There is a school of thought that believes the ongoing exploitation is all the fault of the fashion industry, but that is not quite true. If you asked fashion designers whether they would prefer consumers to purchase one or two carefully chosen pieces from high-end collections every season, or an armful of high-street ripoffs every month, they would counsel strongly for the former. It is a bit like saying celebrity chefs are the reason for fried-chicken shops.
High-street retailers offer a tawdry approximation of crafted, quality fashion-collecting, an experience of whiz-bang consumer gratification that is a little bit desperate, much like a meal from a greasy box that offers some comfort, but not much sustenance.
Constant treat-shopping is a Western hobby — addictive, but unsatisfactory. It fills time without demanding engagement or skill.
The horror of post-industrial society is that it deskills and makes passive the people who would once have been making the things that they are now buying in the shops instead and they can only afford to buy this stuff because people in other countries cannot afford to say “no” to making it under conditions now — rightly — considered unacceptable in Britain. People purchase these products because they are at the cheap price that became the nemesis of the former workshop of the world.
Much is made of the capacity of globalization to spread wealth. In fact, it is a fiendish process that rewards an exploitable population until it gets too big for its boots, then leaves it high and dry, with only the produce of the next group of victims to keep it afloat.
Given time, the people of Bangladesh will gain decent working conditions, just as the workers of industrial Britain did. Then, they too will be buying cheap clothes made in far-off factories in which they would not work themselves.
What is happening currently is a vast recalibration of human beings and their economic categories. General standards of living are still broadly predicated on the part of the world in which you live. However, globalization spreads relative poverty as well as relative wealth. Eventually, the world’s poor and the world’s rich will have everything in common with each other, and nothing in common with their neighbors and compatriots.
You see it here already, not only in the condemnation of “welfare dependency,” but in the demand of business for immigration, however big a headache this makes for politicians. You see it in China’s consumer class, who are flocking to the Western “affordable fashion” stores, such as Zara and H&M, that are blooming in Asia like daisies in a park. You see it in the way that two factories, in two parts of the world that could not, on the face of it, have less in common, deal death one day to a bunch of their employees.
You also see it, of course, in the West’s continuing economic struggles, as the balance of power slips from the developed world to the developing world, in a massive structural adjustment. It is a paradox that the EU is seen as the chief culprit in much of this.
Whatever its flaws, it still represents the largest experiment in cross-border equality the planet has ever seen, yet it has never been less popular among the populations of its member countries. What solution can there be, though, if an attempt to create a level playing field for trade across economically varied nations is not part of it?