The Real Costs Of Cheap Fashion

May 1, 2013

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is another story now that speaks to the way the world is interconnected in ways we sometimes don't think much about. We want to talk now about that horrific building collapse in Bangladesh that's resulted in the death of at least 400 people so far, and many more are still missing.

And you might be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, the building housed a number of garment factories. Clothes for several Western companies were made there, intended for sale in Europe, Canada and the U.S. And that tragedy - now believed to be the most deadly accident in the history of the garment industry - is leading a number of people to ask if the cost of cheap fashion is just too high.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we have called Robin Givhan. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. She's written for Vogue, The Daily Beast and Washington Post. She's back with us once again.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ROBIN GIVHAN: It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: I want to point out that this terrible situation in Bangladesh is just the latest. There was a factory fire in Karachi in Pakistan which killed almost 300 people eight months ago and I wanted to know if there's a common thread to these events and is this something that people in fashion are talking about?

GIVHAN: You know, there is a common thread. I mean, I think there's been something like almost 1,000 people who have died in garment industry factory-related accidents in the last year and one of the very first stories that I wrote for the Washington Post when I arrived there back in the '90s was about sweatshops that had been discovered in California.

So there is a connection and that connection is that there is a tremendous pressure on the fashion industry from consumers and created by the fashion industry itself to inexpensive clothing that they can mass market.

MARTIN: I think people who've studied these issues maybe remember from American history the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. This is something that, you know, growing up in New York, we were taught...

GIVHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, in history. Is this something that has arisen as a result of the outsourcing of a lot of this work because the labor standards just aren't there in a lot of these or the labor standards or safety standards are just not there in a lot of these countries or just not enforced in a lot of these countries?

GIVHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Or do you think it has to do with kind of the pressure to produce more and more quickly and quickly?

GIVHAN: I think it's a combination of both because you can blame some of it on outsourcing because it means that the point of manufacturing has gotten farther and farther away from the corporate headquarters, so to speak, so that the corporate watchdogs aren't right there on the ground, so it's easier for these kinds of abuses to happen.

But, at the same time, you know, the sweatshops that were discovered were in California, so it's not all about outsourcing. The point of the pressure of pricing plays an enormous part in it. The pressure to have trends hit stores quickly plays a part in it. And, also, our entire culture and the way in which we equate consumption with reward, you know, disposable trendy fashion has become sort of the sugary cereal of the fashion industry. It doesn't have a lot of value, so to speak, but it's something that makes us happy, it entertains us and it's a distraction.

MARTIN: Is this something that people in fashion are talking about among themselves? You know, sometimes, within an industry, people are aware of a problem or a situation and are talking about it among themselves before the rest of us become aware of this. Is this a concern within the fashion industry? I mean, I'm thinking about, you know, a couple of years ago when the television personality, Kathie Lee Gifford, had a line at a well-known discount department store...

GIVHAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...and the working conditions were revealed to be not optimal and this was a huge embarrassment for her as a personality. But is this something that people within the industry are talking about?

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, the point with Kathie Lee is that, you know, she was embarrassed and she started talking about it when it was revealed to her. This was not something that she was keeping an eye on. This was not something that she was investigating, so - yeah - the industry talks about it when these stories bubble up into the consciousness, but the reality is that, when you start talking about a designer who's based in New York and a factory worker who is based in Bangladesh, I mean, that distance is so far and the layers of people in between are so many that it really isn't something that's constantly on their mind. They're more concerned about sourcing their fabric and, you know, trying to figure out, you know, how am I going to get my garment to the retailer? That other stuff takes place at a distance.

MARTIN: You know, I'm reminded - you know, Robin, as I was researching this story, I was reading a story about the Bangladesh fire online and I'm going to hold this up for you that, on the same page is an ad for one of this country's most expensive department stores...

GIVHAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...advertising one of this country's most expensive brands of shoe.

GIVHAN: And, when you say expensive, we're talking about $500, at least.

MARTIN: At least. And so one would look at that and a lot of people might say, well, you know what? I would like to be a responsible shopper, but I can't afford that kind of thing. I can't afford handmade shoes that are going to be hand-sewn by a guy, you know, in Italy and then sent over here.

GIVHAN: Right.

MARTIN: Particularly people who are on a limited budget, maybe single moms who are buying clothes for kids, you know, who outgrow their clothes quickly, they might say, what am I supposed to do? Having inexpensive clothes really improves the quality of my life. And there are other people who say that this kind of work, controversial as it may be, being outsourced from the United States offers opportunities in countries that did not exist previously. What do people say about that?

GIVHAN: Well, you know, there's so much there. I mean, there are many aspects to that from - yes - it does provide jobs in other countries and, sometimes, those jobs are quite good compared to what else might be available. But I think you have to pull it apart and, you know, there's a way to have those jobs in distant countries from the U.S., but also make sure that the working conditions are fair and reasonable without increasing the price to a degree where it suddenly becomes prohibitive for customers here who are looking for a bargain.

I think what happens is that we have created this idea of what a bargain is and we want things so cheap that, at some point along the way, somebody is suffering because of that. So for someone to say, you know, I can't afford $500 and $600 shoes, that is true, but can you afford a $30 pair of shoes and, if so, do you need 10 pairs of shoes? You know, we've been trained to think that, you know, we have to have a lot of stuff and I think that's sort of fundamentally what complicates this and what makes it so difficult for people to solve the problem.

MARTIN: And you're going to stick around and we're going to talk more about this and the effect of all this fast and cheap fashion may be having on our psyches and our closet space, but before we take a short break, I wanted to ask whether these kinds of incidents make a difference in how the people who are kind of on the frontlines of this, the fashion designers, the retailers, think about this issue because they do play a role in shaping people's tastes.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think, when something like this happens, it is jarring for the fashion industry and it does make them reassess and, certainly, you know, there's a huge movement in New York to save the garment industry, meaning the area around sort of 34th, 40th Street and 7th Avenue, and one of the reasons for that is not only to save a part of New York history, but also to save American jobs and that means keeping a closer watch on the manufacturing.

MARTIN: Robin Givhan is going to stick around for our Beauty Shop conversation. We're going to talk about why some of those bargain t-shirts might not just be cluttering up your closet, but also maybe cluttering up your life. We're going to talk about that just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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