The real price of buying cheap clothes

Image copyright Getty Images

The French or Italians might like to think of themselves as the most fashionable people in Europe – but it is the Brits that are the most dedicated shoppers.

The British buy more clothes than their neighbours and five times as many items as they did in the 1980s.

What was once a monthly payday treat, is now something for every weekend – or perhaps more often than that. And who can blame us?


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A quick trawl around the high street reveals dresses aplenty for under a tenner, and you can get a bikini for as little as £1.

Globalisation means things can be produced in far-off lands at low cost, meaning more choice and lower prices.

But how is that even possible? And what of the environmental cost of our shopping habits? The relationship between shopper and fashion industry may have become dysfunctional.

A BBC Radio 4 investigation for the Today programme took us from Spain to Ethiopia as we examined whether the planet, and some of its poorest inhabitants, are footing the bill for our unquenchable thirst for fashion – and how we should tackle that.

How do they do it?

The pressure on brands to get trends from catwalks to our backs cheaply, and deliver profits for investors, can lead to an unseemly bunfight to secure the cheapest source – a phenomenon critics refer to as “chasing the needle” around the world.

Image copyright NurPhoto
Image caption In April, on the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse disaster, activists campaigned for safe workplaces for garments workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

The plight of some of those who make our clothes came into shocking relief in 2014, when 1,138 garment workers lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh.

The scrutiny and pressure to improve terms and conditions there was immense, and yielded results. Some big retailers – such as H&M and Converse – have started publishing lists of their suppliers, and sometimes, subcontractors – which can run into their thousands – in response to calls for greater transparency.

Is the age of the sweatshop in the past?

But there have been unforeseen consequences of recent trends. As wages rose in Bangladesh, companies looked elsewhere to keep costs down.


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In Ethiopia, for example, wages average just a third of the rates paid in Bangladesh. Rates of less than $7 (£5.75) per week are typical. Speaking on condition of anonymity, workers at a factory near Addis Ababa told us this was insufficient to live on.

They also said that conditions – from unsanitary toilets to verbal abuse – were intolerable.

This situation was brought to international attention by the Workers Rights Consortium campaigning group. Penelope Kyritsis, who wrote the report, told me of workers who had overtime payments withheld, and women who had their abdomens felt by hiring managers to check if they were pregnant. She claimed that there had been little improvement since the report came out some months ago.

In order to head off stiff competition, the Ethiopian government has made almost a virtue out of its low labour costs.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Women making clothes in a textile factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

But Ms Kyritsis says that the country’s garment industry can’t use the excuse that at least it is providing a livelihood where none else might be available.

She highlighted the “extremely high turnover, with workers leaving government jobs for other jobs to resume positions in other informal sectors or in agriculture”.

Orsola de Castro, co-founded campaigning group Fashion Revolution in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. Her organisation is encouraging customers to ask tougher questions of their favourite brands, via a postcard campaign.

“There are two great misconceptions when it comes to sustainability and ethics – one is that the culprit is fast fashion, and this lets the luxury sector off scot-free, when in fact it is the entire Ethiopian fashion industry that needs to be called into question,” she told the BBC.

“And the other is that locally-made is ethical and sustainable. It isn’t.”

What about the environmental costs?

Textile production, it’s claimed, contributes more to climate change than aviation and shipping combined. And there’s consequences at every stage of a clothing item’s life cycle – sourcing, production, transport, retail, use and disposal.

To start with the basic fabrics used, it’s not as simple as cotton versus synthetic. Cotton is an extraordinarily thirsty crop.

As the UK House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee highlighted in a recent report, a single shirt and a pair of jeans can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce. It concluded that “we are unwittingly wearing the fresh water supply of central Asia”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Denim threads are dipped into indigo baths in a rope dying machine at a jeans factory

Yet, a polyester shirt made out of virgin plastics has a far larger carbon footprint. Transporting items increases that further and dying fabrics can introduce more pollutants.


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Microplastic fibres shedding into waterways is becoming an increasing problem – a single washing machine load can release hundreds of thousands of fibres.

Plus, a million tonnes of clothes are disposed of every year in the UK, and 20% of that ends up as landfill.

That impulse purchase or two quickly mounts up. But whose responsibility is it to tackle this?

What is the government doing?

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has made 18 recommendations – from taxing a penny on the price of an item to fund recycling centres, to reducing the rate of VAT on clothing repair services, to introducing more sewing lessons in schools. As yet, none of these measures have been adopted.

Critics say if we’re serious about sustainable fashion, the objective of policy should be to persuade us to buy less. That might need more drastic action, with perhaps an environmental tax on clothing. But given the fragile state of the High Street, and the importance of consumer spending to the economy, it’s hard to see any politician entertaining that.

At present, the government favours a voluntary approach, encouraging retailers to sign up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan – but the number signing up accounts for less than half of the UK market.

How much is business actually doing?

As pressure from consumers grow, retailers are taking things into their own hands.

Image copyright LightRocket / Getty Images
Image caption Zara has pledged to switch to 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025

Just outside the Spanish coastal city of A Coruna lies the global headquarters of Inditex. It’s hardly a household name – but its main fashion brand, Zara, is.

What started as a small manufacturing outfit is now one of the biggest retailers on the planet. Moreover, Zara changed the way we shop – by bringing looks from the catwalk to the high street in just three weeks at affordable prices.

The chain recently pledged to switch to 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. It is, of course, not just Inditex – from H&M to M&S, retailers are looking to improve how they source and their processes.

Greenwash? Well, some big retailers do at least seem to be engaging and taking action. But at the heart of their business model is newness, convincing us to keep on buying – that is, if we needed convincing. Is it retailers’ responsibility to convince us to buy less?

Zara’s Pablo Isla argues not – that the retailer is simply responding to consumer’s wishes, and that those customers should have the freedom of choice.

What about customers?

With Extinction Rebellion climate change protests taking place outside their windows, emerging designers at London College of Fashion told us that they were going on fashion strikes – taking a vow not to spend for several months or even a year. Such action is growing in popularity, and there’s an increasing focus on buying better clothing – and making do and mending torn garments.

One of the designers we met even focused on making clothes out of the multitude of tents discarded at music festivals.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Livia Firth established consultancy firm Eco-Age in 2009 to help fashion companies make their supply chains sustainable

But it may not be enough. As the popularity of social media influencers has soared, so too have concerns about the impact they may have on our attitude towards shopping.


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One in six influencers admit to not wearing an outfit again once it’s been on social media.

Eco-activist Livia Firth has been using red carpet appearances alongside her husband Colin to showcase sustainable fabrics, including fish skin “leather” handbags. She even persuaded him to wear a tuxedo made out of recycled bottles. She says influencers need to change their approach, saying “if Kim Kardashian were to promote sustainable fashion, I could retire”.

She likens our relationship with fashion to an addiction. With clothing demand forecast to rise by the equivalent of 500 billion t-shirts over the next decade, she may have a point.

But no one as yet has found the cure.

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Media captionAre we buying too many clothes? Fashion bloggers on loving what you have and recycling

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