by Diyanah Lubis

TGIF. Thank God it's Friday. And on every Friday, you can't wait to step out of the office at 6PM promptly so you can make your weekly trip to the mall. There's a sale. You and sales go along together very well, like salt and pepper, like Tristan and Isolde. There was a sale three weeks ago and this time, it's a clearance sale. Everything must go. It is 6.20PM now. Closer to the shops now. You're on your way.

Have you ever wondered why sales take place frequently today? Why is there a need to have a clearance sale? How do these fashion retailers sustain their availability and stock? Why is there always an overflow of clothes, shoes, and everything else that you can think of?

Like technology, fashion has taken a step forward and caught up with the rest. Fast information, fast food, fast cars-- consumers now demand fast fashion as well. Newer, faster, better. Fashion trends come and go at a blink of an eye. People now expect more from high street fashion retailers like Topshop and Zara. With sales that go on almost all year round, lower prices have meant that consumers are starting to buy more clothes, at a higher rate.

Stores that used to stock just two collections over a year-- Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer--are more likely to have something new every month. Instead of advertising the new season of fashion trends twice a year, fashion spreads now advertise new trends every month or even every week, encouraging more purchases than required.

Fast fashion gives shoppers the latest cycles just six weeks after they first appear on the runway at prices that mean they can replace an outfit quickly and easily.

On the high streets of United Kingdom, fashion chains such as Warehouse, Topshop and Miss Selfridge, stock fashionable clothing at low cost. These stores have been successful and are making huge profits by selling large quantities of inexpensive clothes to consumers who may be looking for something new every week, or every couple of weeks. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Fashionable clothes have never been so easily available – or so cheap. But who's really paying for our retail therapy?

It is a no longer a secret. Fashion houses employ laborers from foreign countries, underpay them and make them work in poor working conditions. Let's take Topshop for example.

Although Topshop champions fledgling British talent more than any other mainstream retailer in the country, skeptics wondered if there was really a need to muscle in on the runway.

The opposing view decreed that Topshop's emergence on the catwalk reflected changes in fashion and society. This means the public simply couldn't get enough of what the high street stores – Topshop in particular – have to offer. Fashion editors were proud to wear Topshop. The brand wasn't just good value, they argued; it had credibility. Topshop represented the democratization of fashion. More people could now get a piece of the season's must-haves. And that could only be a good thing.

Gradually as prices of other goods continue to rise, fashion on high street has gotten cheaper, with mid-range brands like Marks & Spencer being forced to cut their prices to remain viable. How can these fashion houses afford to sell clothes at such a low price?

While wardrobes bulge with fashionable bargains, workers in the developing world are paying the price.

Factories supply Sir Philip Green (the owner of Arcadia, a company that owns popular brands like Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge), hundreds of Sri Lankan, Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Mauritius where they labor for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Workers reported that self-employed agents recruited them with promises of wages of up to five times what they receive now. To get the job, they paid up to £725 that is sadly, equivalent to seven months' earnings. A worker also revealed that they were paid £112 a month, equivalent to about 40p an hour for Topshop's Kate Moss range. The T-shirts are sold in Topshop for £12.

Sir Philip Green is worth nearly £5 billion.

The problem is crystal clear here. Those who work in the production line are often too afraid of their employers and of losing their jobs. They are also scared of speaking out against unfair practices, from insufficient union representation to health and safety issues, including sexual harassment. Then you have long working hours and a salary that may meet basic legal requirements but is still judged to be only half of what it would take to ensure adequate nutrition, accommodation and time spent with one's family -- that is, a living wage.

Sad to say, Topshop is not the only one guilty. All brands under Arcadia practice what we call, “slave labor”.

What does it take for fashion companies to stop their unethical practices?

In August 2007, the media exposed Gap's employment of children as young as 10 manufacturing clothing for Gap Kids in a factory in Delhi. The company, which prides itself on being ethically aware, issued a statement that the allegations were deeply upsetting and they would take the situation very seriously. Gap's spokesman also claimed that one of their vendors violated the agreement and a full investigation would be conducted.

A month later, the vendor in question has been put on a six-month probation period and its orders had been cut by 50 percent. Gap stumped up a $200,000 grant to help improve the working conditions in India.

Has Gap redeemed itself or is the brand pointing fingers? Or are fashion retailers sitting up and taking action?

There is growing concern within the UK fashion industry over the use of Third World labor. Former Topshop brand director, Jane Shepherdson, said consumers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and “not ask where they come from”.

However, it was alleged that Arcadia Group is one of the few British retailers who has not signed up to the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI). This is a self-regulatory body set up in 1998 to improve the conditions of workers in the developing world after increased pressure from trade unions, NGOs and, most significantly, the consumer.

And still, such fashion scandals abound.

In 2007, a study by the charity War on Want revealed that Mothercare and Matalan manufacture clothes in Bangalore factories, where workers were paid as little as 13p an hour for a 48-hour week. Mothercare demanded that all its suppliers "comply with our ethical sourcing policy", while Matalan said all factories supplying their clothes had to guarantee that salaries were above minimum wage.

In that same year, Anya Hindmarch's controversial reusable bag for Sainsbury's, I’m Not A Plastic Bag, was revealed to be made in China, and the cotton it was made in was not organic or fair trade. Designer Hindmarch responded that it was not a secret that the bag was made in China. "We have tried to use our influence... to make it fashionable not to use plastic bags," added a spokesman.

Fast fashion labels are now engaging designers and celebrities to their line. Topshop has Kate Moss. H&M has Madonna and Kylie Minogue. Mango has the Cruz sisters, Penelope and Monica. Adidas has Stella McCartney.

Topshop holds fashion design competitions annually and recently, in December 2007, it launched charity:water. This event helped build freshwater wells that would provide impoverished communities in Africa with clean water and basic sanitation. To mark the occasion, Topshop launched fancy water bottles that were available at selected Topshop stores and 100% of the profits go directly to building the well.

While these efforts may counter rampant accusations of ripping runway styles, honestly, I think there's more to it than meets the eye. Could they be drumming up publicity by using star power, in a bid to redeem themselves from how poorly they've treated their workers? I choose to believe so.

If Topshop can make the effort in holding events and such for good publicity, I don't see why it should continue underpaying these laborers who slug it out for them.

I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with girls aspiring to be like Madonna and other fashionable personalities. However the irony behind all this is, by wearing these clothes, they are exploiting the disadvantaged.

Fast fashion and its heavy costs on human labor have taken over the retail world. Now, it is up to you and me to slow it down and eventually put a halt to it.

You can support fashion companies that are taking steps to ensure that workers are paid and treated fairly. Find out more by looking at the websites of these organizations:
The Ethical Trading Initiative, which includes many large high street stores as members, and The Ethical Fashion Forum, a network of designers, businesses and organizations focusing upon social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry.

Labor Behind the Label is a campaign that supports garment workers' efforts worldwide to improve their working conditions. You can become a member or find out more about how to encourage better conditions for garment workers by checking their website.

TAXI Design Network


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