Unwrapping the Fashion Industry

Ashlyn Blair and Elisa Arslan

From 2012 to 2016, nearly three thousand workers lost their lives in fires and building collapses in Bangladesh. Almost all of the people who lost their lives were workers in clothing factories, trying to feed their families with the minimum wage of  3,000 taka (approximately $35) a month. This kind of business makes countless people rich but also feeds off the poor in East Asian countries.


The building collapse on April 24, 2013, alone resulted in 1,134 deaths. After these tragedies occur there’s always a big uproar in the western media from people advocating for change in the billion-dollar clothing industry. After a few days pass, and the entire issue is forgotten again until there is another disaster which is not unusual for this industry.


Among the brands producing their products in these factories in Bangladesh are cheap, fast-fashion centered brands like H&M, Walmart and Zara. But also high-end brands like Calvin Klein and Supreme. All these brands have one thing in common, we all wear them. Some people may have a closet full of them, others just shop in the stores occasionally. But how aware are people of these working conditions, cruelty of managers, illnesses related to various chemicals and no working rights?


Many teens and adults today are dressed head to toe in clothes that were made in harsh working conditions without any knowledge of it. Popular brands among teens are brands such as American Eagle, H&M and Zara. Although people may know about where their clothing is manufactured, they might not have any clue about the working conditions that were endured to produce their clothes.


Among the people that are normally dressed in these brands, a lot of them are teenagers everywhere, such as high school students from high schools in Oregon. We conducted a survey questioning high schoolers about what they look for in their clothes and to find out more about their awareness in relation to their shopping choices. According to the results of the survey and interviews, half of the teens claimed to know about the working conditions in East Asia, and a third said they had heard a little about them. Only 15 percent said they do not know anything about it. However, half of the teens said that they only looked for where the clothes were manufactured after they purchased the clothes, if ever. Only 3 out of the 18 surveyed said that they look after where the clothing is produced when deciding on what clothing to buy. Looking at that, one can assume the big majority does not care about that factor. Over half of the students said that they would maybe stop buying from certain stores if they knew about the conditions there. Teens care about how they look, and not about fairly produced fashion. This emerging pattern corresponds with the most popular stores among the young adults: The top choices are Target, Forever 21 and H&M. All these brands produce a majority of their fashion in East Asia.


In an interview with Olivia Spotswood, a high school student at Rex Putnam High School, she says, “I don’t know as much as I think I should know, but I know it’s pretty bad. I try not to buy clothes from big box stores and more from second hand or thrift shops.” Even having some knowledge of the working conditions can make a change. Olivia is a good example of someone who is willing to make a change in the way that she purchase her clothes even with minimal knowledge of the harsh working conditions, it is still enough to impact where and how she shops for her clothes.


Another interview with Venessa Theonia, a senior from Clackamas High School showed a similar thought. “I don’t really know about how bad it is. The only thing I know is that it’s not really great, but I don’t know the severity of it so it doesn’t impact my fashion choice. If I learned more about it I would probably make some changes”


After all, the survey and interviews showed that in some ways, teens care about the treatment of workers in clothing factories and the overall conditions. They seem to have a certain awareness of the working conditions in East Asian factories, but most seem to be underestimating the cruelty these people, and even children are facing. It is not just a matter of fair salary, it is a health crisis the clothing industry is actively supporting.  But a majority of people are not willing to take the effort and extra step of actually looking for fairly produced brands and clothing. However, one simple step every single one of us could take is to simply buy less clothing or be more aware of the working conditions and what people go through for our wardrobe. The fast-fashion centered industry wants us to go shopping every weekend, and wears per purchase are low because of that. It would be better to invest in some high-quality pieces of timeless fashion, instead of cheap clothing that is made to be worn only a few times.

As we speak, workers in factories are being exploited, poisoned and tormented, and all just so we can satisfy our hunger for fashion. While students in America are sitting in classes, teens their age are enduring those problems throughout the day, all to get paid less than what we spend for a Starbucks coffee. It is an easy step that everyone can, and should take to make the world a better place.