Even a leader in the ethical shopping movement can still be seduced by a bargain.
Over the weekend, while confronting the daunting task of Spring Cleaning, I came across two navy blue blouses that I picked up at a popular fast-fashion chain store. When I bought them, I was so enthralled by the reasonable price and chic design that I couldn't resist getting two. But a year later, I still hadn't worn either. It was time to part ways.
I gave one to my cousin in med school, and I wrapped the other into a bundle of clothes that were no longer considered fashionable. In good faith, I shipped this bundle off to Goodwill Industries. Little did I know, my blue blouse would almost certainly wind up in a city like Lagos, Nigeria or Port-au-Prince, Haiti, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and doing exactly the opposite of what I stand for as a social entrepreneur whose mission is to provide jobs.
Like many of us, I was unknowingly taking part in the U.S.'s number one export to the developing world: used clothing. Did you know 90% of the clothes we donate to Goodwill Industries wind up bundled, baled, and shipped off to developing countries? The shipments are so common in Africa that Tanzanians and Kenyans have created a special term for it: mitumba, meaning used clothing coming from the States.
Try to imagine being a retailer in Lagos, Nigeria when a cargo ship filled to the brim with free clothing arrives from the States. With an endless surge of mitumba in Africa, small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open. We don't realize it, but our excessive consumption patterns are creating a blowback effect that exacerbates poverty. With every piece of clothing that we purchase in America - which, in 2014, amounted to 80 billion dollars worth (400% more than the last 2 decades) - there is a wide array of unintended consequences.
By following the trajectory of my navy blue blouse, we can see the effects of globalization on modern day fashion. This week marks the third anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse that took the lives of over 1,100 people in Bangladesh. I can't help but to recall the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York that sparked a revolution for women garment workers and shed light on their terrible working conditions. This tragedy led to improved safety standards and better compensation for women. Many of us thought the Rana Plaza collapse would be the moment that consumers would become outraged and start demanding more transparency and accountability. But instead we are just as oblivious as before.
The year following Bangladesh's modern horror story was fast-fashion's most profitable year of all time. All in all, the modern garment and textile industry is worth some $3 trillion, but the creator of my navy blue blouse still receives a wage of just $3 a day. Three years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, Bangladeshi women still face daily injustices, they work an average of 140 hours of unpaid overtime per month in unregulated, dangerous conditions; even the most basic workplace rights, like bathroom breaks, are not allowed. All the while, these women garment workers tend to be separated from their children; threats and sexual harassment are not uncommon.
After Bangladesh, my navy blouse made its way to New York, and brought me temporary and minimal happiness. Not long afterward, the blouse wound up on the streets of a developing city, putting struggling shop owners closer to financial collapse.
This is the cycle of overconsumption, which has unexpectedly turned into the cycle of poverty. These cycles point to the unhappiness epidemic that has swept the planet, largely in part because our society is missing out on a feeling of connectivity. The women in Bangladesh and the shop owners in Nigeria are both out of sight and out of mind.
Some of us have taken matters into our own hands. The ethical shopping movement has been formed to reveal just how close we are to the many hearts and hands behind our clothes. When I say many, I am not being dramatic: 1 in 6 people work in the global fashion industry. Not only is fashion the most labor-dependent industry in the world, it's also by far the most female-dominated, with some factories in East Asian countries employing 90% women.
The ethical shopping movement challenges us to shop in ways that demand more transparency. We deserve to know that we are partaking in a sustainable supply chain, and we seek to not only protect women globally but to be interwoven into their lives in order to elevate everyone's sense of fulfillment.
So as spring is upon us, and we are all eager to buy the latest micro-trends, let's keep in mind the anatomy of the navy blue blouse and the tragedies at Rana Plaza. We live in a global world, and the threads of that blue blouse will inevitably touch the lives of people in ways we could have never imagined. Your purchases have the power to either perpetuate or alleviate global poverty.