The Real Price of Clothes

We’ve heard about sweatshop factory collapses and fires in countries like Bangladesh. We’ve seen stories about labour conditions abroad and we should by now be aware that the people who make  our clothes earn so little they can barely, if at all,  afford to feed their families,. On top of that people are dying slowly of formaldehyde poisoning from the synthetic indigo dye coloring the jeans so many people wear.

The fashion industry employs one out of every six people in the world and pays less than two percent of them a living wage. On top of the direct human cost, the industry is responsible for 20 percent of all industrial water pollution and 10 percent of carbon emissions—not to mention untold piles of clothes that end up in landfills, because one fifth of the 100 billion garments made each year go unsold and unworn.

However, things are starting to improve.  Retailers are starting to shift their supply models, and designers are embracing “circular and slow fashion”,  which I take to mean returning to former ideas  and not changing frenetically all the time, season by season, with the waste that implies. Fashion manufacturers are using cutting-edge technology to recycle or bio-engineer fabrics, and consumers are consciously buying less. (an edited version of a piece in American Scholar).

A morning recently spent in John Lewis in London’s Oxford Street, left me slightly dazed.  There couldn’t be enough people with enough money to buy half the garments on display.  Many were charming, but some of the colours were ugly and the styles (to my male eye) were unflattering .  At which point I should point to my credentials, slight though they are – my mother was a successful fashion model in the 1930s and she frequently took me shopping, explained things to me and asked me to comment on this or that dress in the shops.  So I have a modest interest, even now, in the subject.


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