Discount Clothing Versus Fair Trade: What’s the Deal?
Reading Comprehension Activity

Author: Staff Writer

Students will read a passage about what goes on behind the manufacturing and sale of clothing. Students will answer questions about making inferences, cause and effect, making judgments, and drawing conclusions.

Click for the passage & questions on one printable PDF.


People love to think that they’re getting a great deal when buying their clothes, and big clothing chains know it. Worldwide, people purchase clothing at a rate that is 400 percent higher now than it was ten years ago-to the tune of about 80 billion pieces of clothing a year- and they’re addicted to the cheap stuff. “Fast-fashion” knockoffs of designer clothing have captured the market at prices so low that consumers can fill their shopping bags a lot more often than they used to, while feeling like they’re getting the status look that they want. Clothing companies that used to create a new line every season have capitalized on this boost in materialism. They now put out new items every week, and they produce the clothes at an incredibly fast rate.

These same consumers who buy fast fashion get rid of their clothing just as fast as they buy it. Instead of repairing or reusing their clothes, people just toss them and buy new ones because they can. Some clothing gets donated and resold, but a great deal of it, meant to help those in need, is sorted and packed and handled so much that by the time it arrives at its third-world destination, it may not even be in decent enough condition to wear. About 40 percent of what gets donated and/or thrown away ends up in landfills to the detriment of the environment. The rotting clothing releases harmful chemicals that contribute to global warming.

Inexpensive clothing seems like a good idea for the consumer who wants a bargain, but what is the true cost of this explosion of discount clothing on the market, and who is actually making these clothes? The answer is a painful one to contemplate, as the cost is paid many times over, in many ways. In order to be able to meet the demand for low-cost clothing, everything from the harvesting of fibers like cotton, to the spinning and weaving of the fabric, to the sewing of the clothing has to happen fast. And to make a profit, factory owners pay their workers very little money. 

In the early days of the textile mills in the United States, children worked in factories because their parents didn’t make enough to support their families. Child labor laws were enacted to prevent these abuses and allow children to go to school. However, in countries where child labor laws either don’t exist or are not enforced, history is repeating itself. When parents can’t make enough money to feed their families, everyone in the family has to work. The inexpensive clothing seen in the big fast-fashion clothing chains is fabricated in the kind of factories and sewing shops that use cheap labor, often including children. 

Paying a fair wage in these countries would not raise the price of clothing very much. In the countries where much of the fast-fashion clothing is made, a living wage is not the same as a living wage in the United States. If clothing companies were willing to forego some of their profit, they could pay their workers more fairly. Right now, compassion takes a back seat to money: many clothing companies even go so far as to move their factories around to boost profits. This means that the factory owners have to increase production and lower wages to compete with each other to have the lowest costs. 

The cost cutting even works its way down to the people who grow the fiber for the cheap fabrics. Families who grow cotton have to use high-production seeds that require repeated chemical spraying, and they have to pay for the seeds and the chemicals themselves. They also pay with their health: cancer rates for cotton farmers in third-world countries are extremely high. These subsistence farmers barely break even once they have paid for everything they need to grow enough cotton to meet their quotas.

All of this sounds pretty horrific, but the more people learn, the more they seem to want to change their buying habits. Fair trade practices gained traction in the coffee industry once the public learned of the poor treatment of farmers and use of child labor for producing cheap coffee. As consumers educate themselves, the clothing industry, little by little, is starting to follow a better production model. 

Fair trade simply means that a reasonable chunk of the money paid for a product goes into paying all of the people who made the product and that the wages paid are enough for the people not just to live on but to thrive. In the clothing industry, fair trade means that the people who make your clothing make enough money to buy food, to send their children to school, to have decent housing and medical care, and to have enough time to live a normal life, instead of working long shifts back-to-back. Entire communities are rejuvenated by a small shift in family income. In addition, some companies who use fair-trade practices are taking the initiative to use organic farming techniques, taking the risk of diseases caused by chemicals out of the picture.

To make sure you are buying fair-trade clothing, you have to do a bit of research. Many fair-trade clothing companies sell their clothing online. Some of the higher-end clothing companies that have brick-front stores also use fair-trade practices, and while their prices are a bit higher, many of the online companies try to keep their prices more in line with what the average consumer can afford. You won’t be getting a shirt for $5, but consider that a $5 shirt may cost a lot more in human terms than it cost for you to buy. By making sure you purchase fair-trade clothing and repair and recycle the clothing you’ve got, you’re helping to create better lives not only for the people who produced the clothing, but for the entire planet as well.

Comprehension Questions

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