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If the suggested retail price is too good to be true, you have to consider the product’s overall cost.

I remember my first visit to Forever 21. I avoided it’s nausea-inducing layout for nearly two years after it graced our mall. Does anyone else feel overwhelmed and ill walking through Forever 21, or is it just me?

Two questions entered my mind as I perused each section:

  • Why did a store carry so many items?
  • Why is this shirt $5?

The first question defies simple economic theory. There’s no way a retailer can sell that many clothes in a city our size. What happens to the waste?

The second question made my heart sad. My gut turned. It wasn’t the dizzying array of racks and hangers. It was my conscience.

This was wrong, whatever “this” is.

This is before the opinion pieces decrying fast fashion as a business model, or the making of The True Cost, which I will address in a moment.

It may seem like I’m singling out Forever 21. It’s not intentional. The other culprits of fast fashion — the H&Ms and Zaras of the industry — haven’t made their presence known at our mall, although rumor has it that H&M is coming. I know this, because social media is all abuzz. I work with college students, their chief demographic. Fast fashion retailers experience almost boy-band level anticipation.

I may visit the store for research purposes, but I won’t support their business model.

Fast fashion is harmful to the environment and exploits workers in third-world countries, according to opponents. Sweatshops are nothing new. Fast fashion retailers didn’t invent worker exploitation, unfair wages and child labor practices. Nor are they the first to utilize such methods. Many companies increase profits off the backs of international labor. According to the documentary The True Cost, only 3% of clothes are manufactured in the U.S. We really don’t have a choice in the matter.

The sheer waste produced by the amount of clothing fast fashion churns outs and doesn’t sell is staggering. This  practice contributes to environmental strain.

Not to mention these stores are riddled with lawsuits for ripping off designers and other retailers.

I watched The True Cost on Netflix. I was really excited to have access to the film. Excitement turned into horror and then turned into despair. This is not a fun afternoon flick. It is heavy. It is gut-wrenching. Eventually, despair turned into anger. Not anger solely over the practices. My anger is directed towards the filmmakers.

You see, I teach communication for a living. It’s impossible to watch a documentary making a detailed argument without critiquing every little claim and statistic. I think the filmmakers had pure intentions and feel passionately about the topic. You need vast amounts of passion to secure funds, set up equipment, travel around the world to film interviews and edit hours of footage. Filmmaking is an arduous process. It is not for the weakhearted. I can appreciate their effort.

I agree with their initial premise: fast fashion is not healthy for the environment or oppressed workers. Their evidence falls apart on several levels:

  • They focus on Americans as if we are the only country to consume low-end goods, while including very few Americans in the film. It creates an us-verses-them mentality. I follow European bloggers, and they follow me. Fast fashion is just as popular there as it is here. We outnumber most nations in population, so I understand the attention on our country. Maybe we are the intended audience. I’m not sure. It’s a little unclear. I will point out that of the big three fast fashion retailers — Forever 21, Zara and H&M — only one is an American company. Americans can stop buying clothes from Zara and H&M, but we can’t control their business practices.
  • They assign value judgments to our buying habits without considering statistics that are easily available through a search engine. The words “greed” and “materialism” are thrown about with extreme regularity. First of all, it is poor rhetoric to insult your audience, even  indirectly. The filmmakers fail to acknowledge the real reason for the fast fashion boom — the recession. These companies flourished and expanded on the heels of the recent economic upheaval. People lost houses. People lost jobs. Even now, many Americans are unemployed or underemployed despite education and skills. Many millennials, who flock to these retailers, work in low-paying jobs — often part time — with large amounts of student loan debt looming over their budget. In fact, Americans reduced their clothing budget in recent years. Clothes accounts for 3% of the annual household budget, an 80% decrease in the last 100 years. Cheaper clothing does contribute to the lower percentage. But see, clothes are a necessary evil. You need nice clothing to succeed in business. Tell the 25-year-old graduate working three part time jobs while living in their childhood home to come back when they can drop $500 on a suit. It’s not reasonable. Many large retailers are force to shutter their stores or file bankruptcy. Spending habits have changed. There’s even a study that suggests that bargain shopping creates dopamine. Our tendency to shop for discounted items is biological. Biology is hard to overcome.
  • They fail to supply workable alternatives. I teach my students to include a workable call-to-action in their persuasive speeches. Humans need solutions. The solutions need to be within reach of the audience. If we buy American-produced goods, which account for a measly 3% of worldwide clothing manufacturing output, the companies must pay higher wages. Well, they assume Americans will do the right thing. American companies are only obligated to pay minimum wage. If individual states raise the minimum wage, a company can move its plant. American companies, like True Religion, are outside of the average American’s price range. Option two is buying from fair trade companies. The True Cost highlighted one designer. One. She is unable to produce goods for the entire world. Her prices are reasonable. However, once you tack on international shipping, the prices are out of reach for most Americans.

