How Much Is Your T-Shirt Worth?

Bangladesh's flourishing but unregulated garment industry raises an ethical issue: how does our buy-and-throw-away consumer culture contribute to inhumanly low wages, death-risking working conditions and destructive environmental practices?

In an era that honors fair trade for coffee, how about a concept of ethical fashion?

Ever since the collapse of an eight-story Dhaka garment factory complex on April 24 that killed over 1,000 people, the media have been interviewing CEOs of major corporations with contracts in Bangladesh. They have two questions: will you stay or will you -- like Disney -- pull out? And if you stay, will you work systematically to raise the health and safety standards of working conditions?

But there's another question: What about customers? What role do consumers play? What about those of us who lust after inexpensive clothes by big chains such as Zara, H&M, J.C. Penny, Gap, Esprit, Lee, Wrangler, Nike, and Wal-Mart?

"It bothers me, but a lot of retailers are getting their clothes from these places and I can't see how I can change anything," reports Bryan Walsh, quoting a university student shopping at Primark (J.C. Penny). "They definitely need to improve, but I'll still shop here. It's so cheap."

Cheap fashion means two things: inexpensive, yes, but also contemptible. Ours is a buy-and-throwaway society. Wal-Mart, Esprit, J.C.Penny, H&M, Zara, Lee, Old Navy, Wrangler, Gap and Nike have conditioned us to see articles of clothing as disposable items. And here's the unethical part: the cost of a T-shirt must be low enough to justify dumping it 2-3 months after purchase. And the way to keep this cost down is by paying low wages to the woman who produced it.

Here are the numbers: Bangladesh has between 4,000 and 5,000 factories compared to China's 40,000. The average monthly wage for a garment worker in China is close to $200; in Bangladesh it is $37. (And that is not a typo.) The competitive edge for Bangladesh is the low cost of its labor. According to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, when it comes to low cost fashion, China has become too expensive.

How did we become this buy-and-throw away society? There are two explanations: consumption patterns and the tyranny of fashion.

Consumption itself is a bottomless pit because the joy of owning something new is short-lived. Advertisers understand this better than we do, of course, and this is why they apply psychological techniques to make us want more... and more... and more. But really. How many T-shirts do we need? How many Converse look-a-like trainers ("sneakers" in America)?

Once the thrill has worn off, we'll need to buy again.

Parallel to consumption -- and even more manipulative -- is the compulsion to be trendy. What was "fashionable" 20 years ago used to endure. Now "current" fashion can change three to four times in a year. "... red will be in style one season or fringe or leather or floral patterns," Elizabeth Cline told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, "... a constant, ceaseless rotation through looks and styles." Maybe some consumers find it fun. Others -- like her -- find it exhausting. The rules of the game are constantly changing.

The rules of the game do change. Are pant legs tight or flared? Are jackets long-waisted or short? Are belts wide or narrow? Look again to the experts in branding and marketing. The ones that are good at their job make sure that unless you're wearing the "right" thing: red or fringe or leather or floral patterns, you'll feel awful. Insecure. Self-conscious. Uncool. And only retail therapy will alleviate the anxiety.

Is it possible to develop a concept of ethical fashion?

The first step is to stop thinking "disposable" when we buy something. Stop thinking that T-shirts and khaki cotton shorts are just like Dixie Cups. The second is to support the brands that are making an effort to be ethical. H&M already has a "conscious collection" with a focus on eco-friendly fashion and we should support this, if we can afford it.

Thirdly, we should lobby Zara, J.C. Penny, Esprit, Lee, Wrangler, Nike, Old Navy,
Wal-Mart, Gap to pay more attention to the companies they out-source to. The Dhaka garment factory incident was one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history and we must not let them forget it. More important, we must make sure they know that it matters to us; that we care about the women who make our clothes.

Fast Food gave way to a food revolution. Fast Fashion can do the same. Awareness is where it starts.