The Global Impact of the Clothing Industry: Defining Consequences

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The global clothing industry has a very wide reach, encompassing all countries on Earth. Clothes are a necessity of life, people need to be protected from the elements to survive and this is what clothes do. But to what extent do we need clothes and when is it time to stop buying new garments. These are the questions that arise when talking about the emergence of “fast fashion” in recent years. Fast fashion is a subsequent product of globalization. As the communication and transport links between countries all over the world improved, the ability to design, manufacture, and sell within days rather than weeks was born.

Product fragmentation is the “geographic distribution of activities.” This method of production aims to gain a comparative advantage within different areas of the world. For instance, the design of a pair of jeans may be produced in the USA as this developed country is a hub for fashion companies headquarters, meaning all the technology is nearby and modern. But if that fashion company can’t source the materials needed in its own country then globalisation allows them to get the materials from different continents and countries worldwide. For example, the brass rivets on the pair of jeans could be made from Namibian copper. Mining is Namibia’s biggest economic industry as it has a natural advantage, “contributing 25% to the country's national economy.” Since Namibia has such a rich, plentiful and nearby source of copper this has enabled them to specialise, meaning they can produce it more efficiently and thus cheaper than a country who doesn’t specialise in copper production. So not only does the USA based jeans company get a material that it can’t produce domestically it also capitalises on very low prices as these countries in the global south have commodity dependent economies which produce goods and services at very low prices. These countries are defined as commodity-dependent “if commodities account for more than 60 per cent of its total merchandise exports.” They can be very susceptible to volatile price changes on the global clothing market and thus are very reliant on the global north countries to help keep their economies afloat. Another way a country may gain a comparative advantage in the production of clothes is through government fiscal policy. An example of this is in China, the government has set minimum wage at $ 311.03 in Beijing which is almost ¼ of the minimum monthly wage in North America, which currently sits at $ 1,219.49 . This means china can produce clothes at lower variable costs, thus making their per unit pricing cheaper. This can clearly be seen on Figure 1 and Figure 2, as china has a much higher value of exports, this is due to fashion companies having all their cloths produced and made in china to lower their cost of production in the hope to make more profit. The ‘Global north’ clothing companies can be seen using and abusing the vulnerability of some Global South countries. As the clothing organisations take advantage of the developing countries economic infancy and bend it to their will in order to make a handsome profit for themselves, they also in turn cause many social, economic and environmental issues within the global south. “A long chain of charity and commerce binds the world’s richest and poorest people in an accidental intimacy,” This sentiment accurately capsulises what the global clothing trade and fast fashion causes as it emphasises that there is a vertical chain with the people and the top doing well and the people at the bottom (the global south) suffering, but that they are intrinsically linked always as you are wearing the product of hardship and abuse.

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There are both positive and negative impacts of the global clothing trade and fast fashion on the countries involved. The majority of the benefits are enjoyed by the countries of the global north and the negative impacts are almost entirely endured by the countries of the global south. An example of a country effected badly by the fast fashion industry is South Africa, South Africa’s clothing and textile industry (CAT industry) is a leading sector within their economy. Since it is a labour-intensive industry this means that it creates jobs within the economy, and accounts for 1/5 of the total amount of people employed in manufacturing in South Africa. At first this may seem like a benefit but over time declining prices of Chinese imports and high competition from fast fashion brands in the global north like Zara and Nike have caused the smaller businesses within the CAT industry to struggle or shutdown. The only way they could stay in business was via cost minimising through avoiding tariffs by illegal exportation to other countries and downsizing by letting workers go, with a staggering 29% unemployment rate currently in South Africa this is even more detrimental to the economy then it would have been in to country with less unemployment such as China, As the government has to pay out more social benefits. So, although the CAT industry is big in South Africa it is still a vulnerable and volatile place. Not only is South Africa used by the global north countries it is also used by China, South Africa has a negative export share when trading with china, meaning it has a weaker competitive position. This leads to low value-added exports being sold with little to no profit in order to keep in competition, causing little to no growth and low wages for the workers. It’s clear that the commodity chain has varying degrees of severity in terms of unfairness within the fast fashion industry with South Africa nearing the very bottom.

Furthermore, the experiences of some factory workers in Bangladesh are truly horrifying. Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, has a large clothing a textiles industry which “accounts for more than 80% of the country’s $23 billion in exports to the world in 2011,” and in 2013 one of the buildings contributing to the clothing production collapsed. The Rana Plaza claimed the lives of 1,134 innocent workers in just the blink of an eye. The backlash and outrage on the streets of Dhaka was so large that the government was forced to shut down 18 other clothing factories. This shows that it was a large-scale problem not just one building otherwise they wouldn’t have had to halt production on all 18. This put serious emphasis on the inhumane working conditions that the workers practically live in given the long hours they would work for a pittance of taka (the national currency). The quality of life of those at the bottom of the fast fashion commodity chain, especially in Dhaka, have been shown to be worthless in the eyes of the global clothing companies.

The possible responses to the unfairness and mistreatment within the global clothing industry and fast fashion industry may include small- and large-scale solutions. A small-scale solution to stop the unlawful treatment of the workers in Dhaka and the low wage rates in Beijing could be more strict regulations and standards enforced buy the clothing companies, either via their own volition to improve their brand image or forcefully by their own governments if they refuse. This may involve routine working condition and standard of living checks from external organisations based in the home country of the clothing company because the global south countries, such as Bangladesh, may lack the required expertise to properly evaluate the conditions/ standards. Secondly in terms of ethical consumption the customers of the clothing trade should take part in mass consumer activism not just boycotting. As boycotting alone only decreases sales and this by itself may not be a sufficient drive for the clothing companies to restructure and put lots of money into their cheap production facilities to make them safe, as this will only decrease their revenue slightly. Not only does consumer activism via social media help make others aware of the mistreatment it also pressures the large clothing companies to change their immoral ways as they are worried about their brand image being tarnished past the point of repair.

Lastly, trade barriers may help less competitive countries such as South Africa, by limiting the amount of clothes bought by global north countries from china to boost exports in south Africa, but this goes against free trade and liberalisation which may be considered regressive. China may also retaliate which would hurt the global north countries economy. So, another way to counteract the failing South African clothing industry is through grants, these subsidies will allow the business to expand their infrastructure and capital without minimising another part of the company.

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