Image source: The Guardian
By Lucy Wright
Clothing retailer Missguided has been recently subjected to scrutiny for their disregard for sustainability. The controversy surrounds a two piece swimsuit being sold at a scandalously low price of £1. The garment in question has become a symbol for the frightening trend within the industry of ‘fast fashion’ – the rapid production of clothes to meet the excessive demands of consumers. While certainly not alone, Missguided is perhaps one of the most prominent firms to rely on the throwaway culture we are witnessing today, with a business model which depends upon trends swooping in and out of style at a rapid pace. The unsustainably low-priced clothing they offer, enables consumers to afford and adopt a ‘wear-once’ mentality, instead of investing in quality items which transcend trends.
Fashion is responsible for up to 10% of the world’s carbon footprint, making the industry one of the largest worldwide culprits for crimes against the environment. With textile production ranking as the world’s second most polluting industry after the oil industry, it is easy to see how damaging fashion is for our planet in its contemporary form. The crops and fibres used in the production of garments contribute to a plethora of pollution, including water, air and soil. Pressured, perhaps, by a growing awareness among consumers of their environmental impact, a number of high street retailers are taking steps to remedy some of the damage their products are causing. A notable example is the H&M conscious collection, containing garments which are “made from sustainably sourced and recycled materials”. Unfortunately, the 85% polyester £1 bikini will outlive us all, when it inevitably lands in a landfill.
On their website, a mission statement outlines Missguided’s aim to ’empower females globally’. With female workers in developing countries making up the overwhelming majority of the labour sourced for the garment industry, the bikini-gate has inevitably invoked questions. Who has made these items of clothing? How fair is the wage they are being paid to do so? Do these females feel empowered? The exploitative nature of labour conditions in the fashion industry, particularly for those workers who are most vulnerable, is something that must be addressed. At the beginning of 2019, the garment industry came under scrutiny as around 5000 workers, protesting against low wages in Bangladeshi garment factories, were fired. Workers, dissatisfied with the current minimum wage were calling for trade union representation and basic working rights. Instead, they were met with police brutality as 50 were left injured and one dead. It is in the interest of the Bangladeshi government to ensure that wages are kept low as Bangladesh, the world’s second largest garment exporter, depends on a cheap supply of labour to maintain its competitive edge. The protests in Bangladesh skim just the surface of the reality of fast fashion, with Western brands such as H&M, Zara and Gap finding themselves caught up in the scandal. I fear that the exploitation of workers in developing countries such as those in Bangladesh, is an issue that we will never truly uncover the scale of.
There is, of course, an argument that those working in sweat-shop conditions have freely chosen the next best alternative in their current situation. That, if you took away fast fashion or lax labour rules and regulations, you would take away many people’s opportunity to earn a higher wage and the ability to create for themselves, or for their children at least, a standard of living much greater than they could have otherwise received. There is particular nuance when this argument is considered in the context of the aid vs trade debate. The free market can, and often does, have a benign influence on the economic development and subsequent living standards for those in a developing economy. Despite this though, I feel that when swimsuits can be sold at a price tag so shockingly low, it is our duty to call into question the ethics of brands who are able to produce at such a price. With stories such as the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse becoming increasingly commonplace, we must not forget the power that those companies involved in such scandals have, as we soon forget the atrocities far removed from our everyday lives. Taking measures to respect the safety, dignity and humanity of workers, whilst perhaps compromising a complete total profit maximization, would unlikely see the crippling of an entire industry. It is in the hands of the informed consumer, buying with their conscience, that will force a shift away from this fast fashion phenomenon that fuels an industry dependent upon exploitative working conditions.
Missguided responded to criticisms it has faced through a statement in the bikini’s product description. “It cost us more to produce than £1 and we’ve absorbed the costs so we can offer it at an incredible price as a gift to you”. From Missguided’s loss-leading marketing, to Primarks absence of advertising, firms consistently avoid facing criticism by concealing their low prices with excuses for how they are able to maintain ultra-low price points. I recently stumbled upon a quote which perfectly encapsulates the sentiment I would encourage shoppers to adopt: ‘if the price is too low, it means someone else is paying for it’. As enticing as a £1 bikini may be for summer on a student budget, please bear in mind the victims of fast fashion. And wear the swimsuit you bought last year.
Suggested further readings:
Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
To Die For by Lucy Siegel
The Future of Fashion by Tyler Little