The True Cost of Cheap Fashion

  • Arnika Bhupal
  • 21st September 2017

In April 2013, 1,134 people died in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  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.

The incident seemed to whip everyone into action but 4 years on, change is proving sluggish. Yes 38 people were charged with murder over the incident but factories are still far from adhering to the safety measures outlined for worker and factory safety issues.

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 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.

We visit India reguarly to visit the fair trade registered and SEDEX accredited (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange members) factories that we work with. BIDBI only works with Fairtrade 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.

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