The double-edged sword of boycotting disposable fashion

cheap fashion
CC BY-ND 2.0 Flickr user ElizebethHudy

The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, has drawn much attention to the dangers of unregulated working conditions of the garment industry. The big question is how the consumers of these products can not only avoid being complicit in these conditions, but also help to change them.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Vikas Bajaj writes:

"Unfortunately, there are few good answers. A boycott of goods from Bangladesh would probably be counterproductive. It could deprive some of the poorest workers of jobs and income that provide a step up from farming or manual labor."

After all, garment factories account for 75 percent of Bangladesh's exports and have contributed to factors like lower maternal mortality rates. Bajaj argues that the solution lies in government regulation, but doesn't address the environmental problems with disposable clothing that are deep and global. On the production end, workers can be exposed to toxins while factories pollute the local habitat. On the consumer side, products fall apart after a few uses and cheap prices encourage people buy more than they need. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, on average each American throws out 70 pounds of clothing per year.

Even before the Bangladesh building collapse became an international news story, many consumers believed clothing manufacturers should pay fair wages and maintain safe working conditions abroad. A 2012 research paper from MIT's Political Science Department showed that American consumers say they care deeply about fair labor standards. Unfortunately, their buying habits don't reflect this.

The less palatable reality is that these overseas conditions are in part driven by an appetite for cheap fashion. While the MIT study found sweat-shop free labels improved sales at the higher-end retailer Banana Republic, "the labels had no discernible impact on sales of lower-priced items."

Boycotting sweatshop-made clothing is a double-edged sword:

consumers who only buy equitable garments may make things worse for the producers of cheap garments, at least in the short-term. Yet owning fewer, high-quality items for a long time is the more sustainable option, and our definition of high quality should include the quality of life for the worker who made the garment.Yes, governmental regulations can protect workers from unsafe conditions and that is an important part of the solution. But part of the long-term solution is to stop treating clothing like a disposable product, to spend more and buy less.
The double-edged sword of boycotting disposable fashion
The recent Bangladesh factory collapse sparks questions about cheap clothes.