Upon entering a Topshop store, bright lights and flashy fabrics meet a young customer’s eyes. The sheer mass of tops, bottoms, and skirts adorned with sequins or artistically dyed for maximum trendiness creates an atmosphere of ravenous want as fellow patrons push and prod their neighbors in an effort to make that last top on the rack their own. A glance at the price tag normally results in a further appreciation of the merchandising giant, as the company’s competitive prices are an incredible attribute, especially for those under twenty-five on a budget. Unbeknownst to this young shopper, most of the clothes in stores like Topshop got their start in sweatshops where workers are paid well below minimum wage and forced to work in substandard conditions that many would consider inhumane. As this youthful customer shops for an outfit to wear out that evening, children younger than she are struggling to keep up with their assigned tasks in cramped factories that produce the clothes she purchases.
It is not fair that in order for companies like Topshop to charge small amounts of money for their product, the employees are subjected to substandard work conditions and forced to survive on less than minimum wage.
While the well-off female population of well-developed countries has always had in interest in keeping up with the new trends, never before have new fashions been so readily available in such a large quantity at such a reasonable price. Many of these fast fashion stores have come into the spotlight over the last fifteen years. Just from the 1997 to 2007, the average number of articles women in the United Kingdom bought every year rose from nineteen to thirty-four (Dirksen 1). Instead of just buying one shirt, women now buy three. In addition to the United Kingdom’s Topshop brand, Forever21, H&M, and many other similar chains have become a primary source for young women’s wardrobe desires. The clothing, though not of the best quality material or construction, allows woman (and some men) to purchase the season’s most desirable pieces while sticking to a budget. At the end of the season, the wear has likely taken its toll on the clothing, rendering it shabby and ready to be abandoned. Such a cycle is acceptable for the consumers, as their personal use for the clothing does not usually extend beyond that season. This mass consumption of clothing is something unheard of by earlier generations who only had a couple of pairs of jeans and four shirts in their closets, but the trend has enveloped much of the middle class across the world. It is this consumerism that prompts companies to find cheaper, quicker ways to pump out the demanded supply.
Though Topshop’s ethical practices have never been an issue on the company’s customers’ radars, the sheer volume of clothing produced and its respective low price range has prompted investigation from multiple parties. Topshop and its affiliates are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which claims to have a code of conduct protecting workers from abuses (Hickman 1). Topshop has apparently not met this code of conduct. One undercover investigation involving a journalist from the United Kingdom newspaper The Independent detailed a first hand account of the conditions in the sweatshop factories in Leicester, a small town two hours from London, where Topshop clothing is produced. Hickman paraphrases the unnamed journalist’s account of the factory as he says, “The basement unit was cramped, over-heated and inadequately ventilated, with unsanitary toilets, dirty staircases and poorly lit corridors. With the greatest risk being fire, his only fire exit was completely blocked” (2). These factory conditions are commonplace in undeveloped, third world countries, but unusual considering this particular factory’s location. Hickman also notes, “He was paid cash in hand of £2.50 per hour by one employer and £3.33 an hour by another; the adult national minimum wage is £5.93” (2). Considering the fact that the lower wage is less than half of the legal national minimum wage, the obvious exploitation of the Topshop suppliers is evident in terms of employee wage distribution.
In addition to the blatant lack of consideration for the factory’s physical hazards as well as the workers’ insufficient wages, sweatshop labor tends to target the vulnerable, that is, immigrants who struggle to find a well-paying job. Hickman elaborates on this aspect of the factory work as he says, “Neither factory asked for documentation to check the worker’s legal status, citizenship or right to work in the UK. A large number of the workers are Asians on student visas who are not supposed to be working” (2). This perfect example of human exploitation happens within the boundaries of the UK, a country considered a global power.
Though exploitation is too often a byproduct of capitalism, the number of workers being paid well below minimum wage in a country with modern labor laws should call attention to this sect of illegal labor. If the United Kingdom, a county with a rich history of labor unionization and reform, permits these dehumanizing activities to occur, one must wonder how bad the conditions get in areas where labor laws are not in existence. Typically, the public hears about sweatshop manufacturing in third world countries, making the ramifications less personal and preventing customers from feeling guilt. The physical distance parallels with the emotional detachment buyers may feel. However, when one takes into account the possibility that the people walking the streets next to them are the individuals slaving away in vicious conditions to produce the clothes on a Topshop costumer’s back, the issue strikes a cord a little closer to home.
