During a shift I process scores of shapeless apparel made of cheap, synthetic fabrics. Most of the items come from Chinese manufacturers with odd brand names like SweatyRocks and AUTOMET, as if created by a bot. Poor quality is not a reason to reject an item from being resold. The flimsy body-con club dresses, threadbare flannel button-ups and strangely colored polyester maxi dresses lack tags, as if the brands prefer not to be associated with their clothes. I consult customers’ comments, which cite poor quality: tacky material, didn’t match image, no shape. Last week, I picked up a beige crop sweater with a hulking torso but oddly tiny T-Rex sleeves. Checking the image of the item on the superstore’s website, I found a picture with batwing sleeves. Such disparities between the online image and the actual item are common. It’s akin to a dating app profile of a man who is pictured with a full head of hair but has been bald for decades.
The best days at the warehouse are Sundays. English and Spanish pop music plays loudly, and we can choose our work stations. I work next to two young moms who started on the same day I did. In the din of beeping scanners, gliding conveyor belts and endless bins of returns, our heads bow over clothing until we call to each other and hold up a toddler-size pink taffeta dress — we coo — or a faded T-shirt fraudulently returned in place of a new one — we grimace. We roll our eyes when our 20-year-old manager’s responses to our questions have a consistent “Duh, Mom” tone.
During breaks, we complain about how hard it is to wrangle maxi dresses into resale bags. We laugh about how we arrived on our first day with shiny clean hair and a full face of makeup, and now we just roll out of bed. There’s a freedom I hadn’t expected — from appearance, from soft skills, from endless emails, from anxiety that used to seep in on Sunday nights. Yet, my job is just as much stitched to consumerism as my corporate role was. And stock proceeds from that white-collar job subsidize my warehouse work; the hourly wage doesn’t cover my bills. Regrettably, I’m no Barbara Ehrenreich.
Of the 75 million garment workers worldwide, it’s estimated that less than 2 percent make a living wage, according to 2017 data compiled by one advocacy group. When we buy fast fashion from the comfort of our couches, we support a system in which low-wage workers (most of them people of color) make the clothes at one end of the world, and other low-wage workers (many of them also people of color) process the returns, unseen in the concrete suburbs of American cities.
Now, one could argue that garment work may actually raise people out of poverty and give them choices they didn’t have. But America’s stock market incentivizes ever-rising growth. If consumers won’t accept higher prices to increase a brand’s profit, manufacturers will cut corners in other ways, such as with low wages or unsafe working conditions.