As a twentysomething fashion and lifestyle writer living in New York City, unlike Carrie Bradshaw, I do not have a fat stash of money left after paying my monthly bills. That still doesn't stop me from spending time on Pinterest and Instagram, looking at pretty things like oversized sweaters, biker jackets, and pony hair boots... and wanting it all.
But here's the catch — Even when I'm really broke, like eating-pasta-and-rice-for-a-week-straight broke, I refuse to buy my clothes at stores like H&M, The Gap, and Joe Fresh. Even if that store carries the exact tee I'm looking for.
"Why on earth would one pay $70 dollars for a plain white t-shirt, when you can buy the same thing at The Gap for $15?" you might wonder.
The answer is pretty simple: The difference in price is not reflective of the quality or style of the shirt, but the conditions in which it was made. The difference in price is about basic human rights.
I believe human beings are entitled to earn a fair living wage, and work in a safe environment.
So, what's the real cost of cheap clothes?
I learned the answer a few years ago when I visited Cambodia, one of the big garment suppliers to the the U.S. and other countries around the world.
Jason South / Fairfax Media / Getty Images
I remember driving past a sweatshop in Phnom Penh. A truck, crammed with women, was parking just outside the factory.
"Where are they taking them?" I asked my tuk-tuk driver.
"They are on their way to work, to make clothes for you," he answered matter-of-factly.
In all fairness, I was likely wearing a top from H&M that day.
But as someone who grew up in Europe, fortunate enough to never have to worry about having enough food to eat or having to pay for an education, the scene of women crammed in a truck seemed shocking and inhumane.
Little did I know, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
You see, in Cambodia the garment industry is booming. According to In These Times, It employs an estimated 700,000 people and accounts for 80 percent of exports of the country. This is where big fast fashion clothing labels like H&M, The Gap, Marks & Spencer, and Adidas produce a big chunk of their collections.
"If you look around the world, where the garment industry is flourishing, what attracts the garment industry, it tends to be where the rules of law are weakest, where people are so desperately poor that they are willing to work under any conditions," explains David Welsh, Solidarity Center country program director for Cambodia, in his interview with VICE.
And you don't need to look for proof of inhumane working conditions in Cambodia for very long.
A study carried out just last year by international labor organization's Better Factories Cambodia project suggested that as many as 43.2 percent of garment factory workers surveyed suffer from anemia. Garment workers on average spend $9 on food a week, that is as little as $1.30 a day, for themselves and their families.
Furthermore, a Human Rights Watch report released in March found many factory employees are forced to work overtime, and are discouraged to use sick days as managers often will deduct a significant amount of money from their pay check. According to The Global Post, mass faintings in factories are also common. Though an exact reason for the faintings has not been pinpointed, factors such as long hours, toxic fumes, and malnutrition contribute.
All of this to produce that pair of jeans you can snatch for just $8.
So, what's my advice then?
Buy less, but better.
According to "The True Cost" documentary, each year, 80 billion items of clothing are purchased around the world. This is 400 percent more than just ten years ago. I promise you don't need that much crap.
Instead of buying five different pairs of jeans, invest in one to wear for more than a season.
Now, I'm fully aware that my personal choice to not shop at certain clothing chains won't change the industry, but at least I can go to sleep knowing the people who made my clothes earn a living wage and work in humane conditions.
The industry has to hear us demanding change.
Cambodia is set to raise the minimum salary for workers in the textile industry by almost 10 percent this January, which is still not what unions were asking and doesn't address working conditions in sweatshops, but it's a small step in the right direction. H&M has promised to be more transparent about their practices by providing consumers with a list of their factories and contact information. It's worth noting, however, that though H&M also promised to ensure that their workers earn fair wages in the future, cleanclothes.org has questioned whether or not they will follow through.
Though change is a slow process, there are small things we can do in the present to help — like picking better brands. When I go shopping, I pick brands like Reformation, Zady or a bunch of other smaller labels produced locally that are extremely upfront with who produces their clothes and in what conditions. Each season, Green Room by ASOS produces an "eco-friendly edit" of sustainable clothes that were ethically sourced from around the world, and ASOS Africa offers fair-trade garments produced exclusively in rural Kenya. There are alternatives.
In addition, we can help factory workers and their conditions by learning more about them, and donating to organizations dedicated to their cause.
Sure, it's not as cheap and I need to skip a couple of chai lattes, but this is how we show the industry we do care about people making our clothes. We are OK to pay extra to make sure workers are treated as they should be.