‘There’s not much I can do’: we asked fast fashion shoppers how ethical concerns shape their choices


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You’ve found the perfect dress. You’ve tried it before and you know it looks great. Now it’s on sale, such a big discount the store is practically giving it away. Should we buy it?

For some of us, this is obvious. For others, it is an ethical dilemma when we shop for clothes. What matters more? How was the item made or how much does it cost? Is the most important information on the label or price tag?

Among the global industries that profit from the exploitation of workers, the the fashion industry is notorious, in part because of the stark contrast between the way fashion is made and the way it is marketed.

there are more people work under operating conditions than ever before. Globally, the clothing industry employs millions of people, with 65 million garment workers in Asia alone. Clean Clothes Campaign estimates Less than 1 percent of what you pay for a typical garment goes to the workers who made it.

The garment worker receives the least from the sale of a $ 30 shirt. (Provided: The conversation)

Some work under such abusive conditions that they meet the definition of being modern slaves – trapped in situations they cannot leave due to coercion and threats.

But their fate is masked by the distance between the worker and the buyer. Global supply chains have helped this exploitation go into hiding and thrive.

Do we really care about ourselves and what can we do?

we have managed in-depth interviews with 21 women who buy “fast fashion” – clothes “in tune with the times” made and sold at very low prices – to find out what they think of the conditions of the workers who make their clothes, and what efforts they make. do to avoid slavery – made clothes. Well-known fast fashion brands include H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo.

What they told us highlights the inadequacy of seeking to eradicate exploitation in the fashion industry by relying on consumers to do the heavy lifting. Struggling to find reliable information on ethical practices, consumers are overwhelmed when they attempt to navigate ethical consumerism.

Workers sort clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh
Workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh.(Reuters: Andrew Biraj )

Out of sight out of mind

The 21 participants in our research were women between the ages of 18 and 55, from various backgrounds across Australia. We selected participants who were aware of the exploitation in the fashion industry but who had still purchased fast fashion in the previous six months. This was not a survey but qualitative research involving in-depth interviews to understand the gap between awareness and action.

Our primordial discovery is that the physical and cultural distance of consumers of clothing from those who manufacture the clothing makes it difficult to relate to their experience. Even though we have seen images of sweatshops, it is still difficult to understand what the working conditions really look like.

As Fiona *, a woman in her thirties, put it: “I don’t think people care. [but] it’s not mean. It’s like a situation out of sight, out of mind. “

This problem of geographic and cultural distance between garment workers and fashion buyers highlights the lack of solutions based on driving change in the industry through consumer activism.

Who is responsible?

Australia’s modern slavery law, for example, only tackles the problem by requiring large companies to report to a public register on their efforts to identify the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains and what they are doing to eliminate those risks.

While greater transparency is certainly a big step forward for the industry, the legislation still presumes that the threat of reputational damage is enough to get industry players to change their ways.

Much of the success of the legislation hinges on the ability of activist organizations to sift through and publicize business performance with the aim of encouraging consumers to hold businesses accountable.

All of our interviewees told us that they felt unfairly entrusted with the responsibility of seeking information about working conditions and ethical practices to hold retailers to account or to feel empowered to make the “right” ethical choice.

“Sometimes it’s too difficult to determine if something is made ethically,” said Zoe *, a woman in her twenties.

Since many retailers themselves ignore their own supply chainsIt’s asking a lot to expect the average consumer to find out the truth and make ethical purchasing choices.

Confusion + crushing = inaction

“We have to shop for what is important to us, what is in line with our values, our family values, our budget,” said Sarah *, who is in her 40s.

She said she felt overwhelmed by ignoring certain issues and focusing on ethical actions that she knew would make a difference. “I do so many other good things,” she said. “We can’t be perfect, and I can’t do everything.”

Other participants also talked about juggling environmental and social impact considerations.

“It’s made in Bangladesh, but it’s 100% cotton, so, I don’t know, is that ethical? That’s how Lauren *, a woman in her twenties, put it. “It depends on what we call ethical […] and which is just marketing. “

Comparatively, participants felt that their actions to mitigate environmental damage made a tangible difference. They were able to see the impact and felt rewarded and empowered to continue to make positive change. This was not the case with modern slavery and workers’ rights in general.

Fast fashion is a lucrative market, with billions of profits made thanks to the work of the world’s lowest paid workers.

It cannot be denied that consumers wield a lot of power, and we should not absolve consumers of their role in creating demand for the least expensive clothing humanely – or inhumanly – possible.

But consumer choice alone is insufficient. We need a system where all of our clothing choices are ethical, where we don’t need to make a choice between what’s right and what’s cheap.

The names of study participants have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Tara Stringer is a PhD candidate, Alice Payne is associate professor of fashion, and Gary Mortimer is professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the Queensland University of Technology. This piece first appeared on The conversation.

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