Who doesn't love a bargain? Two for the price of one, 25% off, an entire outfit for under thirty quid? Does a bargain haul make us sharp, savvy shoppers or is there more to the cost of clothing than meets the eye?
I'm going to hold my hands up: I'm a bargain hunter. That used to mean finding a good quality item at a discount. These days it's more likely to mean getting a designer look at a knock-down price as fashion comes straight off the catwalk and onto the high street. "Is that Chanel?", I was asked of a Zara jacket. But these designs rarely stay put long enough to be discounted - if you miss them, they are gone forever, to be replaced quickly with a new line. And you may well need another top/jumper/dress at that stage as many clothes don't survive a few light washes. Just as well they are so, so cheap.
Fashion is now faster, cheaper and more disposable than ever before. The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption so that consumers engage in more cycles per year. Traditionally, there were four fashion seasons per year but now retailers can produce a new line every two to six weeks. Some of the big names who employ these methods are H&M, Topshop and Forever 21 but the queen of fast fashion is Zara, which has grown at the mind-boggling rate of over a store a day for the last two years. With over 6,000 stores worldwide by the end of 2012, Zara is now the world's largest clothing retailer.
Zara can design, produce, deliver and display in any of its worldwide locations within two weeks. It produces relatively small batches of each design and, as this keeps consumers returning to the store more often, most clothes are sold at full price. When an item is gone, it's gone forever and this makes consumers less likely to go away and think about whether they need it or not.
Fast fashion producers rely on lightning-fast production cycles where catwalk designs are tweaked and then produced using poor-quality techniques (no lining, single seams, cheap fabric). The clothes are seen to be disposable and the UK throws 350,000 tonnes of clothes into landfill every year. Most of the world's garment production takes place in Asia, often in dangerous conditions with little or poorly-implemented regulation and workers receive on average only 1-2% of the cost of the garment.
On 24 April 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1,129 people died and 2,500 were injured. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history. It made international headlines but it wasn't Bangladesh's only recent fatal factory accident.
Last November, 112 garment workers died in a factory fire in Dhaka and there were 41 other fires killing nine workers and injuring more than 660 in the following five months. A mere two weeks after the Rana Plaza collapsed, eight people died in another garment factory fire and another ten have died in a fire this week.
There was a rapid response to the Rana Plaza collapse by European retailers and many, including Zara, H&M, Primark, C&A and Tesco, signed a legally binding agreement to help fund and enforce regulations in Bangladeshi factories. However, the biggest problem in enforcing regulations is that the factory with which a retailer signs a contract is often not the factory where its products are produced. In fact, orders are subcontracted out so often that supply chains can extend to 15 layers or more. Also, while most companies set goals for their suppliers, only 9% take steps to verify that these goals are being met, according to the Global Corporate Sustainability Report 2013.
So workers are suffering because of low wages and dangerous working conditions, consumers are suffering thanks to poor quality clothing that doesn't last and the environment is suffering due to the overproduction of clothes and a complete lack of regard for sustainability. The clothes may be cheap but we are all paying for them one way or another.
There has been a certain amount of dissonance among consumers as it has often been the very groups that show the most concern for environmental and political issues that have been the biggest consumers of fast fashion. However, the Rana Plaza collapse has concentrated many minds and people are starting to look for alternatives. Even those who are not switched on to world events must surely question why they have to buy the same items over and over and why last year's little-worn wardrobe now seems more shabby than chic.
So what can you do? The easiest and most obvious change you can make is a change in your way of thinking - from fast fashion to slow style. Only buy what you love. If you think an item will make you feel great, you will wear it often and keep it for years, then go ahead and make that purchase. Spend a bit more on quality items of clothing that will last and save you money and waste in the long run.
Look beyond the price tag - check the seams to see if the garment is well made, read the label to see what type of fabric is used and where the garment was made. A big rule of thumb is not to impulse buy - walk away, have a think about it and if you really, really want it and feel good about buying it then do so at a later date.
There are many campaigns for ethical practice in the garment industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign is an alliance of organisations in 15 European countries that is dedicated to improving working conditions and the empowerment of workers in the global garment industries. The Centre For Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion is a centre of research, education and business that develops sustainable approaches to fashion and supply chain relationships. The Green Carpet Challenge aims to get A-list celebrities to wear sustainable fashion on the red carpet.
And you can always learn to sew, design and mend your clothes. It may be cheaper to buy a fast fashion item in a similar style but your own clothes will fit you properly, they will last and you will know that they are made with love and care especially for you.