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INTRODUCTION

In the early twentieth century, American consumers spent approximately 13% of their
annual income on clothing. This amount decreased through the twenty-first century until the
average American shopper only spent about 3% of their yearly budget on apparel in 2014.1
However, there appeared an inconsistency. Despite spending less money on clothes, closet sizes
continued to grow. In fact, any individual today owns as many as five times the amount of
apparel they would have in years previously. This development is due to the modern era of fast
fashion.
As technology enables the swift dissemination and turnover of trends, retailers want to
maximize their profits by keeping up with consumer demand. They do so by expediting the
supply chain, speeding designs from the catwalk to the storefront. The corporate goal is simple -
get current styles to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. This objective comes with
negative social consequences. After the international media coverage of the 2013 Rana Plaza
factory collapse in India that resulted in the deaths of 1,134 workers, Western consumers were
forced to confront the ramifications of their spending habits. A shift ensued; a major faction of
shoppers turned to thrift stores for their clothing needs. The trends of modern fashion thus
became reminiscent, evoking older styles in a reflection of the newfound responsibility for
worker exploitation.

SOCIAL INJUSTICES OF FAST FASHION

The Rana Plaza factory incident occurred in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, India on
April 24, 2013. The integrity of the eight-story structure failed and it collapsed on 3,122
occupants, killing 1,134 workers and injuring hundreds more. The cause of this tragedy was
traced back to the clothing production shops in the building - the vibration of the sewing
machinery coupled with the weight of the generators used to power the equipment were too
much for the construction to hold.2 The connection to garment manufacturing catalyzed
inspection of modern assembly means and factory working conditions. Investigators made two
staggering discoveries - wages below a livable minimum for adult workers led to the persistence
of child labor within the industry.
A large portion of the world’s garment factories are located in India. Western brands
outsource their production to this poverty-stricken country for the lower costs associated with
labor. Major labels subcontract corrupt factory-owners who keep their profits to themselves and
leave their disadvantaged employees to work in dangerous facilities for cents a day. In the case

1
​Tyner, Keila. “The Case for Fewer - but Better - Clothes.” ​Quartz Media LLC​, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Mar.
2014, qz.com/189904/the-case-for-fewer-but-better-clothes/. Accessed 7 July 2017.
2
​“Bangladesh Building Collapse Death Toll Passes 500.” ​BBC News - Asia​, British Broadcasting Corporation, 3
May 2013, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22394094. Accessed 8 July 2017.
of the Rana Plaza factory, eighty percent of the workers were young women ranging in age from
eighteen to twenty-five years old. Their standard shift was approximately fourteen hours long
with one half-hour break. Despite the toil of a one hundred hour work week, workers only
received two days off a month. The pay was proportionally abysmal - young helpers earned
twelve cents an hour, junior operations received twenty-two cents an hour, while senior sewers
collected twenty-four cents an hour.3
Even after these inequities were brought to light, not much has changed in the policies of
clothing corporations regarding a living wage for their employees. In many factories, workers are
not given pay slips. They are often cheated of their wages altogether. The Clean Clothes
Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment
industry, surveyed major brands on their payment practices. They found that such popular names
as Armani, Hugo Boss, Levi Strauss & Co., Vuitton, Gucci, Mango, Versace, Asics, New
Balance, and Nike all failed to enforce payment of an appropriate wage in a standard working
week.4 Many of their subcontractor’s employees were living below the poverty line and did not
have access to housing, education, and/or healthcare as a result of their low income.
A hazardous working environment is also the norm in Indian garment factories. After the
Rana Plaza collapse, a CBS news crew visited similar sites in the surrounding area of
Bangladesh. At a particular location, they filmed emergency fire exits blocked by ceiling-high
stacks of garment cartons. They further discovered that thirteen of the legally-required fifteen
fire extinguishers were missing. After interviewing employees, they found that supervisors were
threatening their workers with termination. Whistleblowers were dismissed from their positions
and unable to provide for their families. CBS learned that there were employees as young as
twelve being fired from these factories because of the new scrutiny on labor operations.5
The issue of child labor is not restricted to a few factories in Bangladesh. The
International Labour Organization estimates that almost eleven percent of the global child
population is employed - approximately 168 to 200 million children.6 Because their parents earn
so little to begin with, children are forced to join the workforce to supplement their family’s
income. Child workers remain in demand in the garment industry because of their small stature
and agility in pollinating and harvesting cotton. Young girls in particular are sought after for
their submissive nature, an ideal that is reinforced by traditional Indian culture. Cotton seed

