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Three Norwegian fashion bloggers. $3 a day. One Phnom Penh factory.

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A reality show called Sweatshop has ruffled the feathers of more than fashionistas—it’s sparking a renewed dialogue about the human price of cheap clothing.

“Fast fashion” is a phenomenon that transcends the runway, crosses borders, and cuts across barriers of class, culture, and emerging economies. The term has become synonymous with what retailers call “quick response” or QR, a strategy that helps retailers use technological advancements to snag and sustain a competitive advantage.

In a 2006 article entitled “Vertical Integration and Rapid Response in Fashion Apparel,” James Richardson explains that QR circumvents traditional means of designing and producing clothing: “Rather than bet on a few new designs from the most savvy designers, [retailers] try out many, quickly imitate others, and continue to produce only what sells.” By adjusting production to sales, continues Richardson, retailers can produce clothing without assuming as much risk, saving money and creating more sustainable cash flow.

But as Sweatshop‘s horrified fashion bloggers learned firsthand in Cambodia, increased efficiency for companies doesn’t just mean fresher looks in the hands of hot young fashion victims. Clean Clothes, an alliance of NGOs and trade unions in 16 European countries, estimates that 85 percent of Cambodia’s garment factories are foreign-controlled. And though the garment industry constitutes 13 percent of the country’s GDP and 95 percent of its annual exports, the minimum wage for a Cambodian garment worker is just $100 a month—a mere quarter of what NGOs estimate is a living wage for the country.

Sweatshop shows the grim reality of overworked seamstresses and rock-bottom wages. But C. Scott Hemphill and Jeannie Suk see another downside to our obsession with quicker, cheaper clothes. In “The Law, Culture, and Economics of Fashion,” they posit that fast fashion, far from spurring on better, cuter trends, actually threatens innovation. Since fast fashion favors already-trendy pieces, they argue, it stifles more innovative pieces and feeds on itself, reducing demand for the original design and reducing profits, which further discourage trying anything new.

And Luz Claudio points to another dark facet of fast fashion. In “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry,” Claudio demonstrates that more, cheaper clothing is leading to huge quantities of trash—the average American throws out nearly 70 pounds of clothing each year. Claudio follows fast fashion’s journey from Western closets to developing countries via textile recyclers who sell bales of clothing to markets in places like Kenya and Tanzania.

Viewers with a healthy sense of schadenfreude may delight in the sight of a group of privileged, pretty young things being taken down a peg, but Sweatshop could end up being more than a reality show. Though the show was originally produced in Norway, it has gained the attention of an international audience—the trailer alone has racked up more than 3.4 million views. And, as Claudio points out, “consumer awareness of the fate of clothing through its life cycle may be the best hope for sustainability in the fashion industry.”

Only time will tell if Sweatshop will make an impact on a generation raised to expect fashion that’s inexpensive and ineffably on trend, but all signs point to a hearty debate about the true cost of our clothes.



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Organization Science, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 1996), pp. 400-412
Stanford Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 5 (Mar., 2009), pp. 1147-1199
Stanford Law Review
Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 115, No. 9 (Sep., 2007), pp. A448-A454
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences