Hey everyone. Here is the third in my ongoing series on sustainable fashion and the connections between fashion and the environment. For those of you just joining the conversation catch up on Part 1 and Part 2. When I’m not working on BTS with Layla I have a day job working as an environmental lawyer. This ongoing series of posts focuses on sustainability in fashion and why supporting fair wages and made in the USA fashion is so important. These topics are near and dear to Layla and I and bring together my BTS and environmental lawyer worlds. Join in the conversation in the comments or make suggestions for future posts on sustainable manufacturing and fashion. Hope you enjoy!
What is the true cost of a T-shirt, the cost of the bargain of fast fashion? Part 1 of this series explored the environmental impact of the apparel industry and cheaply produced throw-away garments. In this third installment the focus will shift to another hidden cost of fast fashion, the human cost. When companies move garment production overseas in search of cheap labor, the cost is often born out in wages that are not enough to live on, deplorable working conditions, and harsh worker treatment.
At its most basic level the cost of any product breaks down to the cost of raw materials and the cost of labor to transform the raw materials into the final product (this sets aside the cost of marketing, research and development, etc.).
In many cases companies may not have very much control over the cost of raw materials, but do have a choice over how much they pay their workers and the conditions at the factory where the product is made. The drive to keep labor costs down has forced many mass-market apparel companies (and even some smaller companies) to shift their labor overseas or in some cases move their production around the globe from country to country in order to keep prices low and profits high.
In many overseas countries the laws do not provide the same type of protection for garment industry workers that we have here in the US and sweatshop conditions, and child labor are common. A recent report from the UK organization Labour Behind the Label found that many factories in India supplying leading UK retail chains had deplorable working conditions. They described workers as living “in a ‘climate of fear’ characterized by poverty wages, violence and denial of basic rights…”
The TV series “Blood Sweat & T-Shirts” is an eye opening look into the garment factories (and cotton fields, and mills) of India. In the show privileged fast-fashion lovers from the UK are taken to work in the factories and fields and see the conditions for themselves. Workers in India leave their families for months at a time to toil for meager pay in the fields, the cotton mills, and in factories in the slums. The worst factories are dingy, dark, and hot. Workers are almost like slaves-working for long hours constantly fearing for their health and safety and earning nothing close to a living-wage.
Even though the use of sweatshops primarily happens overseas there have been a few high profile cases of US sweatshops being used for well known fast fashion brands. What these instances have in common with foreign abuses is a desire to produce cheap mass-market apparel and maximize profits. In a recent article in business week about the rapid rise of Forever 21-this fast fashion juggernaut’s labor history was brought to light.Although much of Forever 21’s clothing is now made overseas at one point a substantial amount of their manufacturing took place in LA. In 2001 a lawsuit was filed on behalf of workers at a Forever 21 sewing contractor, alleging sweatshop conditions. The case was settled for 4 million, with Forever 21 claiming ignorance of the conditions at the factory. The ridiculous nature of this claim was summed up perfectly by the lawyer who represented the workers.
“It’s impossible to claim ignorance when the problem is so rampant,” said Attorney Julie Su. “Forever 21 is not a victim of the industry. They create and demand these conditions. They squeeze their suppliers and make it necessary for them to get things done as quickly and cheaply as possible, no matter what the cost to the workers.” The documentary “Made in LA” chronicles the fight that these workers went through to expose Forever 21 and win fare wages and humane working conditions for themselves and their fellow workers.
While Forever 21 is undoubtedly not the only apparel company to be accused of using sweatshop labor in the US, because of our labor laws and government crack downs there are far fewer sweatshops in this country. In New York, one of the major center’s for garment manufacturing in the US, there is a sweatshop task force that all manufactures must register for. For a company like Between the Sheets this means that if we had employees we would need to have workers compensation and disability insurance and provide proof of proper insurance to the labor task force. We are also required to only work with contractors who are registered.
Despite the movement of garment industry jobs overseas there are still companies who keep their manufacturing in the US and do their production in an ethical way. In the lingerie world Hanky Panky is a notable one. Fair wages, humane working conditions, and supporting/rebuilding the local economy are all reasons to support these companies who are keeping the US garment industry alive.
The take away is that it is important to care where your clothing comes from. As consumers we vote with our wallets and this vote can change the world. Start by supporting local businesses-ones who are nimble and can make a quality product here in the US at a fair price, while creating local jobs and supporting fair wages. If you do buy clothing from a fast fashion chain–consider only buying from stores with a stated corporate policy against sweatshops and a history of actually following that policy. The truth is that consumer voice and buying power changes corporate behavior. When consumers started demanding green products Walmart recognized a business opportunity and became a leader in sustainability. By the same token if enough consumers demand “fair trade” clothing that is made by workers paid a living wage (or made in the US) this could change the way that big apparel companies do business.