Is It OK to Buy Cheap Clothes?

Many stores can offer low prices on the latest trends because people in other countries are paid so little to make them. Is it unethical to purchase these products—or is buying them a way to support struggling workers? 

Having a job is better than having no job at all! Research has shown that the expansion of the garment industry has helped reduce poverty in many poor countries. It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but to boycott clothes made in these countries could potentially hurt the garment workers even more. 

From our perspective, these workers are paid almost nothing. After all, the minimum wage for textile workers in Bangladesh—one of the world’s major garment exporters—is about $68 a month. Yet it’s important for us to remember that we live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and that wages here are much higher than in Bangladesh. So while $68 may seem like very little to us, it is much-needed for millions of Bangladeshi workers. A company like H&M is providing these workers with higher wages than they would make otherwise; in return, the company lowers its production costs. 

And as other clothing companies see the low costs from producing in Bangladesh, they too shift production there. The result is an increase in the number of jobs available to ordinary Bangladeshi workers. More poverty-stricken people will have the opportunity to obtain employment and work for better lives than before. Consider this: In my lifetime alone, the average income of a person living in Bangladesh has doubled. 

Of course, it is a shame that laborers in these developing countries often have to work in poor conditions, but asking teens to boycott companies over this just isn’t realistic. Many of us simply can’t afford to protest with our wallets. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a stand, though. We can speak out on social media and write letters to companies, asking them to push for safer working conditions. By raising awareness and buying clothes produced in poor emerging economies, we’re giving the workers a chance to forge better lives. That’s truly supporting them in the best way we can. 

5 Fast Facts: Fast Fashion

1. “Fast fashion” is a term that describes manufacturing trendy clothing quickly and inexpensively for consumers.

2. Americans buy more clothing now than ever before— roughly 20 billion garments per year.

3. In the 1960s, the U.S. manufactured 95 percent of our clothes. Today, we make about 3 percent.

4. The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.

5. The top three countries that manufacture apparel for U.S. shoppers are China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.

Fast fashion is having a disastrous impact on our world. If more teens truly understood how the clothes in many of their favorite stores are made, I believe they’d refuse to purchase them. Unfortunately, too many people get excited about a $10 T-shirt and don’t stop to consider why it’s so inexpensive. A child laborer in Bangladesh puts the finishing touches on blue jeans.

Cheap clothes are often made in sweatshops, which force employees to work extremely long hours (think 14- to 16-hour shifts) in unsafe working conditions. These laborers are earning less money in a day than a minimum wage worker in the U.S. makes in an hour. In fact, 76 percent of the population in Bangladesh lives on less than $2 a day. 

But low wages aren’t the only problem. News reports on factory conditions show windowless rooms, poor ventilation systems, and no fire exits, so it’s no surprise that thousands of workers have been killed or seriously injured in the past decade alone. In fact, 1,135 workers died when a building in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013. The building had failed an inspection, but employees were told they had to keep working there anyway. 

In an effort to keep costs down, companies don’t skimp just on labor—they also use cheaper materials, so the clothes wear out quickly. It’s a process that is terrible for our environment: The old clothes often end up in landfills, and it takes even more of the Earth’s precious resources to constantly manufacture new ones. Plus, you’ll probably end up spending more money in the long run by regularly buying replacement clothes, meaning your wallet loses too. 

As teens, we’re all on tight budgets, but there are better alternatives to buying fast fashion. Try secondhand stores—you may be surprised at what you find! Plus, when you purchase higher-quality clothing, you won’t have to shop as often, and you may end up spending less money overall. Most important, you’ll be helping to build a better world—and that should make you feel proud. 


Use this five-step plan to support garment workers and become a more responsible shopper. 

1. Educate yourself. 

Research how clothes are manufactured in developing countries, and be sure to look at the entire supply chain. (Psst. A documentary called The True Cost is a good place to start!)

2. Look at your labels.

Where were your clothes made? Find out if the companies you’re buying from are committed to monitoring their factories for poor conditions and abuse.

3. Share newfound knowledge.

Post what you’ve learned on social media. Encourage your friends to look at their labels and do their own research too.

4. Buy less, recycle more.

Whenever you want to purchase clothing, do a gut check—do you really need that item? And don’t forget to donate it (if it’s still wearable) or recycle it (if it’s ripped or tattered) when you’re done.

5. Put the pressure on.

Write to your favorite brands to demand that their workers be treated fairly. Pushback can work—in the 1990s, protests forced Nike to improve its practices.

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