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: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dom Joly owns a pig. That thinks it's a dog.  

I'll bow out. Let Wilbur, the pig that thinks it's a dog, bring home the bacon

Dom Joly
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'