3
​“Factory Collapse in Bangladesh.” ​w​ww.globallabourrights.org​, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, 14
Apr. 2014, www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh. Accessed 7 July 2017.
4
​“Tailored Wage Report.” ​Clean Clothes Campaign​, Asia Floor Wage Alliance, 27 Mar. 2017,
cleanclothes.org/livingwage/tailoredwages/tailored-wage-report. Accessed 6 July 2017.
5
​Williams, Holly. “Undercover in a Bangladesh Clothing Factory.” ​CBS News​, Columbia Broadcasting System
Interactive, 22 May 2013, www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-goes-undercover-in-a-bangladesh-clothing-factory/.
Accessed 8 July 2017.
6
​Marking Progress Against Child Labor - Global Estimates and Trends 2000-2012​. International Programme on the
Elimination of Child Labour, 2013, ​International Labour Organization​,
www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---ipec/documents/publication/wcms_221513.pdf. Accessed 5 July
2017.
farms in the Indian states of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka account for
more than ninety percent of the total cotton production in India. As of 2010, 381,500 children
were found working on these farms. 169,900 of these children were below fourteen years of age.7
Child labor is further common in the yarn and textile spinning mills of Tamil Nadu,
India. Girls in the Dalit social class (the lowest caste) are preyed upon, recruited for five year
contracts and promised payment that they can use for their dowry. However, the girls live in
factory-owned housing where their freedoms are limited - they cannot leave unaccompanied,
receive visitors, or make private phone calls to their families. In a survey of 1,638 spinning mill
workers, eighteen percent (approximately 300 employees) were hired when they were younger
than fifteen years old. Sixty percent (1,000 workers) were between fifteen and eighteen when
they started working.8

CONSUMER RESPONSE

The horrific trends of corporate corruption, worker exploitation, and child labor were
exposed by the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Western consumers were shocked at these
revelations; a movement to amend popular buying habits appeared as a result. The social stigma
attached to wearing second-hand clothes and thrift shopping disappeared. Goodwill Industries
International Incorporated experienced an 84% increase in revenue from sales from 2007 to
2012, ending the fiscal year with $3.5 billion in profit. However, in the two years following the
Rana Plaza tragedy, their earnings skyrocketed to $5.6 billion.9 Online consignment stores and
resale marketplaces have also grown due to the socially conscious shift in wearing, re-wearing,
and recycling clothes. The apparel resale industry is currently worth $18 billion. Based on
current revenue and public interest, the market is projected to be worth $33 billion by 2021.
Resale distributors are growing at twenty times the the rate of the broader retail market, and one
third of women in the United States report shopping secondhand.10
The trend of shopping second-hand is further reflected in the recent seasons of runway
fashion. Current styles of the catwalk are primarily nostalgic - avante-garde modernity has been
replaced by remembrance. Duster coats, furs, and ruffles point to the sophistication of the fifties.
Plaid, tweed, color-blocking, and loud patterns such as patchwork are all reminiscent of the
sixties. The seventies saw florals, bohemian white, tunics, off-the-shoulder tops, and lace-up
sandals first. The eighties followed with a grungier feel - shoulder pads, denim jackets, shearling
bombers, and mirrored sunglasses ruled the day. The most recent era of the past, the nineties, are

