The Ethical Dilemma of a Serial Shopper
Updated: Sep 30, 2018
I first started rethinking purchasing from brands of cheap mass production retail (think Zara, H&M....) in the spring of 2017 when I saw David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China in class during my exchange in Italy. In the documentary the author highlighted the negative consequences of globalised trade, especially focusing on the ethics of mass production. The documentary begins with a scene depicting western tourists celebrating Mardi Grass and drunkenly flashing their naked body parts to the crowds in exchange for obtaining shiny plastic bead necklaces. Moreover, the documentary quickly shows that the beads are treated as something easily discarded post-festival, with majority of the beads ending up on the ground or otherwise neglected. When a young woman on the screen is asked about the origin of the beads, she quickly realises that she has no clue and probably hasn't stopped even once to think about the origin of these necklaces, let alone what goes into producing them. Quickly, the scene cuts to a small factory room somewhere in rural China, where a young man is working non-stop melting and infusing plastic beads together by hand. The effect that the tough and dangerous work has on the viewer is compounded by the horrible factory owner who proudly boasts to the camera about the strict and inhumane work regime that he maintains over his employees. When I see the thousands of beads discarded on the ground in the wake of the carnival, I can't help but think what happens to all that plastic just left laying around.
If I reflect on the reason why the documentary left such a strong impression on me, it's because I realised that in various aspects I am that girl. I would buy whatever fashion items were trending at the moment, offered at super low price points from websites like Missguided, Pretty Little Thing, Zaful or Zalando, only to discard them later in the back of my closet to collect dust, as the next best thing would come around and I would have to have it. The fashion industry has many times been the subject of criticism for its means of mass production with claims for exploitation of workers and the burden on the environment. Especially in the heyday of social media, influencers and models contribute to the fast pace of changing trends with their daily new outfit posts. Meanwhile us average mortals 'are influenced' to try and recreate that instagram closet with whatever income we have. And the reality is that in today's globalised clothing industry adjusting your wardrobe to whatever latest fashion whims is possible even with average means, as cheap materials, and outsourcing of production to developing countries where there's low regulation on workers' rights and cheap wages enable cheap prices for a serial shopper such as yours truly. But how often do we think about the ethics of fashion? What happens to that plastic garment that is worn out after a few months of use?
Now, I’m sure you can imagine, as a student “budgetee” and a fashion trend-coaster I was, and still am, extremely torn between my selfish inclinations to take advantage of the cheap prices and easily accessible produce to suit my every fashion whim, and my conscience telling me to stop supporting the consumption economy and to invest a longer penny into durable ethically produced clothing. I want to be clear in that in no way do I mean to purport that these shops are all evil and support an unsustainable lifestyle, or that the only answer is to boycott all mass produced retail. My point is rather that when making the choice of purchasing fashion, let's put these questions back into the weighing equation through education and awareness instead of burying our consumer heads in the sand.
Moreover, I think more and more stores are taking responsibility for not only ethics of workers but also environmental sustainability. For example, recently I saw a sign in & Other Stories, which encouraged customers to recycle by offering a discount reward for bringing back the used beauty containers/packaging.
In some sort of conclusion, I have since accepted that my fashion dilemma is not a one-decision battle, but rather a staircase of smaller decisions in every day life and a willingness to educate myself. I believe that an answer lies somewhere with consumers collectively demanding more transparency and accountability from the clothing industry, as well as opting for quality rather than quantity, buying more second-hand and getting crafty with old clothes.
Here are some cool links if you are interested:
With high hopes for more ethical and sustainable fashion industry in the future,