Do we have to wear different outfits all week? Must we have and all trendy products from commercials? No, thank you. Not for me anymore since I got to learn how fast fashion and consumerism badly affect the environment and people in productions . I am sure we already have way too many things in our wardrobe so save some money and environment for future, maybe? Here, I’d like to reason why we should not support fast fashion.
In November 2018, I was on the Speaker Tour with Femnet e.V, an association in Bonn, which is committed to political commitment, education and consulting, and a Solidarity Fund for women’s rights in the global garment industry. I got the chance to participate in this project while i was doing internship at Burma initiative in Köln city. They were finding an interpreter for Ma Soe Lay, a tailor and a Unionist at Yangon Regional Industrial Workers Union in Myanmar and I happened to be a Burmese in Germany so the job fit. During her visit, she shared her experiences as an unionist and as a dressmaker at the presentations and I translated to Geman language for her talks and presentations.
First, let me explain what the Speaker Tour was about. Femnet organized this two weeks tour to educate and raise awareness on training for the German consumers in fashion industry. We were going to different universities, school and public events. The audience at the universities were fashion and management students which made the best target because they will become managers or work for different fashion brands like H&M once they graduate. So it is very important for them to know what is happening at factories in the countries where garments are produced. But why? Why is it important that they should know and why am I writing this now? Keep reading and you’ll figure.
Across the globe, people go shopping way too often and spend ridiculous amount of money on unnecessary stuffs. People love shopping at shops like H&M, Primark, C&A, Adidas, Nike, Hugo Boss and so on. There is even a term called “Retail Therapy” for impulsive buying. In some shops, consumers do not even have to pay a lot, say, they can get a t-shirt for 2 euros but at some branded shops, they have to pay more than a hundred bucks for a tee. So people choose to go to places where they do not have to pay much and purchase trendy beautiful trendy clothes, and consequently, the whole process becomes “consumers’ demand“
Lucy Siegel, a journalist and writer on environmental issues once said, “Fast fashion isn’t free, someone somewhere is paying.” So to whom does she mean by “someone at somewhere”? She means factory workers from countries where clothes are produced, like our country Myanmar.
Back in 2000s, workers in garment factories had to work for more than 13 hours a day. Sometimes, they even had to work from 7 am to 2 am the next day. The supervisors were also inconsiderate which led to bad working environments. According to Ma Soe Lay, most supervisors are also women and they were very unkind towards factory workers, such as not allowing them to go back home when they were sick, not getting enough time for lunch breaks or go to the toilets, and sometimes, not getting correct allowance for shifts they worked. In the horrible working conditions, factory workers had to work up to 400 working hours per month but only received small amount of salary. It is absolutely unfair and unhuman.
In March 2018, the National Committee for the Minimum Wage set the country’s daily minimum wage at MMK 4,800 (USD 3.6) or MMK 600 per hour an eight-hour day. Despite the higher wage, Ma Soe Lay said that the workload these workers have to perform in 8-hour shift has doubled since factory owners are simply against the new wage and are not willing to pay for overtime fees. Factory owners also threaten wokers that they would shut down the business due to the higher minimum wage. The threat clearly works because for workers, 4,800 kyats is still better than 0 kyats per day. However, the new and higher minimum wage is obviously not enough to make ends meet for the workers, and consequently, they have to rely on micro-finances and pawnshops to cover their expenses, thus the cycle of poverty continues.
So you might be thinking if that is true. Or wondering how many factories in our country that do production for big retail companies? More than 50 factories are producing for H&M, and there are other factories that proudce shoes for Adidas.
If you are thinking, “Oh, I don’t shop at H&M because they are cheap. My go-to shops are Gucci or Hugo Boss and other high end brands, remember the same conditions apply to factory workers whether they work for H&M or Gucci. The tags inside of your clothes and bags may say “Made in Italy or France” but it do not mean that they are produced there. They just put zips or buttons in Italy.
Moreover, brands like GAP sell a pair of skinny jeans for 80 euros, and do you have any idea how much a factory worker who produced that jean got? 0.06% of the price. So where do all the money we paid go to? Of course to the brands! Capitalist much? You decide.
These are only some information from presentations I had to interpret. After each presentation, audience asked Kalpona Akter (an activist and former factory worker from Bangladesh who was also in the Tour with Ma Soe Lay) what we should do as consumers. Do we stop buying from these fast fashion brands?“
She answered, “If you stop buying, factories will not get orders and workers will inevitably lose their job.”
So, not buying is not a solution.
But she gives us a decent and fair answer as she continued, “Buy but with conscious. Do not buy things which are not necessary, you don’t really need 30 T-shirts for a month, do you?”
She added “Fast Fashion kills; it kills your money, it kills workers in the factories, it kills our mother earth.” Do you know that it takes 2700 liter of water to produce a single t-shirt? So what is the point of having many clothes?
Honestly, I love clothes and fancy outfits like many other girls do. I used to go shopping very frequently but since i moved to Germany as a student, most of the time i am broke so i do not have extra money to go shopping often like i did in Yangon. I have to use money for other things which are more important than clothes, like, food to survive.
In all seriousness though, i do not want to support H&M and other fast fanshion lines for which factory workers are suffering. I am reluctant to wear a pair of jean which was produced by workers who were underpaid for this. So what can I do? Sharing what I learned from this study tour with all of you is what I can do. I have already shared what i learned to my family and friends, and now I am sharing this with you.
What can we do as a society? What can we do so that these brands pay enough money to workers? You can go and protest in front of the stores with your friends if you are interested in activism like I am, or you can join and support the NGOs that are supporting factory workers like donating money. If you actually feel like doing something effective, you can write to the brands directly or you can educate your families and friends. You may say that you don’t have enough time for this but the question is; would you sleep well at night knowing that there were people who were treated terribly while making the clothes you wore? Just think about it.
For me, what I am going to do is, at least, to buy fewer clothing from fast fashion lines. All in all, I believe that there will be a change someday if we work together. After reading this, I hope you find something you can do to not support this capitalistic act of inhumanity.