What if the world stopped shopping?
By JB Mackinnon 6 minutes Lily
The 21st century has brought to light a critical dilemma: we must stop shopping, and yet we cannot stop shopping.
At the turn of this new millennium, according to the UN, consumption has overtaken the population as our biggest environmental challenge. When it comes to climate change, species extinction, water depletion, toxic pollution, deforestation and other crises, how much each of us now consumes matters more than how many of us. The average person in a rich country consumes 13 times more than the average person in a poor country.
For decades, we have witnessed an almost continuous increase in the consumption of all major natural resources. We are using the planet at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. At this rate, by 2050, resource use will have tripled in the 21st century alone.
Fast fashion is one of the worst offenders. We did not demand it, but we accepted it with enthusiasm. The number of clothes sold each year has roughly doubled over the past 15 years and now exceeds 100 billion.
A feedback loop has been engaged in which lower prices encourage shoppers to browse clothes faster, leading companies to make clothes that don’t hold up to more than a few pieces of clothing. The lifespan of clothing has declined more sharply than ever in the 21st century.
In a major report in 2017, the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation identified “increasing the average number of clothes worn” as perhaps the best way to reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry. clothing. Doubling the use of our clothing would, for example, reduce climate pollution from the clothing trade by almost half. Stopping global clothing production for a year would be the equivalent of grounding all international flights and stopping all sea shipments during the same period.
Yet once again we land on the horns of a dilemma, as millions of people make a living making these garments. Most of these workers live in poorer countries which depend heavily on industry. The largest producer of clothing is China. The second largest is Bangladesh, which has a population twice the size of the United States in an area not quite the size of Iowa. In Bangladesh, more than a third of manufacturing jobs and almost 85% of exports come from the garment industry. In a country where a fifth of the population lives below the national poverty line, the garment industry provides jobs for more than 4 million people. Six in ten of them are women.
Abdullah al Maher is CEO of Fakir Fashion, a knitwear manufacturer for top brands such as H&M, Zara, Pull & Bear, C&A, Esprit, Gina Tricot and Tom Tailor. Maher told me that the imposing Fakir Fashion factory located on a narrow road in Narayanganj, a town just east of the capital of Dhaka, employs more than 12,000 people. During the peaks of the fashion cycle, the company manufactures 200,000 stunning clothing items every day and adds new production lines. Fakir Fashion and its employees seem to be totally addicted to shopping as we know it today.
Suppose the shopping stops, I told Maher. Suppose consumers all over the world suddenly pay attention to the critics who say we should buy less clothes in order to reduce the impact of the industry. What would happen?
Maher paused. When he spoke, it was in the tone of one who shared a secret. “You know,” he started, “it wouldn’t be that bad.”
Over the past 20 years, Maher has seen major clothing brands ask Bangladesh suppliers to lower their prices while filling orders faster and constantly improving their labor and environmental standards. Fakir Fashion has implemented certified projects to treat its wastewater, collect rainwater, use more solar energy, provide meals and child care for workers, hire disabled workers, build schools in the region and more. They were unable to pass any of the expenses of these improvements on to clothing brands or consumers, who continue to want more for less.
There is an old saying: if something is too cheap, someone else pays. Maher workers earn between $ 120 and $ 140 a month to work six days a week – low wages not only globally, but by Bangladesh standards – to do jobs that are made more stressful with each speeding up of the cycle fast fashion. Outside the factory gates, these workers endure the environmental consequences of a nation cutting corners to keep its industries competitive. The air in Narayanganj is generally an ocher gray-brown and sometimes makes foreign visitors nauseous.
Yet what bothers Maher the most is the insult to see the clothes his company sells for prices that show how little valued they are. “Gen Z and millennials are really demanding ethical products,” he said. “But when you buy a quick, trendy t-shirt for $ 4 or $ 2, you never ask, ‘How is cotton grown, ginned, spun, woven, dyed, printed, sewn, packaged, shipped, all for $ 4? ‘You never realized how many lives you touch, all because your payment doesn’t pay their wages. “
I asked Maher what kind of price increase would make a difference. The first sum that came to his mind was surprising: two cents – an amount so small that in many countries it is rounded to the nearest higher or lower currency. If he could pass on two more cents per item of clothing made in his factory, that would be the equivalent of two extra days of pay per month per worker (an increase from 7% to 8%). Alternatively, the two-cent increase could allow Fakir Fashion to produce fewer clothing items – they could make better clothes, or just at a slower pace – without anyone losing their jobs or income. Imagine what could be accomplished if buyers were willing to pay an extra penny.
When the coronavirus hit, the effects of halting clothing purchases quickly materialized. More than a million garment workers have been put on leave in Bangladesh alone.
I spoke to Maher as the first lockdowns started to lift around the world. I asked myself: after witnessing the damage done to his country by a world that had stopped shopping, was he still so hungry to see the clothing industry change? “By bringing fast fashion to your country, you are also hurting your country,” he said.
The biggest danger to the clothing trade is not a slowdown in buying, Maher said, but the inability to find a way to slow down buying. In a world where billions of people already have enough clothes, the only way to keep buying is to generate unnecessary demand. The way to create unnecessary demand is to step up fashion trends. The way to accelerate fashion trends is to make clothes cheap enough to buy them more and more often. And the only way to make cheap clothes is to reduce quality, working conditions, wages or environmental standards – the daily disaster that Bangladesh has been experiencing for years.
A transition to a world that consumes less clothing would be painful for Bangladesh. Even though the country’s garment industry made fewer better-quality clothes that sold for higher prices, Maher doubted that the country’s 6,000 factories could keep as many people employed as they do today. “Maybe there should be 4,000 factories, or 3,000,” he said. But they would provide a living wage, pollute and waste less, and compete on quality and efficiency, rather than greed and speed. “There won’t be a rat race then,” Maher said. “There will be a real race.”
Of The day the world stops shopping by JB MacKinnon. Copyright © 2021 by JB MacKinnon. Reproduced courtesy of Ecco, a trademark of HarperCollins Publishers.