Illustrated by Isabelle Rancier.
My mother was a work-from-home seamstress who sewed dresses for less than 50 cents apiece for 10 hours a day. Before that, she worked in a small factory in New York's Soho area doing the same thing. I never knew exactly how the factory looked or operated so I can't speak to the legality or ethics of it, but I was definitely aware of the situation at home. I remember helping my mom invert piping so she could sew it into dresses faster and meet her daily quota; I remember ironing out hems before I started on homework; I remember counting how many pieces she'd done by 9 p.m. and telling her how many more she had to finish before her boss came to pick them up the next morning. So, knowing how hard she worked, why do I keep collecting $5 tees and $20 dresses?
Because, first off, as any style-loving 20-something would attest, keeping up ain't easy. The same uniform of jeans and a tee gets old really fast despite clever styling tricks, and there's always a birthday party, a fancy work event, or girls' night that feels like it requires a new, trendy outfit of some sort — preferably at the low, low price of 20 bucks. Now, I'm a black-jeans-and-sweater type of girl, so you can certainly argue that I should invest in quality basics for my daily life. But, when the basics can get worn out or stained just as easily as everything else, it's hard to justify spending any more than I need to — from my wallet's perspective.
I like having more than one pair of Grecian sandals for the summer. I like having a crop top in two different colors, or the same pair of jeans twice, so I can switch to the backup when the first gets too faded or loose. And, I like all of that to work with my budget. Being able to afford the items I want (is "need" too much of a stretch?), finding them in sizes sure to fit, and checking out in half an hour means the big chains just make sense for me right now. As a writer in the city, having these options guarantees that I'll be ready for anything my job (or life) demands, without having to give up dinner.
Walking into a store and immediately spotting 20 items I'd buy is a shopping rush that I look forward to. The eco-friendly and socially conscious retailers I've come across just don't have the variety; or they do and they're luxuriously priced to match. And, as much as I love browsing through a secondhand store for one-of-a-kind finds, that experience is more stop-and-smell-the-roses than pick-up-and-go. So, I rely on fast fashion.
Illustrated by Isabelle Rancier.
That being said, I feel guilty when I buy cheap clothes because I know that someone was literally paid pennies for their work sewing every last stitch, sometimes even risking their lives to do so. Last year's devastating Rana Plaza collapse opened up a lot of eyes to the real cost of absurdly cheap fast fashion, and sparked some real conversation about it. But, then the conversation died down. And, I found myself not alone in sheepishly returning to the stores I knew had used the supplier responsible for the tragedy, or others like it.
Despite consumers becoming increasingly educated about sweatshop conditions in underdeveloped countries, we want clothing (and countless other goods) to be trendy and affordable. Our buying habits are more in line with our desire to have more and spend less than they are with our personal morals and ethics. Or, let me speak for myself: mine are. I admit it. There is a selective memory that kicks on, when there's a hole in my wardrobe and that mega-chain has just the thing. Together, we create an almost insatiable demand, and only fast-fashion retailers seem up to the task of supplying for it.
Working in an industry that's very much about personal style, keeping up with trends, and one's physical appearances (another issue I don't know how to solve), I need to express myself through my clothing. And, still being in the first few years of that career, I need affordable ways to do that. Would I rather my budget-friendly style came with a clean conscience? Of course. Absolutely. And, not just because I remember my mom saying "good night" to me without even taking her eyes off her sewing machine. Because, I am sure countless people work this way, and deserve better. I would love for a massive industry overhaul to take place, so that we can all afford to be styled in a way that outwardly expresses our individuality, but I'd like that to happen without turning saving money for material purchases the number one budgeting goal. Until that becomes reality, I'll have to take my cheap clothes along with my guilt.