The True Cost of Cheap Fashion

  • Julia Gash
  • 5th May 2013

The catastrophe in Bangledesh, in which an 8 storey factory building collapsed, killing over 500 people, is truly dreadful.  But the tragedy has greater resonance when we consider that the staff at the factory were working in slave labour and unsafe conditions, in order to make cheap fashion for the likes of UK retailer Primark and North American value fashion chain, Joe Fresh.

 Photo from Yahoo News.

The enormous pressure that high street retailers and fashion brands in the UK, Europe and North America put on factories in developing countries to supply cheap goods on stupidly impossible time frames mean that people are paid less than they need to live, work in unsafe conditions as corners are cut and cut and cut.

In order to sell clothes at such as cheap price to a value driven consumer economy and remain a profitable then retailers have to buy in fashion at a very low cost.  As the biggest component to the garment will be the labour price then this is what has to give.  

Forcing people to work in unsafe conditions, with poor lighting and ventilation and buildings that can literally collapse around them enables British, European and North American retailers to make a good profit by supplying consumers, who don't know or don't care, with bargain clothes.

There is no argument to support the premise that cheap fashion from bargain retailers such as Primark are the only clothes that people can afford.  Recycled fashion, home made clothes, swap sales are all inventive ways to look cool without compromising the lives of others and such initiatives are thriving in virtually every city.  The fashion industry needs to change fundamentally, not just the retailers but the fashion press too, who are complicit by persudaing people into thinking that they need to be on trend, which for many people on a budget, can only be supplied by cheap fashion.

I've been out to India several times to visit the fair trade registered and SEDEX accredited (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange members) factories that we work with.  I made a decision when I started BIDBI to only work with fair trade factories in the manufacture of the cotton tote bags we make for customers.  This means that we sometimes lose out to the competition if a customer just wants the cheapest bag.  It costs a few pence more per bag to guarantee that someone has been paid a living wage and is working in fair conditions. We outline the benefits of a bag that's been made in fair trade conditions to our customers. Some are not bothered and do not connect with the reality that they are contributing to the misery, poor health and, possibly death of another individual in another country.  Fortunately, most do care.


I have joined a collaborative industry response, organised by The Ethical Fashion Forum, in putting forward practical and constructive steps that industry needs to take to avoid the recent, horrific disaster at the garment factory in Bangladesh, causing over 500 deaths.

As a SOURCE and Fellowship 500 Member, I have voiced my concern and made clear my opinion as to how I think we can stop the supply of cheap fashion into the UK.  I believe that all fashion imported into the UK must carry a certificate of ethical provenance if it's made outside of the EU.  Without this certification, there should be a tax applied to the goods, which, as an ethical levy, would then be channelled back into international aid, by assisting developing countries in helping their factories achieve fair trade status.  

The tax as such would counteract the benefit of cheap fashion, which has no ethical provenance.  It could also be used to assist fashion and textile production in Britain and therefore safeguard British manufacturing jobs.

The true cost of cheap fashion is human lives. At BIDBI we are a Fair Trade License Holder and proud to say that the sustainable, cloth bags we make are clean by design and clean by manufacture.