Price does not equate to quality. Theoretically, the more expensive items should support a higher wage for workers. It’s what we in the communication community call a logical fallacy, an error in logic in an argument. This theory relies on the goodness of people and not all people practice goodness. A higher price point could signal a higher profit for a company. In truth, we don’t know what our money supports.

One of my colleagues hails from Bangladesh. His office is adjacent to my office. He overheard a conversation with my assistant about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh that serves as the focal point in The True Cost. My colleague and I discussed the possibility of requesting funds to conduct research in Bangladesh. As a journalist and a Bangladeshi, he saw the potential benefit of interviewing people about the working conditions.

The problem is not the working conditions. It is poverty. It is sexism. It is the oppression of poor women with children to support. Improving factory conditions will not change these fundamental issues. This is not how oppression works.

I don’t have a workable solution either. What few fast fashion items I own were gifts. I didn’t purchase them myself. My closet is full of clothes made in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. It’s quite possible my clothes, even higher-priced products not classified as fast fashion, came from sweatshops.

I want to make it clear — I do not advocate fast fashion. It does not follow my frugal fashion tips. I make a clear distinction between frugal and cheap. I can spend $10 for a higher quality investment piece at a thrift or consignment store or sacrifice my money on a cheaply-made trendy item that I will donate or throw away later.

I don’t advocate fast fashion, because it’s crap. Again, a higher price point doesn’t mean higher quality. But the genuine leather jacket  purchased for $25 at a consignment sale is better quality than the pleather jacket for $35 at a fast fashion establishment. Purchasing the clothes secondhand reduces the need to manufacture more clothes.

But companies will continue to supply more goods than demand.

Consumers will continue to make buying decisions based on needs, wants and preferences, not the shaming tactics of a documentary. Shame does not produce long-term behavioral changes. Shaming creates despair and loathing. Eventually the mind will find ways to cope with the shame, often by returning to the behavior and rationalizing that things will never change.

Exploitation will continue as long as humans create an “other” to oppress. This does not change through purchasing decisions. Boycotts are rarely successful. Exploited workers need societal and political change, not a change in wages. The danger is raising the wages and losing the factory in an already economically-depressed area.

Companies will continue chasing profits. It’s what companies do. Few act responsibly when called to do so. Companies are not a substitute for sound government and civil rights.

I understand my demographic. You read my blogs and follow me on YouTube, because you love fashion and saving money. You want to work with what you have a still look nice.

Frugality is either a value or a necessity. I’m not sure I would spend $200 on a pair of jeans even if I had the money to spend. I think my budget could be allocated to a better cause or investment. I am highly-educated and underemployed with a mortgage and adult responsibilities. I understand my readers may not enjoy such luxuries.

You are not a bad person. You have values. You are dismayed at the state of our society. You will cry at the footage of the factory collapse. You will feel despair. You will experience frustration and shame all at once.

I can encourage you to shop frugally and wisely. I can discourage fast fashion purchases. I can influence your opinion.

But that is all.

Hopefully, I can speak to the ones who make policies and instigate change.

Hopefully.

Maybe.

I’m anything if not optimistic.

Until then, I will continue doing the best I can do with the information I’ve received.

It’s all any of us can do.