The Moral Crisis of Fast-Fashion

Like most students moving into virtually unfurnished halls, the first chance I got I convened with my female housemates and we spent girl’s day out buying stuff. Our main objective was to beautify, cute-ify, sparkle-ify our drab surroundings. Our destination the bastion of all budgeters sniffing around for sweet bargains, Primark. We emerged gratified, clutching throw blankets and colorful pillows crowing “I can’t believe this was six pounds!”.

Even though no one looks forward to shopping at Primark, everyone I know seems to own at least a couple of things they bought there. Often a nondescript jumper, some jacket that won’t be missed once replaced. As I’ve shopped there myself, it’s difficult for me to condemn others for doing so. These are the items we turn to when we’re in the need of a cheap fix and most people regard it as a necessary evil. But just how evil is it?

The internet has a devilish long memory and is quick to pierce the veneer of respectability big-name brands maintain. Googling “Primark scandal” shows that in 2014, Primark got itself into a spot of trouble when a worker sewed a note into the pocket of a pair of jeans. Here’s the note again: “SOS! SOS! SOS! We are prisoners at Xiangnan jail in Hubei, China. For a long time, we have been producing clothing for export. We work for 15 hours each day. What we eat is even worse than food for pigs and dogs. The work we do is similar to [the hard work] that oxen and horses do. We urge the international community to denounce China for this inhumane act.”

Primark is not the only brand to have to gloss over its image after such scandals. Customers have found unsavory notes in the pockets of Zara jackets as well. Fast-fashion brands only design the products. They then commission from factories in third-world countries who often can’t handle the volume requested and outsource their products again. They don’t have complete control over the production chain nor do they probably want it. It’s much easier to get away with outsourcing your Chinese prison labor than owning it yourself. Think of the brand you’re buying as the middleman. No one actually buys Zara, Primark, H&M. We’re actually buying from the people that exploit refugee children in India.

Stories of abused workers in far-off countries that surface every so often provide us with a slightly satisfying sense of indignation until it’s back to business as usual. Fast-fashion brands occasionally launch campaigns to present a clean image but it’s mostly unnecessary because people will buy their products anyway as they are so cheap. When questioned about how they keep their prices so low, Primark justifies it by claiming it saves by not advertising, keeping margins tight and focusing on selling large quantities of items. This is half-believable but if a shirt is only two pounds and a jacket fifteen, it’s probably safe to assume that the labor behind it is underpaid and exploited.

I don’t want to criticize everyone for buying from Primark. If Primark disappeared, cheap clothes would be hard to come by and cheap clothes are necessary. A good solution I think is to avoid recreational shopping at fast fashion chain stores to buy clothes. Most people just aren’t sticking to what they need.

Alice Forney