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Perusing Primark in my early teens, I was always after a quick bargain. As I scanned the shelves to find my way into a half-decent outfit for the night’s events, I heard a mother chat to her friend about the new clothing haven that had hit the city. “T-shirts for £1.50?” she said to her friend. “You can’t go wrong with those prices.”
As the shop became bigger and busier, more and more customers were regurgitating the same sentiments with the same assertion always leading to the listener paradoxically shaking their head in agreement. “You just can’t go wrong,” they would say. “There’s no excuse,” others would ascertain. Flicking through the bargain rails as the conversation spread, we would select our new consumer trend as the contradiction between movement and mouth became wider and wider, purchasing clothes after clothes as the excuse passed from friend to friend. The beliefs spread. The lie became shopping dogma, one of the biggest pitfalls in the developed world’s pursuit of fast fashion.
High street fashion is designed, naturally, with the consumer in mind. With a product to sell and a profit to be made, advertisers arrest our eyes with images of sexualised glamour, drawing us into shops where we consider whether we can ever look as good as the mannequin in the window. Like magpies in a silverware shop, we fall head over heels for the latest trends, convincing ourselves that the beauty of the garment in front of us is worth all the salary-induced tedium we subject ourselves to each month. As we leave the shop, the only guilt that ever enters our minds is whether all of our hard work was worth the price we just paid. It is odd to think that we so heavily consider whether an outfit was really worth an extra few hours at the desk, rather than whether it was really worth the price of someone’s life.
Sometimes, an unpleasant reminder of where our clothes come from finds its way to the surface. Be it a moralistic school documentary, an unforgiving care label, an unwanted geography lesson, or a defiant article in a gay magazine. Nevertheless the lack of ethics in high street fashion can be so easily swept away and forgiven. Desensitised and distant, a slight tinge of irritation enters one’s head when they are reminded of the real price of cheap clothing. Shopping is a pleasant activity, we say to ourselves. Let’s not tarnish it with blood. However, for the streets of Bangladesh, our piecemeal offering of remorse is already far too late.
At time of writing more than 700 lives have been claimed in the Bangladeshi clothing factory collapse. It is the largest recorded fashion-related catastrophe to date. As men and women crammed into tiny, dimly lit rooms to make bargain wear for $64 a month, the tail end of their thread was lost as the light began to flicker. As the ground shook beneath them, the world caved inwards, sending them hurtling to their deaths. Only significant in their mortality, workers were bundled into mass graves, to descend into eternal anonymity, rattling the consumer consciousness for a matter of seconds. Our shopping had become their survival.
It would be easy to blame Primark for what happened in Bangladesh, but in reality 90% of the shops that belong on the British high street are in the firing line. Ironically, the organic and fair-trade lines of supermarket conglomerates Tesco and Sainsbury’s rank more poorly than Primarni’s bargain rails, with ASDA’s George range scoring 0/20 for its ethical standards. Philip Green’s Arcadia magnate Topshop ranks at a lowly 8/20 in the ethical standards ratings, while the highest scoring retailer at 13/20 is Bon Marche.
Pairing ethical statistics with an ever-mounting death toll, the terrifying maths that sits before us seems almost impossible to ignore. Solemn for a few moments, we flick through the pages in front of us to only discover that we are distracted by something shiny all over again, becoming catnip for seductive industries that profiteer from our lust. However, as long as we enjoy the delights of shopping, we as a developed world consumer can also understand fashion as a two way process. By choosing where exactly to part with our hard earned cash, we can send a message to the big guns that the number 700 is far too pricey for us to afford.
Send a message to the big clothing chains that the issues of slave labour matter here: