East vs. West: a look at the world of clothing production
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
The division between the Western and Eastern worlds seems to have disappeared with globalisation and China’s rising power. Nevertheless, the clothing production industry does not seem to reflect the equality that is expected with this rebalance. Which image of the Western world comes through fast fashion?
One of the elements that can be noticed throughout History, as it is taught, is eurocentrism (1). This way of thinking comes from the nation, a concept that built itself, and got reinforced from the end of the 19th century, but which faded with the rise of capitalism (2).
Since the rise of China and other Asian developing countries, one would think that we are finally witnessing a rebalance between the East and West, as well as an overlapping of influences. For a long period of time, there was a clear division between these two regions of the world.
The Western world has almost always been the centre of attention and is commonly considered as the “standard”. Due to its cultural influence, the Western world exports its principles in countries newly present on the international scene. An image that could illustrate this phenomenon is the cartoon Invading New Markets (by Andy Singer), which represents capitalism and the Western world’s exportation influence.
Doesn’t this idea of “standard” precisely come from this centred vision on the Western world? Isn’t this standard also connected with our conviction over this culture’s solid legitimacy?
Considering the influence of the Western world on the Eastern one, many fields find inspiration in both cultures when it comes to music, fashion, art… This double influence can also be seen through trade, which has been connecting the two worlds for centuries (3), and that might imply that the division between the two is now inexistent. Or at least, so it seems to be on the surface. The end of the opposition leads us to assume an equality between the two regions. Nevertheless, this is not the case when it comes to production.
This connexion between the two worlds, though narrow, still suggests inequalities and does not benefit everyone in the same way. The production of clothes illustrates this well: most of our clothes are conceived in Asia. Countries like Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan find themselves at the top of the list of exporters. According to WTO, in 2017, China and Bangladesh were placed first and third respectively (4). Other countries such as India or Turkey are also highly placed in the rankings.
Analysing the production of “fast-fashion” brands (5) such as H&M, Zara, Mango, or Primark, we notice that the production sites of their suppliers are mainly situated in Asia (Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia for instance). The question of influence equality between the two poles arises once again.
In 2013, in Bangladesh, the building Rana Plaza collapsed. It hosted six textile factories tasked with making clothes for major brands. This unfortunate event became the image of fast-fashion’s damage. Subsequently, some compagnies began redirecting their production towards a more ethical one (6), and taking into consideration workers’, who are usually women, needs.
Such Western compagnies are sometimes accused of “exploiting” Eastern workers in “sweatshops”, and here are some arguments behind it: these workers have low wages (which sometimes don’t even reach the minimum wages) and their working conditions are not only inadequate, but also dangerous and insufficient to satisfy everyday basic needs. In these factories, employees face long working hours, take the risk to be exposed to toxic substances, do not benefit from social security in case of accident, etc. (7). As a result, companies make profit out of low production costs and sell at a low price (mostly in Europe and North America).
In a nutshell, the idea of division between the two worlds and the one of western “superiority” persist regardless of the globalisation, the interconnection between East and West and the benefits that result from it (8). This superiority can be noticed through the influence of some western clothing brands (9).
Through the case of the clothing production industry, the image given is certainly one of an interconnected world. On the one hand, Asian countries are core actors in the production chain, yet do not benefit from the advantages, and, on the other hand, Western influence remains omnipresent.
Written by: Bleona Rexha
Translated by: Bleona Rexha
Anderson, Benedict, “L'imaginaire national : réflexions sur l'origine et l'essor du nationalisme” (1996)
Apparel & Textile Trade and Sourcing (August 16, 2018)
https://shenglufashion.com/2018/08/16/wto-reports-world-textile-and-apparel-trade-in-2017/ consulté le 05 aout 2020
Annamma Joy, John F. Sherry Jr, Alladi Venkatesh, Jeff Wang & Ricky Chan, “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands”, (2012)
Brague Rémi, “Is there such a thing as Eurocentrism?” in “Europe and Asia Beyond East and West” by Gerard Delanty (2006)
Brook, Timothy, “La Chine, la matrice du monde”, (2011)
Sheng Lu, “WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2017”, FASH455 Global
Latouche Serge, « La supériorité occidentale en question », Revue du MAUSS, 2008/2 (n° 32), p. 461-468.
L’Express Dix, “L'effondrement du Rana Plaza, symbole des abus de la fast fashion”
https://www.lexpress.fr/styles/mode/l-effondrement-du-rana-plaza-symbole-des-abus-de-la-fast-fashion_1899144.html consulté le 04 aout 2020
Powell Benjamin, Zwolinski Matt, “ The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A Critical Assessment”, (2011)
Tian Lily Dong Kelly, “The Use of Western Brands in Asserting Chinese National Identity” (2009)