Ethical Fashion: Whose job is it?

This post isn’t going to seem terribly happy because I am writing about an unhappy topic, but I will give some solutions, ask some questions and hopefully shed some light. While ignorance may be bliss… a synonym for happy…I argue that knowledge is power and frankly, ignorance is no an excuse for being unkind, which is exactly what most clothes in most western closets represent: unkindness.

During my masters program in London, I wrote two papers, including my thesis, around international labor laws. Because of my research for the first paper, which focused on trying to determine whose job it was to monitor labor conditions, I realized that there was a big gap between the information and the facts and the consumer, so that is what I focused my thesis on. They are long and dry, so I won’t share them. Below is an overview on my thoughts on the industry, and future posts will discuss other points on the issues.

Before I begin my rant, I want to make a few things clear.

1. This is not an anti-fashion industry rant. Fashion is art, and I believe art is important. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fashion industry (as it relates to this issue), and the fashion industry could carry merrily along just fine if changes were made ethically.

2. This is not an anti-capitalist rant. Although I will call into question some practices that are capitalistic, my socialist-self is not trying to destroy capitalism…she is more realistic than that.

3. This is not an anti-‘development’ rant. I work (at times) in the field of so-called development, and I have a masters in the subject. I believe fully in the rights of people to work and countries to progress in whatever way will best serve their people, though not at the detriment of others.

Now that I have cleared that up, what I do want to say is this: the garment industry (by this I mean that which produces the raw materials and assembles the clothes and shoes we wear) is the antithesis of kind. Strong words? Truth.

A question

Let me ask you this. If you walked into H&M, and it was 9:30 on a Monday night and there was a child that looked to be about 8-years-old struggling to keep her eyes open folding the clothes on the table. What would you think? Would you think, “Well done for that little girl. Bringing home some much-needed cash for the family!” Probably not. Probably you would wonder why she was working so late on a school night, and wait….why is she working at all? “Well, her family is poor, so it is more important for her to work than go to school,” the manager responds when you ask. So you think, okay, well, I guess that makes sense. The manager continues and says, “If she works all day, she will make enough money to buy rice for her family for dinner that night.”  He also explains that it is even better because her mom works there too, so they are together and he points up high in the ceiling where a very-pregnant woman is standing on a thin beam with no safety equipment hanging lights.

Okay, you get the point. This would NEVER happen in the US, in Canada, in New Zealand or Australia, in all of Europe and in plenty of other places, however much worse than that happens in China and Bangladesh, most notably. It is not okay, it is not nice and I would argue that most sane people would not treat people the way workers are treated globally, but they read a blog or an article, see a documentary or catch a random story on the news and they think, “That’s a shame,” and they continue shopping as they did before. I challenge you not to. I challenge you to face the ugly truth head on and make a conscious choice NOT to participate because NOT participating will not cause you unhappiness, in fact, it may bring you great happiness.

A short history

So it used to be that clothes were expensive. In ancient Roman times, during the reigns of all of the Louis (what is the plural of Louis??), the Victorian era,  during Coco Chanel’s day and during the roaring twenties. Basically for about 1,980 years or so, clothes were expensive. The rich women would buy a couple of new dresses each season and the poor would wear brown, black or grey frocks till they were too threadbare to continue. These were the days prior to a middle class and prior to industrialization.

Then with mass industry, clothes became significantly less expensive. The United States invented denim and the blue jean, grew hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton (let me not even delve back into history and talk about the slaves and cotton, as this is a post about today, but suffice it to say, garments have always had blood stains), wove the cotton into cloth and then produced clothes. Similarly, Europe was producing clothes, albeit not so much in the denim department. Now, during the early- to mid-1900’s, the rich were still having their clothes made-to-order….couture…they were still expensive, but now there were affordable options for the growing middle class. Note that I said, “affordable”, not “dirt cheap”. In the US, particularly in the northeast of the country, there were loads of garment and shoe factories. Because we had industrialized and set standards and had unions, there were rules that the factories had to abide by. We had stopped child labor, we had set minimum standards for safety, we had a minimum wage. What this meant, was clothes still had a value because though they were being produced in volume in a factory setting, it was an American factory setting. And the consumer accepted this. Clothes were not only for the rich; the middle class and lower classes had good-quality clothes in a quantity that they needed.

Because I am not an economist by trade, and because there are too many issues of inflation and whatnot, I am not going to try to compare then to now to scientifically, but ask your grandmother how many dresses she bought each year. Ask your grandfather how many suits he bought. Ask your parents how many pairs of jeans (dungarees depending on their age) they had. How many pairs of shoes? Unless they were upper-middle class or above,the numbers will be low.

