A troubling advertisement showed up on my Twitter feed this morning. It’s back-to-school time, and retailers are targeting parents (and children) with ads telling them what they must have to be prepared for a new school year. Walmart Canada’s ad promoted the social ill of overconsumption, which feeds the “fast fashion” trend. Like fast food, fast fashion is attractive to people who want to purchase a large quantity of a product for as little money as possible. But just as the fast food craze overlooks the consequences of overconsumption to health, the fast fashion trend overlooks the consequences to those in the fashion supply chain.
Walmart Canada thinks Canadian children need a lot of clothing – “tees for every mood.” Walmart’s child model had 10 moods (and 10 different t-shirts) in the 15-second commercial that confronted me on Twitter.
And guess what? Having an overabundance of clothing is no longer possible for only the wealthiest in our society. Walmart Canada makes it easy for almost everyone to have more clothing than they need by sourcing outrageously cheap garments and passing on the savings to us: t-shirts, $4 each!
Walmart Canada tells us buying lots of $4 t-shirts is a smart thing to do. But it doesn’t tell us the high cost of its low prices. It doesn’t tell us who bears that cost so our children can have a t-shirt for every mood. It doesn’t tell us about the children who, rather than dancing around at the thought of so many t-shirts (as the Walmart Canada child model does), may be involved in the production of those garments–whether in garment factories; doing beading and embellishing at home; or in cotton production in at least ten nations, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Benin, and India.
Walmart Canada doesn’t tell us about the people who have lost their lives working in unsafe conditions so it can offer us low prices. People like the more than 100 who died in the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh in 2012, where it’s reported five of 14 production lines were making Walmart shirts and pyjamas two months before the fire and two clothing makers supplying goods to Walmart used the Tazreen factory around the time the fire broke out.
This spring, during Fashion Revolution Week, a video about an inexpensive t-shirt went viral. It was a social experiment conducted in Berlin to determine what people’s response would be when they learned the hidden cost of a 2 Euro t-shirt (roughly $3 Canadian) they could buy on the street from a vending machine. When shoppers viewed a video showing the conditions experienced by millions of workers who labour 16 hours a day for as little as 13 cents per hour to make our cheap clothing, they were visibly moved and many chose to donate money to help the workers, rather than purchase the inexpensive t-shirt. The lesson? Cheap clothing is only cheap for the buyer; it is often extremely costly for the workers in the supply chain—and sometimes deadly.
Walmart Canada wants us to focus on our desires, not the consequences of fulfilling them. When the retailer claims it will help us “save money” and “live better” by offering us as many $4 t-shirts as our children’s moods demand, it fails to acknowledge that living better is not achieved by having more stuff, or getting it at a reduced cost. It is achieved partly when we are aware of the impact our choices have—including consumer choices—and decide to live in a way that minimises the harm our lifestyle causes others. And as our children return to school this month, that’s the lesson we should be teaching them, not that t-shirts should be as plentiful as their rapidly changing moods.