Subtle racism in fashion world

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    Foto: Tim Mitchell

    If we look at the Rromani tradition from the fashion perspective, we will notice that clothes once resembled religious beliefs and customs. Upper and lower body clothes were worn separately as the lower body is considered “impure,” and it is desirable not to “pollute” the upper body. The head in particular is protected from impurity. Hats worn by men and scarves worn by married women are kept away from any surface (such as the seat of a chair) or other clothes that touch the lower body. In addition, men’s clothes may be kept separate from women’s clothes, and women’s skirts are considered dangerously polluting to a man. Women must wear a skirt long enough to cover their legs at least to the mid-calf.

    From the aforementioned, it is clear that clothing trends once reflected the community’s hygienic advice, financial status, and unequal power relations between men and women. Such dress code is not specific to the Rroma alone. Most communities, including Western civilization, had similar dress codes that reflected the so-called traditional values also carrying a whole range of discrimination but smart tips such as hygienic, economical and sustainable as well.

    It is indisputable that today we have left a lot of fashion injustices behind: women are free to wear trousers and miniskirts, poorer people from the West can afford nice clothes and rich often walk around in common jeans and shirts.

    Of course, even though the fashion has changed, there is still chauvinism and a big difference between the rich and the poor, but the question we ask here is: Which mechanisms have led to such cheap and affordable clothing? The answer lies in a phenomenon called “fast fashion“.

    Fast Fashion is a business model that began in the mid-2000s with a trend called “Fashion Week”. Namely, once the collections changed only with the seasons. There would be autumn, winter, spring and summer collections, and by the arrival of the so-called “week fashion” they change from week to week. H & M, Zara, C & A and Topshop represent just some chains that operate in such a way. The reason why collections change so fast can be divided into two parts. The first one is cheap labor. Namely, multinational corporations have interest in finding countries with inferior labor rights and lower living standards offering them to work in cheaper or more risky terms for lower salaries in order for the product to be as cheap as possible. Of course, every corporation is aiming to produce as much as possible to make the profit bigger, and now they can do it due to cheap labor, but the problem is that people in the West do not want to own fifteen pieces of the same garment in their wardrobes. Here comes another reason why fashion is changing so fast, and that’s marketing. Since retail chains cannot force people to buy fifteen pieces of the same garment, they hire different marketing experts, social psychologists and behavioral scientists to find a formula to persuade people to buy more of just slightly different clothes.  As a result, there are a number of advertisements that link business success, social recognition, and discovering love and happiness with buying new clothes. A good example for this is the data that people in the United States today buy five times more clothing than in 1980.

    Since factories have moved their plants to the Third World countries, workers from the West are faced with a decrease of their wages, jobs become very uncertain and people are forced to go into debt to survive. Due to stress associated with the economic situation, diseases, including psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, are increasing, while cheap clothing, with thoughtful ads, becomes one of the placebo solutions offered to survive day by day. The results of the relocation of jobs to the most disadvantaged countries we feel as well. According to data from 2011, 22 067 workers were employed in textile industry and 5820 in the footwear industry in Croatia, while pre-war Croatia counted with 120,000 workers in that industry . The result of this business model in Third World countries is still much more frenetic. Because of the savings on working conditions, buildings in which workers produce regularly collapse. The Rana Plaza was a garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013, killing 1127 workers and being recorded as the deadliest garment-factory incident in history. In addition, workers are constantly exposed to problems such as smoke and dust inhalation, noise, lack of ventilation, bone pain, stress and exposure to electrical wires and chemicals . Apart from the lack of regulation, the reason why Bangladesh is such a popular destination for textile production is an exceptionally low minimum wage of 409 HRK per month. Branch managers are known for beating and humiliating workers on regular bases if they dare to rebel, which is particularly cruel if we know that out of a total of 70 million workers in the textile industry, 80% are women .

