Fast Fashions Dangerous Underside

STORY BY Emily Kirkpatrick

Published: April 8, 2013

Fast Fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 may make trendy clothing more affordable and available to the public, but that massive, quick, cheap production comes with a hidden price tag that has only begun to surface over the past few years.

Some may remember a couple years ago when H&M and Wal-Mart both came under fire when it was revealed that the two corporations shared the bizarre and incredibly wasteful practice of shredding unsold merchandise. Although, as it turns out, this practice is probably not unique to them, but rather a standard practice throughout the industry. Fashion labels routinely destroy unsold stock in order to keep their merchandise from landing in some discount sale bin, effectively cheapening the brand. According to Erka Kawalek on Slate’s XX Factor, “I can't name the brand, but a VERY high-up and profitable one recently sent two million dollars worth of clothing and purses to the shredder. This goes on all the time; it's part of the business.”

If that piece of information appals you, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. This past October, a Swedish documentary revealed how drastically underpaid H&M’s Cambodian workers are. The film, Kalla Fakta, claimed their garment workers were struggling to live on a sixty-one dollar a month salary. This sum of money legally meets Cambodia’s minimum wage regulations, however, the amount is still less than twenty-five percent of a living wage. H&M disputed the film’s claims, but seemed more upset by the implication that other fast fashion brands are paying their laborers more, than by the revelation of how much their company actually pays. In response to the documentary, H&M claimed that they have, “the same level of ambition when it comes to the wage issue as other companies' Codes of Conduct; the legal minimum wage is the basic requirement, and with the ambition that one should be able to live off the salary." Not exactly remorseful, although they are now reportedly meeting with Cambodian officials to call for a higher minimum wage. However, H&M was quick to point out that they do not own any of the factories where their garments are produced and so “cannot set or pay wages. It is the local government that sets a statutory minimum wage.”

Of course, H&M is just one example of a slew of fast fashion retailers who are masking some very sinister practices that are bound to come to light sooner or later. Zara, for example, has also recently come under media scrutiny, first for their toxic clothing, and now, more recently, for possible slave labor practices. At the end of November, Greenpeace released a report that looked into the presence of toxic chemicals on some of America’s most beloved garments. Greenpeace tested 141 pieces of clothing from 20 major brands, including Zara, Levi’s, Mango, and H&M . The results were that all 20 labels were producing, selling, and consequently contaminating the environments around their factories with life-threatening chemicals. Of the 141 pieces tested, 89 contained nonylphenol ethoxylates and two, both from Zara, contained cancer-causing amines from azo dyes. Nine days after the report was released, Zara agreed to detoxing, telling Greenpeace they would commit to becoming toxic free by 2020, beginning next year to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products. To me, 2020 doesn’t seem soon enough to make sure your clothing isn’t the direct cause of cancer in your customers.

In case that doesn’t put you off Zara for good, just this week, another of their not-so-respectable company practices made headlines. The company is currently under investigation over alleged charges of slave labor in Argentinian factories. The workers’ rights group, La Alameda, tipped off investigators who raided Zara factories to discover immigrant workers, including children, working in “degrading” sweatshop conditions. The mostly Bolivian laborers were made to work over thirteen hours a day, six days a week and were prevented from leaving the factories without permission. Juan Gomez Centurion, an Argentinian healthy and safety watchdog who was present for the raids said, “We found men and children who lived in places where they worked. They were not registered and they were living in terrible conditions. They had no official documents and were held against their will.” A spokesman for the company responded, saying, “We are surprised by the allegations. Based on the limited information we have received so far, the workshops in question to not appear to have any relationship with our approved suppliers in Argentina.” Fair enough, if this was Zara’s first transgression with their factories in Argentina. However, in 2011, fourteen Bolivians and one Peruvian had to be rescued from an unlicensed factory in Sao Paulo which happened to be producing garments bearing the Zara tag.

I think I’ll stick to doing my shopping in vintage stores from now on.

Other Stories by Emily Kirkpatrick
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