What do bagels and fast fashion have to do with one another? According to Slate.com writer Matthew Yglesias, Lender’s Bagels made America better by making bagels worse. The same could be said for H&M in regards to fashion, he writes:
The fundamental story of Lender’s Frozen Bagels is that the winning product isn’t always the best one. Like Ikea for furniture, H&M for clothing, or the Olive Garden for Italian food, Lender’s innovated by finding a way to compromise on quality and reap huge gains in other spheres…Nobody wants to stand up and proudly proclaim, “I changed the world with my inferior products.” But often this is how the world changes. And if you look at the health care and higher education corners of the American economy where spiraling costs are bankrupting the middle class, you see sectors that are largely untouched by this kind of low-end innovation. The world could probably use a few more Murray Lenders.
The world may need more Murray Lenders, but it can’t sustain another H&M. While I think that Yglesias is spot on in describing H&M’s wild success in peddling low-quality fashion, he misses a wider point about how cheap fashion has changed the world for the worse. And he misdiagnosis what is really bankrupting the middle class in the U.S.—a lack of jobs. While Lender’s Bagels depends on a network of U.S.-based factories (there’s one in New Haven, Buffalo, and Mattoon, Illinois) that employ 600 Americans, H&M depends on a network of low-paid factories throughout Eastern Europe and Asia and a cadre of underpaid cashiers and sales people. Yes, H&M arguably exposes more people to fashion (just as Lender’s exposed Americans to bagels), but the flip side of cheap, poorly-made consumer products is quite often miserable jobs and unsustainable consumption.
The Lenders Bagels empire is also far more innocuous in another important way—A Lender’s bagel is made from biodegradable food stuff. It gets eaten; it’s a perishable good. The same cannot be said for all those polyester party dresses and non-organic tank tops H&M is selling to us by the bagsful. Fast fashion chains routinely churn out hundreds of millions of garments per year (Zara produces one million a day) with no recycling plan, instructions for disposal, or acknowledgment that they’re creating a horrifying surplus of clothes that will eventually end up in a landfill.