Want to hear a scary story? A young woman lives with her son in a tiny room in an overcrowded building in a filthy area of her city. Every day she goes to an overcrowded factory where she works her fingers until they hurt unbearably, where she is shouted at, where she deals with harassment, where she is not permitted to express herself. She does this for long hours everyday so that she can earn a pittance. One thought torments her: Will the factory burn down, with her and everyone else inside? If a fire does start, there’s no clear way out. There have not been proper health and safety measures. It has happened before. It’s almost as if the building where she works is designed to bring harm to her.
There’s a good chance that that’s the story of your Halloween costume.
As Halloween rolls around we start to plan parties and select our costumes. Year after year Halloween gets bigger in the UK, following closely in the footsteps of the US. This is no bad thing. Summer is winding down, the cold is setting in and it’s a long road to Christmas. It’s good to have a holiday, a big weekend to break things up. It’s great to see community and kid-focused activities like trick-or-treating gaining traction.
Halloween always brings its own controversies, particularly around costumes. Racism, cultural appropriation, the troubling pattern of girls of ever younger ages wearing revealing costumes. A lot of think pieces are written on the phenomenon of “sexy” Halloween costumes, and on the relentless racial tone deafness on display every year. But a story that often gets ignored at Halloween is the far more horrifying story of how these costumes get made.
This year we’re expected to spend £157 million on costumes alone, while in the US it’s going to be closer to $2.6 billion. The great majority of that money gets spent on outfits that aren’t supposed to last long after the party. Halloween costumes get bought, worn once and thrown away. Because the life of these costumes is so short we don’t tend to put much thought into them, beyond how effective they’ll be on the night.
So where do billions of dollars worth of costumes come from that can be cheaply bought and guiltlessly discarded? Objects that not only won’t get worn more than once, but objects that aren’t even supposed to? As is usually the case, cheap items come from cheap labour.
As we know, the garment industry has huge problems with transparency and working conditions. The biggest garment manufacturers in the world are China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. The right to organise and have your voice heard as a worker is severely curtailed in all of these countries. In Bangladesh, since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, many brands and factories have signed up to improve the safety conditions of the factories. Sadly, a good majority of them, even those that have signed up, have done nothing.
Factories and sweatshops in these countries are very dangerous places, and the people who work in them live unenviable existences. The likelihood of a store-bought Halloween costume coming from a sweatshop is very high.
Barbara Briggs, associate director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, said that, particularly during super seasons like Halloween, “It’s our sense these days when you buy garments, you are virtually guaranteed that you’re wearing a sweatshop on your back.”
The reality is that plenty of the responsibility lies with us, the consumer. Finding a good costume, one that’s funny and inventive and that participates in a cultural conversation is great. But if we expect those costumes—the Pablo Escobars, Minions and Donald Trumps that will fill bars and Facebook feeds in the coming days—to come dirt cheap, then we are quietly endorsing the conditions that make them dirt cheap.
There are alternatives. There are brands that make sustainable Halloween costumes, and there’s the option to be more inventive and crafting your costume from charity shops and your own wardrobe.
Halloween costumes—those brief, inexpensive expressions of humour and pop cultural understanding that are often made possible by the exploitation and blood of poor people—are thrown out soon after the party finishes. Next week mountains of discarded effigies of Donald Trump and other outsized memes that were assembled by workers in sweatshops, will fill landfills, with rats scurrying over them looking for nourishment, and gulls circling overhead. You have to ask yourself if you want to be a part of that picture.