In this article, we look at Fashion with an economic perspective, while looking at the apparel industry of the South Asian Economies. The article explores the phenomenon of “fast fashion” which is a current fashion trend. Fashion, is an English word that has its roots in the French word facon which means “various ways.” The fast-paced change patterns and easily observable mutations of fashion have economic undertones. Fashion is often defined as the art of making things. It is somewhat similar to change and innovation, but has a meaning distinct from all of them. It is important to look at the pre-established dynamics between fashion and economics. Fashion is often treated as the opposite to rationality, thus they do not go hand in hand. “Fashion is irrational” is a widely shared opinion in the world of economics. This was true when rationality was the norms in the economic analysis, since clothing was merely seen as physical requirement.
The journey of fashion, along with the ideas of massive consumerism and industrialisation and mechanisation, has been crucial in changing this perspective. Fashion and the idea of wearing clothes were underlined with class dynamics. Different people of various classes and backgrounds wore clothes of a particular nature pertaining to their standing. It was a status symbol, since adhering to one’s social status was a priority. Economists analysed money and the time spent on fashion. When lumped together with luxury, fashion becomes a form of what Veblen has called “conspicuous consumption.” According to Veblen, fashion, especially women’s fashion, is merely an expression of the wealth of the head of the family of its wearer. But this criticism of fashion is a theme not only developed by classical economists, but also prevalent among more contemporary scholars who imagine conditions under which consumers would be better off “by banning the use of fashion.”
It is the study of the changing nature of the apparel industry that is needed when understanding the economic undertones of fashion. Next was the idea of mass consumption of clothes. This took place when fashion as an industry developed. The garment industry has been one of the oldest established industries in the world that came about during the time of the industrial revolution. It is also one of the first industries to be industrialised and also to become global with the supply of raw material and later with full-package solutions. New modular techniques have emerged for production and led to the rise of fast fashion that supplies the customers with an ever-increasing range of different types of clothing at low cost. Thus, the idea that is prevalent today where youngsters feel that they never have enough clothes, or shop every then in a month is based on his notion constructed in our mindset.
According to David Smith, the systematic disinvestment in manufacturing that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s was perceived, at least in part, to be a product of “capital flight” from North America to distant lands, especially East Asia, where people worked for less pay. Not just the West, but also the newly industrialised countries such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong were participants of this trend. When the communist regimes of the past introduced policies of mass liberalisation, their relations with the capitalist West also changed and improved. This process of relocation of the production processes of specific industries has been termed as Global Restructuring. A new international division of labour in which a global assembly line driven by the relentless search for cheap labour emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. This view is consistent with the deindustrialisation of wealthy core countries like the United States via capital flight to relatively low wage countries in the world-system periphery and semi-periphery.
Some of the concerns of this neo-liberal arrangement have been based on the human rights of the workers involved in this industry. The resulting labour shortages these wage differentials create are heightened by the relative nature of work in a garment factory. Worker’s rights relating to law labour wages, productivity and their working conditions have been highly contested. One of the worst incidents in the history of the world was the fire that broke out in the Tazreen factory in November of 2012 which killed almost 112 garment factory workers in Bangladesh. These factories were producing the clothes for international brands such as Walmart, H and M, Primark, etc. The disaster was a result of the absence of safety measures such as the fire safety and the emergency exits.
The parent companies who reside somewhere in the West are hardly bothered about this. Their annual reports boast of huge profits but since this out-sourcing from the Asian economies is not accounted for in their organisational limits. Orders came from trading companies in the NICs who passed along North American and European designs to Indonesian factories for clothing that was ultimately destined for those core markets. Even today, in the Korean-run factories that I visited, this pattern remains the same—the equipment is foreign and the workers are mostly Korean, the manager and a few engineers are Korean, and most of the fabric is shipped in from Taegu by way of the port of Pusan. In 1994, average wages for Indonesian garment workers had risen to $2 per day. State policies on concrete things like duties and taxation enter into calculations, as do more qualitative assessments of political stability and attitudes toward business and investors. The individual cloth consumption patterns thus need a very serious review because to produce cheap clothing, the industry inflicts human rights violation on some factory labourer at a corner of the world.
Picture Credits : nytimes.com