    The next thing we have to ask ourselves is where cheap clothing materials come from, and the answer is from the Bt cotton, which is most cultivated in India. This genetically modified cotton presents no health hazards to human skin but pesticide being sprayed on the cotton crops present hazard for human health. Because of its resistance to pesticides, Bt cotton is very easy to breed because when the soil on which it grows is sprayed by it, everything except that modified cotton ceases to live.

    Other farmers have to pay for workers who will handle weeds by hand or kill insects that harm cotton, and with pesticides, it is cheaper to grow larger quantities. This means that only Bt cotton farmers become competitive in the market and all farmers have to adapt to it; buy seed or fall. The problem is that Monsanto (or Bayer now) has a monopoly over that seed and does not allow farmers to keep the fruit of the seed, but must buy it again each season. Bt cotton seed is 17,000% more expensive than plain cotton seed, but plain cotton, as we have already mentioned, is not competitive on the market. What happens is that farmers enter into huge debts until they cannot repay them anymore, and then Monsanto (now Bayer) seizes the entire estate, while the peasants, in despair, often commit suicide. In the last 16 years, there were 250,000 farmer suicides in India. The other problem is, already mentioned effect that pesticide has on human health when it enters the river and the soil. In the state of Punjab, India, known as the land of five rivers, each village has an average of about 70 children with severe physical and mental consequences caused by pesticides, and Bayer is also the manufacturer of drugs to treat these diseases. Unfortunately, an extremely large number of households have no money for the drug and are simply waiting for their children to die.

    Foto: Fashion United

    The result of fast fashion is an extremely large amount of waste. Only US generates 10.5 million tons of textile garbage annually, while the European Union generates 5.6 million tons. As we have already mentioned, people in the United States today buy five times more clothing than in 1980, and only 15% of clothing is recycled ( It is important to keep in mind that even if all the clothes were recycled, there would still be a problem of textile production itself, which includes the operation of large machines that emit greenhouse gases and consume energy, and because of the large distance between production and consumption, transport would still pollute the atmosphere. Large volumes of non-biodegradable nylon and polyester are also being used in the production, releasing extremely harmful greenhouse gas of nitrogen oxide, and as already mentioned in this article, the process of cotton farming contaminates different ecosystems.

    It is interesting to look at the way the white man justifies the exploitation of the people of the Third World. There are arguments that there are terrible conditions there and that our exploitation offers them an alternative. It is understood that the alternative we offer them is hardly enough to survive and they risk their life at an unsafe workplace, but the argument then says; they choose this alternative themselves. Such a line of argument neglects the history of colonial exploitation of South East Asia. Namely, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United States have forcibly stolen the resources from these areas for centuries getting richer and richer, and this was justified by the interpreting the locals as uncivilised barbarians. Now that Southeast Asian societies are poor and devastated, people in the West decide to talk about some sort of free choice. Just as the Rroma are reproached for not employing themselves, instead of contextualising the history of exploitation of the Rroma, the absence of hereditary capital and the reasons for the distrust of the white people, the exploitation of the Third World is being trivialized, saying that they are the people we should not be thinking about much because they do not look similar enough to white man.

    Finally, it is necessary to ask ourselves about a possible solution. We can conclude that the disappearance of the fast fashion would simply collapse the GDP of the Western states, which is the measure of the volume of market exchange, and since we all depend on it, our economy and therefore our lives would be hit hard. But what does this fact tell us? Does it mean that we have to accept the things the way they are, buy more clothes every year, allow trade chains to lobby for even lower third-world workers’ wages, go into deeper debts and continue destroying the environment and general health?

    Let us keep in mind that the GDP must exponentially increase in order for the economy of a certain state to be stable, leading us to question the very economic system that conditions us. Do we want more diseases so that more drugs would be sold, polluted water so that the only source of clean water would be the one in the stores, or dirtier air so that clean air would reach the market as a commodity? We have to decide whether we will continue to allow the subtle racism of the fashion world to relativize the destruction of non-white skinned people just to keep the market mechanism functioning and if we want to eventually sink together for the ideal of entrepreneurship and unharmed trade exchanges, or we will start asking hard questions and looking for real answers.


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