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Topshop or Sweatshop: Is Cheap Fashion Driving Cheap Labor?

Fashion is a funny thing. With its constantly evolving trends, marched out into stores season after season, it is difficult to avoid temptation. For even the most frugal and resource conscious among us, the lure of the latest styles and the subconscious need to "keep up with the Joneses" can weaken our resolve to not buy clothing and other stuff we don't really need.

There is some evidence that the fashion industry is starting to question its core principle of reinventing style by continuously encouraging consumers to prematurely discard their clothes for newer and better versions. But the increasing success and popularity of stores like H&M, Forever 21 and Topshop - which all sell the latest trends at very deep discounts - contradicts this effort by making those shoes you've been eyeing even harder to walk away from.

Each of these stores partner with well-known and hot emerging designers to produce cheap versions of their outrageously priced designer lines. The launch of these intensely anticipated collections are known to cause total mayhem. In November, people waited in line for 22 hours to buy Versace's H&M collection which sold out in 30 minutes in some stores and resulted in two security guards being hospitalized after getting beat up by a shopper.

If you've ever shopped at one of these stores, you know how easy it can be to get sucked in by the low commitment that comes with paying only ten bucks for a new shirt from a popular designer. That's what some people pay every day for lunch. Have somewhere special to go tonight? No problem, get a whole new outfit for less than you're likely to spend on dinner. And at that price, who cares if you never wear it again?

Anyone who is even the least bit conscious about where their purchases come from has to question the economics behind this business strategy. How can these stores afford to sell their products at such ridiculously low prices? Unfortunately for fashion lovers, the answer points to cheap labor and poor working conditions.

Topshop's sweatshop labor scandal goes back at least ten years when it was revealed that the store was using immigrant laborers working in potentially dangerous conditions in London's East End. More recently, the chain has been accused of keeping costs down and boosting billionaire Sir Philip Green's empire by giving minimal pay to Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis to work 12 hour days, six days a week producing Kate Moss's popular Topshop clothing line. An undercover investigation by a British news channel also got footage of "dirty, dangerous and appalling conditions" in a UK factory, and found employees being paid illegally at half the minimum wage.

H&M and Forever 21 also have a few blemishes on their track records. In 2010, a fire at a factory in Bangladesh that had inadequate safety standards trapped and killed 21 workers - 13 of which were women - and injured another 50 who were working through the night to fulfill orders for H&M. Forever 21 is the focus of an Emmy Award-winning documentary called Made in L.A. which follows the story of three Latin American immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops as they fight for basic labor protections from the company.

Everyone needs to be make their own assessment about whether cheap fashion is worth the price. But over at the Huffington Post, Mark Donne sums the situation up well in his call for the world's fashionista's to boycott Topshop for it's unethical practices, saying that "cheap style for one woman should not mean degraded life for another."

Kara Scharwath

Kara is a corporate social responsibility professional and marketing consultant with expertise in consumer research and environmental science. Currently, Kara is working as a Graduate Associate on the <a href="http://corporate.disney.go.com/citizenship2010/">Corporate Citizenship</a> team at the Walt Disney Company. She is also a founding partner of <a href=http://besui.com/">BeSui Consulting</a>, a boutique marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer insights and marketing communications.

Kara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in <a href="http://admissions.rutgers.edu/Academics/AcademicContent.aspx?CAMPUS=New… Policy, Institutions and Behaviors</a>. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management from <a href'"http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> where she is exploring the impact investing space and working to identify new ways to increase access to capital for start-ups and social ventures. Follow her on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/karameredith">@karameredith</a&gt;.

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