The 21st century has brought a critical dilemma into sharp relief: we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping.
At the turn of this new millennium, according to the UN, consumption surpassed population as our greatest environmental challenge. When it comes to climate change, species extinction, water depletion, toxic pollution, deforestation and other crises, how much each one of us consumes now matters more than how many of us there are. The average person in a rich country consumes 13 times as much as the average person in a poor one.
For decades now, we’ve witnessed a near-continuous increase in the consumption of every major natural resource. We are using up the planet at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. At this rate, by 2050, resource use will have tripled in the 21st century alone.
Fast fashion is one of the worst offenders. We didn’t demand it, but we did take to it with enthusiasm. The number of garments sold each year has approximately doubled in the last 15 years and now exceeds 100 billion.
A feedback loop has been engaged, in which lower prices encourage shoppers to cycle through clothes more quickly, which drives companies to make clothes that won’t hold up to more than a few wears. The lifespan of clothes has decreased more sharply in the 21st century than ever before.
In a major report in 2017, the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation identified “increasing the average number of times clothes are worn” as perhaps the best way to reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry. Doubling the use of our clothes would, for example, cut the garment trade’s climate pollution by nearly half. Shutting down worldwide clothing production for a year would be equal to grounding all international flights and stopping all maritime shipping for the same time period.
Yet once again we land on the horns of a dilemma, because millions of people earn their livelihoods making those clothes. Most of those workers are in poorer countries that are highly dependent on the industry. The greatest clothing producer is China. The second-greatest is Bangladesh, which has a population half the size of America’s in a space not quite the size of Iowa. In Bangladesh, over a third of manufacturing jobs and nearly 85% of exports come from the apparel industry. In a country where one-fifth of residents live below the national poverty line, the garment industry provides jobs to more than 4 million people. Six out of ten of them are women.
Abdullah al Maher is CEO of Fakir Fashion, a knitwear manufacturer for major brands such as H&M, Zara, Pull & Bear, C&A, Esprit, Gina Tricot and Tom Tailor. Maher told me that Fakir Fashion’s towering factory on a narrow road in Narayanganj, a town just east of the capital city of Dhaka, employs more than 12,000 people. During peaks in the fashion cycle, the company manufactures a mind-boggling 200,000 articles of clothing every day—and they are adding more production lines. Fakir Fashion and its workers would seem to be utterly dependent on shopping as we know it today.
Suppose that shopping stopped, I said to Maher. Suppose that consumers worldwide suddenly paid heed to those critics who say we should buy fewer clothes as a way to lessen the impact of the industry. What would happen?
Maher paused. When he spoke, it was with the tone of one sharing a secret. “You know,” he began, “it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Over the past 20 years, Maher has watched major clothing brands make demands on suppliers in Bangladesh to lower their prices while also completing orders faster and constantly improving their workplace and environmental standards. Fakir Fashion has implemented certified projects to treat its wastewater, harvest rainwater, use more solar power, provide meals and child care for workers, hire workers with disabilities, build schools in the local area and more. They have been unable to pass on any of the expense of these improvements to apparel brands or consumers, who continue to want more for less.
There’s an old saying: if something’s too cheap, somebody else is paying. Maher’s workers earn $120 to $140 per month to work six days a week—low wages not only globally, but by Bangladesh’s standards—to do jobs that are made more stressful with each acceleration of the fast-fashion cycle. Outside the factory gates, those workers endure the environmental consequences of a nation cutting corners to keep its industries competitive. The air in Narayanganj is typically an ocherous grey-brown and sometimes makes foreign visitors nauseous.
Yet what bothers Maher most is the insult of seeing the clothes his company makes sell for prices that show just how little they are valued. “Generation Z and millennials are really demanding ethical products,” he said. “But when you buy a fast-fashion T-shirt for $4, or $2, you never ask, ‘How does the cotton get grown, ginned, spun, woven, dyed, printed, sewn, packed, shipped, all for $4?’ You’ve never realized how many lives you are touching, all because your payment doesn’t pay for their wages.”
I asked Maher what kind of price increase would make a difference. The first sum that came to his mind was surprising: two cents—an amount so small that in many countries it’s rounded up or down to the nearest bit of pocket change. If he was able to pass along two cents more per garment made in his factory, it would be the equivalent of two extra days’ pay each month per worker (a raise of 7% to 8%). Alternatively, the two-cent increase could allow Fakir Fashion to produce fewer articles of clothing—they could make clothing better, or simply at a less harried pace—without anyone losing their job or any income. Imagine what might be accomplished if shoppers were willing to pay an extra dime.
When the coronavirus struck, the effects of a stop to shopping for clothes were quickly made real. More than a million garment workers were furloughed in Bangladesh alone.
I spoke to Maher as the first lockdowns began to lift around the globe. I wondered: Having witnessed the harm to his country from a world that had stopped shopping, was he still so hungry to see the garment industry change? “Bringing in fast fashion to your country, you are also harming your country,” he said.
The greatest danger for the garment trade is not a slowdown in shopping, Maher said, but a failure to find a way to slow down shopping. In a world in which billions of people already have enough apparel, the only way to keep them buying is to generate unnecessary demand. The way to create unnecessary demand is to accelerate fashion trends. The way to accelerate fashion trends is to make clothes cheap enough to buy more and more often. And the only way to make clothes that cheap is to cut corners on quality, working conditions, wages or environmental standards—the disaster of everyday life that Bangladesh has been living for years.
A transition to a world that consumes less clothing would be painful for Bangladesh. Even if the nation’s garment industry made fewer, better clothes that sold for higher prices, Maher doubted that the 6,000 factories in the country could keep as many people employed as they do today. “Maybe there should be 4,000 factories, or 3,000,” he said. But they would provide living wages, pollute and waste less, and compete on quality and efficiency, rather than greed and speed. “There’ll be no rat race then,” Maher said. “There’ll be a real race.”
From The Day the World Stops Shopping by J. B. MacKinnon. Copyright © 2021 by J. B. MacKinnon. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.