poorer countries to offer the cheapest workers in the most unregulated conditions.
Bangladesh, a country whose annual GDP relies on its RMG industry, is a quintessential case study of labour exploitation. Sub-contractors for brands such as H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 have tapped into a supply of the most vulnerable niche of the nation’s workforce: Poor women.
The Rana Plaza fire of 2013, which took over a thousand lives, most of them women, should have shown the devastating effect of the extremely unsafe conditions in which these clothes are manufactured.
My cardigan cost the time a woman sacrifices in order to afford to survive in a society that so drastically undervalues her.
The cardigan, which by this point had bonded with my soul, was part cotton and part polyester.
It was an amalgamation of fibres, dyes, and chemicals, an ironically beautiful display of the transnational forces at play in its creation. To meet the large demand, cotton farmers in India have resorted to buying genetically modified cotton seeds from the one corporation that has sole ownership of cotton seeds, Monsanto.
Almost 250,000 of these farmers have committed suicide when they could not afford to repay the loans. This is just a fraction of the casualty of this market. The clothing industry is the second-largest industrial polluter in the world. Chemicals used to produce dyes have been contaminating precious water supplies; brain tumours, cancer, and children born with birth defects have become a regular occurrence in these communities.
My cardigan cost the lives of husbands, fathers, and sons, the lives of new-born children and the joy of mothers.
The moment I get home from the hairdresser, I try the cardigan on. My reflection in the mirror smiles back at me: This shade of blue sets off my warm-toned skin perfectly. I see myself as intelligent, poised, and attractive without being ostentatious.
Since the 90s, the world has seen a 500% rise in consumption in the clothing industry. Trends last as long as seasons do. Only about a tenth of these clothes are sent to thrift shops or are reused. Entire landfills are born from the remaining. The majority of this market’s target consumers are women.
With the rise of the middle class, and an explosion of women in the workforce, more women can afford to look the way they feel. Companies have capitalized on modern social justice, and so t-shirts that read “I am a feminist” produced by women who cannot afford to pay rent from what they earn have become the uniform of (supposed) women’s empowerment.
The reclamation of femininity as being powerful has contributed to a focus on the physical presentation of femininity -- entire careers have been borne out of one’s ability to present one’s femininity in the name of empowerment.
Now, not only are conventionally attractive women expected to look effortlessly beautiful, but women of all colours and shapes and sizes are bombarded with the idea that looking good translates into feeling good.
My cardigan cost the portion of my self-worth they had to buy before they could sell me their idea of how I should look.
With the advent of globalization, this sector has had the opportunity to grow so rapidly and so extensively so as to have stitched itself into the fabric (excuse the pun) of our society, economy, and culture.
Ultimately, the fast fashion industry is a global powerhouse that is a source of income to hundreds of thousands of people in countries ranging from cotton farmers in the US to garments workers in Cambodia.
I love clothes. In a culture of individualism, how I dress has become a fundamental part of what I wish to communicate about myself.
I use the word “evil” with no hyperbole or exaggeration. Values, morals, integrity, our responsibilities as global citizens, as women, and fundamentally as human beings, need not be opportunity costs in the process of looking good.
I do not want my cardigan to cost what it means to be human.
Tashfia Ahmed is a fellow at Teach for Bangladesh.