…But At What Cost?

As a current high school student, I have grown enormously familiar with the feeling of being absolutely broke.

It’s a feeling that just about 90% of teenagers go through, and that number would be lower if the majority of us weren’t residing in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. 

For anybody, especially if you’re dependent on your parents’ money, keeping up with the changing tides of the fashion industry is difficult. Finding alternatively cheaper options (such as thrifting) can be an arduous task.

Luckily, today’s youth are presented with a healthy abundance of chain stores (retail companies with more than one branch; I.E. Macy’s) that cater specifically to teenagers, and maybe even ambitious tweenagers, window-shopping on Instagram for the latest trends. These international clothing-retail companies include, but are not limited to H&M, Forever 21 and GAP.

Three, out of dozens, names that are basically embedded into every millennials’ brain as the Holy Trinity for affordable shopping. Including my own. Moreover, it’s not only its affordability that attracts students, these companies also manage to ensure trendiness.

When scrunchies emerged as stylish again after its near 40-year-long hibernation since the 80’s, Forever 21 made sure to include their very own four-pack Scrunchie Set just in time for the holiday season.

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Hailey Baldwin, celebrity model, daughter of Stephen Baldwin and fianceé of Justin Bieber, is the face for H&M x Coachella. Image source.

When all the influential people on the internet were going to, arguably, the most popular music festival in the world, H&M quickly launched their highly-publicized, celebrity-endorsed, Coachella x H&M Festival Capsule Collection.

The point here is that all of these clothing companies (and more) are selling apparels directly in line with most students’ budgets, while also managing to switch styles every few weeks in favor of the new season/trend.

But how can any corporation manage to constantly get rid of old stock while the majority of its products are selling for $25 or less? It seems too good to be true… which is exactly what it is.

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The fashion industry is no stranger to criticism. From its scandals over real fur coats to its more recent speculation about the detrimental extravagancy of the annual MET Gala, it has still managed to establish itself at the center of high society.

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Gucci joins brands such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger in banning the use of fur. Image source.

With promises to go fur-free by (well-known Italian luxury brand) Gucci, as well as (popular American fashion house) Calvin Klein’s declarations to cut down their environmental impact by a substantial amount, the public may be swayed to believe that it’s an entirely new decade for vogue.

However, the problems being publically addressed and dealt with by these major companies are just skimming the surface of much deeper, underlying issues.

While the bigger brands are making headlines over their ethical decisions, the smaller corporations are getting away with a much more heinous offense: child labor.

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Supply and demand. Even children who have never learned about the economy can guess what those two words mean in relation to each other.

How can a clothing company supply such a large variety of apparels and accessories at a high affordability rate, when the demand for them isn’t as high? And how do they keep on replacing last season’s fashion with the new trend overnight?

Well, if you have a cheap source of labor, all your problems will be solved.

It seems too good to be true.

If the people who are paid to make these clothes are underpaid or aren’t paid at all, then you have, on your hands, a golden situation in which no matter how many clothes go unsold, your amount earned will always trump your amount spent.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 260 million children are employed as underaged, and underpaid, workers worldwide. Most of these children are from developing countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar and are working for as little as 20 cents a day.

Forever 21, one of the most well-known retail stores in the world, has repeatedly been accused of the use of child workers in Uzbekistan. Even when the International Labor Rights Forum questioned the billion dollar company on why it had yet to join the multitude of popular retail stores (i.e. American Eagle Outfitters, GAP, etc) protesting against the use of Uzbekistan factories, Forever 21 stayed mum on the subject.

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Over the years, Uzbekistan factories have established a notorious reputation for widely using child laborers. Image source.

Their silence not only enraged millions of people worldwide, but it also prompted the creation of change.org petition, boldly titled: Tell Forever 21 to Stop Forced Child Labor in Cotton!

When another major fashion company, H&M, was outed for having employed underaged teenage workers in its Myanmar factories, it immediately released a public statement declaring that the company was in no way supporting the use of underage, underpaid workers, and any damage done had been committed unconsciously and without awareness.

However, they did note that in some countries like Myanmar, the international labor laws allowed for children as young as 14 to be allowed, and even encouraged, to work.

This just proves that there will never be a truly transparent process in which we buy our clothes from. Major corporations may try to vet every single company it employs to carry out its laborious tasks; however, it just isn’t feasible, and at most times, possible to vet every single one of the workers to ensure that nobody is working illegally.

“So where do I buy all my clothes from, then?” A fellow high school junior asks me as she skims through the article. “If I can’t buy my clothes from Forever 21 and I can’t afford brands like Gucci, where do I shop?”

The answer is simple: anywhere you want. The point of this article wasn’t to discourage you from ever buying anything within your price range ever again; instead, it was to raise awareness of the underlying secrets of popular culture.

As aforementioned, it is almost impossible to declare, with absolute certainty, that the clothes you’ve bought have never been grazed by the hands of a 7-year-old boy somewhere in the rural suburbs of Central Asia. However, it is hoped that with this newfound awareness of the real price of cheap clothes, you will think twice before purchasing a tank top for $9.99, including tax.

And that whenever a popular clothing store restocks its racks with all-too-new clothes, you will have the sense to look at the 50%-off red tags and think to yourself, “…but at what cost?”

Author: Anyu Ching

Anyu Ching is currently a junior in high school, and this is her second year as a reporter for The Eye. This year, she joins the staff as one of the two Chief Copy Editors. Anyu was born in Singapore, but grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and spends most of her time flying back and forth between the two. Some of her hobbies include rewatching How I Met Your Mother for the seventh time, listening to The Strokes, and constantly obsessing over Harry Styles that it’s not even funny anymore. Really, it truly isn’t. Although she prefers phone calls, she can always be contacted at ching41287@sas.edu.sg.

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