John Oliver Turns a Spotlight on the High Cost of Fashion's Low Prices

The 'Last Week Tonight' host takes on the sweatshop abuses of retailers such as Gap, Zara, H&M, and Walmart.
Apr 27, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A pair of stylish blue jeans that only cost $9 probably seems like a real bargain. But as Last Week Tonight host John Oliver pointed out in his scathing Sunday-night takedown of the fast-fashion industry, the people laboring in sweatshops making cheap, trendy clothes in sweatshops aren't getting such a great deal.

In the clip above, Oliver turns the spotlight on our modern retail system, in which many clothing manufacturers have lowered prices so much that the only way they can turn a profit is by sheer volume of sales. That strategy relies on overseas sweatshop laborers who are paid so little that, according to Oliver, the average American can now afford to purchase an average of 64 items of clothing per year.

Oliver breaks down how companies such as H&M, Gap, Walmart, A Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Zara, and Forever 21—which Oliver hilariously says enables “Midwestern tweens to dress like 40-something alcoholics attending the funeral of a Tel Aviv nightclub owner”—are focused on cheaply manufacturing shirts and pants that have the “life spans of mayflies.” For the record, mayflies live for a single day.

Oliver’s segment comes just days after the second anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The accident at the factory killed more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 others. Retailers who sourced clothing from the factory, including Walmart, Gap, and Sears, helped launch the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. But, as Oliver points out, for the past 20 years, many of these clothing brands have been saying they had no idea how bad labor conditions were—or that children were being put to work. “Deniability seems to have been stitched into the supply chain,” says Oliver.

Awareness campaigns, such as the recent Fashion Revolution Day, have inspired some consumers to use social media to ask brands who made their clothes. But Oliver has another plan to show clothing manufacturers “why we care and why they should.” At the end of the clip, he announces plans to send lunches with dubious origins to the wealthy CEOs of H&M, Gap, Joe Fresh, Walmart, and A Children’s Place.

“Full disclosure: I do not know exactly how this food was made,” says Oliver, in full satire mode. “I told someone who may have told someone else to get the most food they could for the cheapest price. And they did that.”

It's hard not to laugh while a model struts the meal intended for Gap's CEO—a 20-piece sushi plate that only cost $8.99—down a runway on Oliver’s soundstage. The host seems to be making good on his pledge. On Monday Last Week Tonight's Twitter feed began sending pictures of the meals to various retailers. "How's lunch?" a tweet asked Gap. So far, there's no reply from the company.