Leading article: The high cost of all this cheap clothing

Share

The world's top designers are showing their latest collections in New York this week, with couture pieces priced at thousands of dollars. But within weeks, cheaper versions of the same trends will be available in high street shops the length and breadth of Britain. Never have the fashion-conscious had it so good, especially those who need to count their pennies.

The past five years have witnessed the arrival of "fast fashion" - the rapid progress of clothes from the catwalk to the shopping centre - and a constant turnover of products on the rails. We have also seen the rise of the cut-price clothes store: fashion magazines are now as likely to promote Primark and TK Maxx as they are Chanel and Burberry. This summer's must-have dress - worn by everyone from A-list stars to suburban teenagers - was a £10 polka-dot shift from Primark.

Dedicated followers of fashion will say these changes have democratised the industry, allowing anyone to buy the latest trends, regardless of their budget. And reasonably priced variety, in clothing as in so much else, is surely one of the great delights of the modern world. But this accessibility has an ugly side. The price of women's clothing may have fallen by one-third in the past decade, but most companies have been able to keep their costs down only by turning a blind eye to the execrable conditions in which these cheap clothes are often produced.

The ending of the Multi-Fibre Agreement last year transformed the industry overnight, when a free-trade system for garment manufacturing replaced a situation that had protected suppliers in countries such as India and Bangladesh. Thousands of companies relocated factories to China, drawn by the low wages and - while they may not have admitted it - an absence of labour rights that drove costs down even further.

As a result, wages in the "older" manufacturing countries have been further slashed in an effort to compete. Salaries for garment workers in Bangladesh, for instance, have been halved. Too many British - and other first-world - companies are hiding behind meaningless Corporate and Social Responsibility codes of conduct when the reality is that factory workers - mainly women - are being denied a living wage, the right to join a union and the protection of regular, independent inspections of their workplaces.

Such a vicious spiral, however, is not inevitable. The new cut-price fashion stores should look to the example of Gap to see why, far from jeopardising their bottom line, it would be in their interest to look more closely at the conditions in which their "instant" fashion garments are produced. Although Gap had rocketed to global fame, it had become associated more with the scandal of sweatshops than with the celebrities who endorsed it. Sales fell, as a new generation of more ethically aware customers saw the Gap logo as a badge of shame rather than honour. So the company changed its policies. It pushed its suppliers to pay their workers a living, rather than just the legal minimum, wage. And it worked with, rather than against, trades unions on collective bargaining and factory inspections. Gap's fortunes have now been revived - and the price of its clothes remains low. After all, the difference between the cost of labour - which is counted in a few pence - for a T-shirt that sells for £8, leaves a generous margin for adjusting workers' pay and still plenty left over for the intermediaries.

Ultimately, however, it is not only the clothes companies that must look to their consciences, but the fashion-following customers as well. We worry about whether our carrots are organic, our coffee free-trade and our furniture from ethically sourced wood. There is no excuse for not doing the same with our clothes.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace