I Lasted One Day in the Fast Fashion Industry
I am an avid thrift shopper. Ever since I was a young kid, I have memories of my mom finding old furniture and random knick-knacks in back alleys, hanging off of fences and on the beach. Rings, sofa beds, carpets, sunglasses, you name it. My mother loved finding pre-loved treasures and no doubt this was instilled into my own personality. My sister and I sometimes teased her about it, but I inevitably found myself drawn to second-hand bookstores and massive consignment stores filled with old clothes, the thrill of securing a bargain fresh in my mind. Over time I noticed that nearly my entire wardrobe consisted of thrifted treats, from my beloved Doc Martens to my corduroy Levi overalls. In my mind, anything over $20 or $40 was too expensive to justify. My standard had been set. When you find a pair of jeans for $5, how can you justify spending $120 for a lower-quality pair at the mall? I found the unpredictability of thrift-shopping incredibly exciting. What you found would have its own unique story and past. This made it extra special and added a new layer of life to my already lively wardrobe. Unlike traditional clothing retailers which produce a large amount of the same product, thrifting was like a lucky dip, and though sometimes you struck out, when you scored it made it even more valuable.
As time passed, thrifting became more and more trendy. Instead of looking down on those who didn’t buy brand new items, the kids who were rejected in the school playground for their hand-me-downs automatically became eco-friendly and savvy. The fact that buying second-hand clothes was a practical and easy way to reduce your carbon emission eventually became common knowledge. The perils and dangers of fast fashion was made clear through Instagram stories and articles shared on Facebook feeds. “Fast-fashion” is an umbrella term used to describe clothing which is cheap and easy to produce, trends that fly off the runway into our shopping malls. Many of these fast fashion companies are worth billions of dollars, and top fashion CEOs earn a garment workers lifetime pay in just 4 days. Labour issues are rife in this industry, because profit is the top priority and everything else is simply viewed as an externality. In August 2011, 200 workers passed out in one week in an H&M factory in Cambodia, due to issues like chemicals, poor ventilation and malnutrition. In 2013 a garment building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,134 people. Companies associated with the manufacturing that took place in the factory included Walmart, Primark, and Prada. Zara is the largest fashion retailer company in the world and also has a history of controversies, from unpaid wages, sweatshops, and unsafe working conditions. The issue is capitalism, and when money is prioritized people’s wellbeing is disregarded and oftentimes the most vulnerable of populations face the largest impacts. It’s impossible to live in this world without realising that our choices of consumption are either working to maintain injustices or to challenge them. From our toothbrushes, to our dining out choices, to the clothes on our backs, we are consumers who need to become conscious of our impacts. Though we can feel like our choices are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, the truth is that if we all have that belief then we become collectively disempowered.
When Covid-19 hit the world, I struggled with employment and long term economic stability. I was planning on travelling to Canada and my goal was to do lots of freelance and contract work to save up. All of my employment opportunities dried up, so I applied for the wage subsidy. Seeing the money drain from my bank account as each week progressed made me realise that I needed to actually find a form of sustainable income. I applied for a wide variety of jobs, but unfortunately due to lack of experience I could not get a job in the field that I desired, a field with meaning and the motivation to help those who are in need.
On a whim, I applied for an Expression of Interest at a large retail company. I got an interview, and a day later was told I got the job of a retail assistant. With the motivation to achieve a liveable income and to add this work to my part-time writing job, I took the position. Truthfully, I had to justify it to myself. When I told my family and friends that I got a job working at this company, I found myself quickly defending my choice, spouting off a list of reasons why I took the job while also acknowledging that I knew it was surprising. I expected everyone to judge me because I was judging myself. I have never once shopped in this said store, and when I told those close to me about the position, I could sense their surprise. They knew my values and morals surrounding it. To have a job that feels in direct contradiction with your values is difficult to grapple with and come to terms with. So I thought to myself, how can I work in this job whilst still maintaining my values and the sense that I am not complicit in the wider scale injustice that goes on in the fast fashion industry? I didn’t want to feel disempowered and hypocritical. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of injustice and suffering that goes on in the world. Sometimes we need to pick our battles carefully so we don’t get burnt out trying to fix everything and end up not actually doing anything.
Holding these companies accountable for their actions and choices is paramount. Injustices are allowed to happen through secrecy, closed doors, and layers of confidentiality agreements and red tape. When companies are forced to be transparent, there is nowhere to hide. When a standard is set, then there is no choice but to follow through on it. Investigative journalism is a powerful tool and a way to “seize reality back from the powerful.” With revolutionary movements sweeping the world in response to injustices, we can already see massive industries and institutions such as retail being thrown into the spotlight for their own actions, finally facing consequences and being called into question. Just recently, fashion mogul Anna Wintour apologised to black creatives for the negative treatment they endured at Vogue Magazine. Its been posed that many fashion labels, from Anthropologie to Zara, used “code names” for black shoppers as a way to racially profile. I’ve personally worked in cafes where other coworkers have labelled tables as “Asian” instead of using a table number. When I called them out on it, I was met with shrugs and ambivalence. Many of these large conglomerate companies use tokenism and false performative displays of “wokeness” and progressiveness so that they can get a responsibility hall pass. There’s a difference between talking about transparency and truly being transparent.
I only lasted a day in the job. I quickly realised that I hated it in a very deep sense, and the thought of being there for more than one day was pretty awful. But it got me thinking. When you are young and living in a volatile renting market, low on job prospects and coping with a pandemic, it can be tempting and sometimes necessary to get a job in a field that isn’t fulfilling and doesn’t align with your values. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of working in a field that is perfectly tailored to our personalities, temperaments, and beliefs. We are faced with roadblocks and hindrances, whether that be lack of experience or simply just a lack of being in the right place at the right time. That one very long day of working in that fast-fashion store made me realise how unsuited I was to it, but like anything in life it was a learning experience. Being able to interpret and make meaning of your experiences and decide how to move forward is integral to living a meaningful life in a world that seems bankrupt of morals and justice. Here’s to hoping my brief stint as a retail assistant can lead me onto a job that fits my values and interests better, or at least get me thinking about how I can challenge the evil fast fashion industry on a personal level.