More recently, respected names in the fashion world have been speaking out against the issue of sweatshop labor in an effort to bring the problem to the spotlight of the world stage. Susannah Frankel, the Fashion editor at The Independent, the same newspaper for which Martin Hickman wrote the investigative piece, connects the dots for those Topshop customers unable to do it themselves as she says, “But the life these people lead really is subhuman. That, then, may be the real cost of fast fashion” (2) As Frankel suggests, though Topshop’s prices may be considered to be reasonable by its customers, the customers must consider the real cost, not necessarily just the monetary burden that is associated with the purchase of Topshop’s products. If the quality of hundreds of thousands of human lives are affected by the unfair wage practices of the companies that utilize sweatshop labor, the great deal a customer gets on this season’s hottest item seems like less of a deal.
In reaction to these critiques, many manufacturers claim it is impossible to keep cost low without the usage of sweatshops in its marketing campaign. However, one American-based company, American Apparel, has highlighted the fact that all of the products are made in the United States. Such claims from the company may be not enough to convince stubborn, anti- sweatshop labor customers. But one New York Times article corroborates the company’s claim, noting, “American Apparel has been lauded for paying well above the garment industry standard, offering health benefits and not long ago giving $18 million in stock to its workers” (Preston 1). Though the company’s literature says almost the same thing, credibility is added to their claim by the publication of the fact in The New York Times. In addition, the company’s website addresses the connection between American Apparel’s decision to manufacture domestically and its to pay its workers such high wages while keeping prices competitive. The website states:
When you buy a t-shirt from American Apparel, a smaller portion of the margins goes towards fuel, trans-ocean container ships, middlemen, boxes, pallets and entropy. Instead we’re able to spend that money on paying living wages to our workers, higher-quality materials for our garments, and investing in the future of our company. (American 2)
As American Apparel’s success shows, companies that claim sweatshop labor is the only way to keep costs low are simply not considering all of their options.
Keeping in mind that American Apparel is a successful, globally recognized company that is able to operate as a “vertically integrated unit” (American) in addition to offering its workers a safe workspace and adequate compensation, why do companies like Topshop contract sweatshop labor, both domestically and abroad for the manufacturing of the company’s product when they can simply look at business models like that of American Apparel? The answer is swollen capitalism. The executives in charge of contracting labor for Topshop’s clothing manufacturing are more concerned with making a larger profit than considering the implications the company’s choice in labor source might have. One individual who recently resigned his executive post at the highly successful investment firm Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith, made comments in his Opinion Editorial, published in The New York Times, that speaks of a similarly corrupt situation. Smith claims, “Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement” (3). Though free market capitalism calls for a certain level of personal interest in profit, Smith identifies an overarching problem suffered by Goldman Sachs and TopShop: the executives are no longer concerned with the real, personal, outcomes of their actions; they are simply focused on the bottom line, the profit the company will make. Smith continues by forecasting what he believes to be the inevitable end for the firm as he knows it, “People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm—or the trust of its clients—for much longer” (3). Once again, the same rings true for Topshop as a brand. If investigations continue to show the company employs sweatshop labor, customers will likely not remain loyal to the brand. In fact, many may turn to companies like American Apparel, a company with fair labor practices.
Although Topshop is currently a brand adored by the public for its fashions and prices, in order to see any kind of change in the company’s labor practices, customers must boycott the brand until changes are made in regards to the source of the company’s labor. Topshop is able to sweep the issue and the bad press under the table unless the problem is brought to the global spotlight by the people on which the company most depends on, its customers. Many customers may not initially care if their clothing is produced in constricted, ill-kept environments by illegally employed workers who are paid well below a living wage, but let these published examples be a call for costumers to take notice of the origin of the clothing on their backs.
“American Apparel | Vertical Integration.” American Apparel. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.americanapparel.net/verticalintegration/>.
Dirksen, Kristen. “Fashion Guide: Slow Fashion.” Fair Companies. Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.
Frankel, Susannah. “The Real Cost of Fashion: A Special Report.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 16 Nov. 2007. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-real-cost-of-fashion-a-special-report-400611.html>.
Hickman, Martin. “Retail Giants Shamed by UK Sweatshops.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/retail-giants-shamed-by-uk-sweatshops-2128022.html>.
Preston, Julia. “Firing of Immigrant Workers Divides Los Angeles.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2009. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.
Smith, Greg. “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” The New York Times. 14 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2012.