7
​Venkateswarlu, Davuluri. ​Signs of Hope - Child and Adult Labour in Cottonseed Production in India​. International
Labour Rights Forum, 2010, www.dol.gov/ilab/submissions/pdf/20100601.pdf. Accessed 7 July 2017.
8
​Maid in India - Young Dalit Women Continue to Suffer Exploitative Conditions in India’s Garment Industry​. India
Committee of the Netherlands, 2012, www.somo.nl/maid-in-india/. Accessed 10 June 2017.
9
​Amer, Yasmin, and Michaela Vincent. “Thrifty Shoppers Rediscover Secondhand Fashion.” ​CNN Living ​, Cable
News Network, 12 June 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/06/11/living/thrift-store-style/index.html. Accessed 9 July 2017.
10
​Clark, Karen. ​Annual Resale Report - 2017​. ThredUp, 2017, www.thredup.com/resale/full. Accessed 5 July 2017.
seen in today’s slip dresses, velvet, chokers, track pants, and high waist. All of these looks are
most readily found in secondhand shops, where they take on new life and style as modern
individuals purchase them.
Brands associated with transparency and traceability have also gained unprecedented
popularity. Everlane, an online retailer focused on minimalistic designs, officially launched in
2011 with a single item. In a mere five years, their revenue reached $50 million. When the site
first offered pants, there was a 12,000 person waitlist. The brand now stocks two hundred
different items, many of which are routinely sold-out.11 This overwhelming popularity in such a
short period of time is due to their marketing - “Know your factories, know your costs, always
ask why.” This message of candor rings true with consumers and Everlane makes sure to practice
what they preach - an interactive map of the world shows each of their factories. Each factory
has a page detailing the product the facility produces, the number of workers they employ, the
owners of the establishment, and pictures of daily operations. Everlane’s commitment to
hands-on integrity ensured their early success as a start-up, and the brand continues to grow as
more and more consumers turn to ethical fashion.
Warby Parker is yet another company that has found its prosperity in a mindful message -
“Buy a pair, give a pair.” The glasses retailer believes that donating glasses to those in need
would only be a temporary solution that contributes to dependency.12 To combat this, Warby
Parker partners with nonprofits who train men and women in poverty-stricken countries to sell
glasses for accessible prices, which allows the individual to earn a living while providing
members of their community with a higher standard of living. According to a study last year by
Nielsen, a customer information company, 46% of global consumers are willing to pay extra for
products from companies that have programs to give back to society.13 This mindset is reflected
in the worth of Warby Parker - their pay-it-forward attitude has launched the company to a worth
of $1 billion.14
Consumers have also expressed their discontent with unforthcoming brands through
social media platforms. A nonprofit devoted to systemic reform of the fashion industry known as
Fashion Revolution began a hashtag campaign on Twitter to raise awareness and hold major
brands accountable for the production of their apparel. On the 2015 anniversary of the Rana

11
​Lieber, Chavie. “Can Everlane Really Become the Next J.Crew?” ​Racked​, Vox Media , 8 Oct. 2015,
www.racked.com/2015/10/8/9442455/everlane-expansion. Accessed 10 July 2017.
12
​“Buy A Pair, Give A Pair.” ​Warby Parker​, www.warbyparker.com/buy-a-pair-give-a-pair. Accessed 12 July 2017.
13
​“The Consumer Psychology Behind Warby Parker’s $95 Pricing for Eyeglasses.” ​Time E-Commerce​, Time, 23
May 2013,
business.time.com/2013/05/23/the-consumer-psychology-behind-warby-parkers-95-pricing-for-eyeglasses/.
Accessed 13 July 2017.
14
​MacMillan, Douglas. “Eyeglass Retailer Warby Parker Valued at $1.2 Billion.” ​The Wall Street Journal​, Dow
Jones & Company, 30 Apr. 2015,
blogs.wsj.com/digits/2015/04/30/eyeglass-retailer-warby-parker-valued-at-1-2-billion/. Accessed 11 July 2017.
Plaza factory collapse, #WhoMadeMyClothes trended globally at number one with 64 million
users.15

CONCLUSION

After the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, Western consumers were presented with
their ignorance on the corruption of the fashion industry. Complicit with the oppression of
poverty-stricken individuals and child labor due to their spending habits and disposable culture,
the American public was forced to respond or face their guilty consciences. They consequently
turned away from fast fashion models of production and towards more deliberate, socially aware
purchases. Second-hand ownership thus continues to influence runway styles towards the past.
Ethically-focused apparel startups are taking over traditional fashion retail. The snowball of
change is rolling - this shift is here to stay.

