During a shift, I deal with dozens of shapeless garments made of cheap synthetic fabrics. Most of the items are from Chinese manufacturers with weird brand names like SweatyRocks and AUTOMET, as if they were created by a bot. Poor quality is not a reason to refuse the resale of an item. Bodycon, lightweight club dresses, threadbare flannel buttonholes, and oddly colored polyester maxi dresses lack labels, as if brands prefer not to be associated with their garments. I check customer reviews that cite poor quality: sticky material, not as pictured, no shape. Last week I bought a beige cropped sweater with a big torso but oddly tiny T-Rex sleeves. Checking the picture of the item on the hypermarket’s website, I found a photo with batwing sleeves. Such discrepancies between the online image and the actual item are common. It looks like 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 is playing loudly and we can choose our workstations. I work alongside two new mums who started the same day as me. Amid the din of beeping scanners, slipping treadmills and endless garbage cans of returns, our heads bow to the clothes until we call out to each other and brandish a pink taffeta dress the size of a whole – small – 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 difficult it is to turn maxi dresses into resale bags. We laugh at how we arrived on day one with clean, shiny hair and a face full of makeup, and now we’re rolling out of bed. There’s a freedom I didn’t expect – from the looks, from the soft skills, from the endless emails, from the anxiety that seeped in on Sunday nights. Yet my work is just as much about consumerism as my role in the company was. And the proceeds from the actions of this white-collar work subsidize my warehouse work; the hourly wage does not cover my bills. Unfortunately, I am not Barbara Ehrenreich.
Of the world’s 75 million garment workers, less than 2% are estimated to earn a living wage, according to 2017 data compiled by an advocacy group. When we buy fast fashion from the comfort of our couches, we’re supporting a system in which low-wage workers (most of them are 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 returns, invisible in the concrete suburbs of American cities.
Now, one could argue that garment labor can actually lift people out of poverty and give them choices they didn’t have. But the US stock market encourages ever-increasing growth. If consumers don’t accept higher prices to increase a brand’s profits, manufacturers will save money in other ways, such as low wages or unsafe working conditions.