The dark side of opportunity cost: Fast fashion as it pertains to human trafficking

The dark side of opportunity cost: Fast fashion as it pertains to human trafficking

Bella Kephart

The modern clothing industry is an indefatigable machine, churning out new styles and trends. Every season, storefronts boast brightly-colored posters advertising their “New Fall Collection!” or perhaps a “Summer Sale! BOGO free while supplies last!” Unfortunately, the story behind the signs is not always as bright.

   Before we reach for that pack of scrunchies or Nike Air Force Ones, we need to take a moment to wonder why we can buy new clothes every month at relatively affordable prices. Why did our grandparents view buying their clothes as a luxury, but now we see hand-making them as an expensive hobby? 

   According to Andrew Morgan, director of The True Cost, a documentary about the fashion industry, “As recently as the 1960s, [the United States] were still making 95 percent of our clothes. Today, we only make about three percent and the other 97 percent is outsourced to developing countries around the world.” 

   Outsourcing has given rise to the era of fast-fashion. In order to increase revenue and maximize profit, consumers have bought into the idea that they need a new wardrobe every season. This sad truth unfortunately leads to an even sadder reality: fast-fashion is being propelled forward by human trafficking. 

   Out of curiosity, I went through my own closet to see where all of my clothes were manufactured. What I found made my stomach flip. Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, El Salvador, and China were among the countries I found represented in my wardrobe. My fall sweaters, my Adidas sweatpants– “Made in Pakistan.” All of these countries are notorious for using either slaves or extremely cheap labor (often children) for production. I felt guilty.

   Our first instinct is to say to ourselves, “No way are the brands I wear using cheap labor to make clothes.” That is what I said to myself. Unfortunately, shady online shopping sites we find on the dark side of the internet aren’t the only culprits. Companies like Aeropostale, Adidas, Nike, ASOS, Forever 21, Gap, and H&M have been found guilty of using sweatshops or child labor. 

   Most clothing produced today is made by exploited and severely underpaid workers in developing countries. “There are a total of forty million garment workers in the world, four million of which work in Bangladesh. Eighty-five percent of those workers are women, who are paid less than three [U.S.] dollars a day,” said Morgan. 

   Not only are they receiving inadequate pay, but they are also working in dilapidated buildings. On April 14, 2013, a garment factory in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,127 people. If this happened in the United States, riots and strikes would most likely be taking place on a daily basis.  

   Unfortunately, this is not the case in other countries. There is also a glaring dearth of labor protection laws that guarantee humane treatment of their workers. 

   When Bangladeshi workers attempted to form a union and protested about having to work 16-hour days without overtime pay, they were beaten by the factory managers and owners, often dying as a result. The Cambodian police opened fire on a crowd of garment workers protesting for better wages in January. Cambodian factories are known for firing and arresting their employees without cause.

   Without oversight, countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia get away with producing clothing to export for next to nothing. It has to stop.

   It is easy to look at the situation and wonder why these mistreated employees don’t quit. Unfortunately, that’s not feasible in some situations. The countries I mentioned before–Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh–are classified as developing countries. Many people who are coerced into human trafficking have no other alternative to gain a livelihood. They were given the promise of a job, and then were exploited. 

   As much as they’d like to seek more advantageous employment, it’s often unavailable. Furthermore, traffickers often trap their victims in other countries where they are unfamiliar with the language to further prevent them from escaping their situation. Victims accept the offer because they are desperate for a job–any job. 

   Furthermore, citizens of these countries are often illiterate, starving, and  impoverished. Parents are often forced to sell a child in order to feed the others, or sell themselves. 

   The U.S. Department of State has numerous published stories of victims who were subject to unspeakable torture. One of these victims is Gayan, a 15-year-old boy from India who dropped out of school to go to work. He was promised a good job, but upon arrival, he was confined to a factory and forced to work around the clock with little food and sleep. His employers beat him, branded him, and burned him with cigarette butts. It was not until a year later that Gayan was able to get out and expose his traffickers.

   Gayan is one of millions. 

   So what are we supposed to do with this information? If all the clothes in our closet were made by exploited workers, we cannot just throw our clothes in a pile and burn them. The cycle of cheap clothing produced by cheap labor does not have one solution, and any solution will take years to implement– it’s not going to resolve itself overnight. 

   The biggest action we take is watch prices. If there is a five dollar pair of shorts at Old Navy, think twice before taking good sales at face value. Why are they so cheap? Is there a chance those shorts were produced in unethical conditions? Can an older pair of shorts last another summer instead?

   There is a revolution beginning to combat the corrupt system. There are now countless sites that make clothing that is ethically sourced; brands like Boden, Patagonia, Levi’s, and Prana. Now, they are not always brands that consumers can find at a local mall. But slowly, they are changing the tide, and paving the way for a more ethical and sustainable system. Yes, these sites tend to cost more than the brands we’re used to. But each time we buy something from these corrupt companies, we feed the monster of human trafficking. If we choose the easier, “cheaper” option, someone else will be forced to pay on the other end. But they won’t be paying with their credit cards. They will be paying a much greater price–maybe even with their lives.