15
​It's Time for a Fashion Revolution​. Fashion Revolution , 2015,
fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FashRev_Whitepaper_Dec2015_screen.pdf. Accessed 10 July
2017.
Works Cited

Amer, Yasmin, and Michaela Vincent. “Thrifty Shoppers Rediscover Secondhand Fashion.”
CNN Living ​, Cable News Network, 12 June 2013,
www.cnn.com/2013/06/11/living/thrift-store-style/index.html. Accessed 9 July 2017.

“Bangladesh Building Collapse Death Toll Passes 500.” ​BBC News - Asia​, British Broadcasting
Corporation, 3 May 2013, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22394094. Accessed 8 July
2017.

“Buy A Pair, Give A Pair.” ​Warby Parker​, www.warbyparker.com/buy-a-pair-give-a-pair.


Accessed 12 July 2017.

Clark, Karen. ​Annual Resale Report - 2017​. ThredUp, 2017, www.thredup.com/resale/full.


Accessed 5 July 2017.

“Factory Collapse in Bangladesh.” ​Www.globallabourrights.org​, Institute for Global Labour and


Human Rights, 14 Apr. 2014,
www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh. Accessed 7 July
2017.

It's Time for a Fashion Revolution​. Fashion Revolution , 2015,


fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FashRev_Whitepaper_Dec2015_scree
n.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2017.

Lieber, Chavie. “Can Everlane Really Become the Next J.Crew?” ​Racked​, Vox Media , 8 Oct.
2015, www.racked.com/2015/10/8/9442455/everlane-expansion. Accessed 10 July 2017.

MacMillan, Douglas. “Eyeglass Retailer Warby Parker Valued at $1.2 Billion.” ​The Wall Street
Journal​, Dow Jones & Company, 30 Apr. 2015,
blogs.wsj.com/digits/2015/04/30/eyeglass-retailer-warby-parker-valued-at-1-2-billion/.
Accessed 11 July 2017.

Maid in India - Young Dalit Women Continue to Suffer Exploitative Conditions in India’s
Garment Industry​. India Committee of the Netherlands, 2012,
www.somo.nl/maid-in-india/. Accessed 10 June 2017.

Marking Progress Against Child Labor - Global Estimates and Trends 2000-2012​. International
Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, 2013, ​International Labour
Organization​,
www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---ipec/documents/publication/wcms_22
1513.pdf. Accessed 5 July 2017.
“Tailored Wage Report.” ​Clean Clothes Campaign​, Asia Floor Wage Alliance, 27 Mar. 2017,
cleanclothes.org/livingwage/tailoredwages/tailored-wage-report. Accessed 6 July 2017.

“The Consumer Psychology Behind Warby Parker’s $95 Pricing for Eyeglasses.” ​Time
E-Commerce​, Time, 23 May 2013,
business.time.com/2013/05/23/the-consumer-psychology-behind-warby-parkers-95-prici
ng-for-eyeglasses/. Accessed 13 July 2017.

Tyner, Keila. “The Case for Fewer - but Better - Clothes.” ​Quartz Media LLC​, Atlantic Media
Company, 31 Mar. 2014, qz.com/189904/the-case-for-fewer-but-better-clothes/.
Accessed 7 July 2017.

Venkateswarlu, Davuluri. ​Signs of Hope - Child and Adult Labour in Cottonseed Production in
India​. International Labour Rights Forum, 2010,
www.dol.gov/ilab/submissions/pdf/20100601.pdf. Accessed 7 July 2017.

Williams, Holly. “Undercover in a Bangladesh Clothing Factory.” ​CBS News​, Columbia


Broadcasting System Interactive, 22 May 2013,
www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-goes-undercover-in-a-bangladesh-clothing-factory/.
Accessed 8 July 2017.