Now look at your closet. Look at your kids’ closets. How many shoes? When was the last time you wore that dress? What about the jeans you bought because they were on sale, but you will never again be a size two? How many Gap t-shirts in every color? How many bras? And why? Because you wanted them and because, “Look, this cute top is only $5.99! I can’t afford NOT to buy it!” Right?

Who goes to a cobbler anymore? (Millennials are all, “A what?” He’s the guy that repairs shoes, kids.) It is more expensive to fix them than to buy new ones, so throw away, get new ones, and they are on sale BOGO at Payless, so that’s two!

Why did clothes get so cheap? Overseas labor. As companies discovered they could go overseas, pay less, provide no benefits, use children for labor, work longer hours and not have to deal with unions, US workers lost their jobs, the factories of the northeast still stand abandoned, and sweat shops in Asia proliferated.

Here is a great article from 2008 on the decreasing cost of clothes, and it specifically mentions two of the stores I love to hate, H&M and Forever 21.  (They mention in passing that part of the reason for this drop is the change in labor to overseas, but it is not an article about labor; it is more about the concern of the stores to be competitive and always drive prices down.)

So while the designer goods stay expensive, the discount stores are in a neck-and-neck race to the bottom.

If workers were being paid what is often referred to as a ‘livable wage,’ which means the minimum wage that would allow them to have a basic quality of life in the country and economy in which they live in, clothes would cost a little more. It is that simple.

On the subject, here is a good, in-depth article on that.

Now, experts have said that to increase the rate of the workers’ pay would only marginally affect the cost of the garments, but because there is such steep competition among the bottom-feeders, they can’t do this. If F21 sells jeans for $18.99, they will lose out if H&M can sell them for $12.99, and you win because you can buy two pairs for just a little more than one. Score! But if you knew that there was a mother back in Bangladesh who died along with around 1,000 of her co-workers when a factory collapsed because it was nowhere near up to safety code, would you still be okay? Would you shrug and think, not my problem? Remember this? Just this month, the factory owners faced murder charges, but was it their fault?

Yes, of course it was…but wait….What would have happened if the factory owner(s) shut down the factory to make repairs? Or reduced the number of people in it? Or spent money bringing it up to safe standards? Whoever was paying them would have moved to a different factory, of course. What if the government of Bangladesh had said, “We stand by our factory workers and owners!” and regulated the safety? The companies using them would have gone to China or Sri Lanka. What if the factory workers had simply decided they were too scared to stay in the dangerous building and walked out? They would have not had a job to go back to…although they would be alive today. This was the whole circle I ran in while writing my dissertation: Whose job is it? Workers are afraid to unionize. Factories have to be competitive. Countries have to be competitive. So whose job is it?!?!!?

No…really, I am asking. Who????

Okay, fine. I’ll tell you what I think. I think it is the multinational companies’ responsibility. I think the CEOs and owners and CFOs and MDs  and majority shareholders of the big companies could probably skim a few dollars off of their pay checks if they needed to cut the bottom line and increase profits, but they don’t. They squeeze the workers in far off lands who didn’t have the good fortune to be born American. Now, they will tell you all day long that they don’t own any sweat shops. This is usually true. The companies very wisely stay out of that messy little business and just let the countries and owners they never see or meet do what they need to do, which is why the factory owners, not the clothing line owners are on trial for their lives.  One of the primary stores the factory made clothes for was the UK cheap-chic giant Primark and another was J.C. Penney.

So back to my argument that the multinational companies and their big dogs are to blame.

Do you know who the number one richest woman in the world, in fact… is? Guess.

Did you guess? Christy got her money the old-fashioned way–she married into it. She married John Walton, one of the sons of the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, one of the kings of cheap clothing. Think she shops there? (Her money is largely from Wal-Mart shares; she doesn’t actually work there.) Alice Walton (daughter and heir of Sam) is No. 12 and Ol’ S. Robson Walton (Son of Sam) is No. 14 on the Forbes list of richest people in the US.

Phil Knight, founder of Nike, is the 15th richest person in America. Leslie Wexner is number 55; his company owns Express, the Limited, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie and Lane Bryant. The number 75 duo is Jin Sook and Do Won Chang who own Forever 21 (their net worth is $6.4 billion in case you were wondering how rich the 75th most rich person in the US is and how much money selling cheap clothes can make you).

Anyway, I stopped scrolling at number 100, but my point is, they are making bank, so the argument that they need to “cut costs” by squeezing the wages of those making $1-2 a day, (yes, one to two American dollars A DAY in a factory) is frankly a pathetic argument. Again, not trying to be anti-capitalist; they can be rich, but could they perhaps choose kindness and be a little less rich, so that those making them rich can afford to eat, shelter, education and the expectation that going to work will not be life endangering? And by shopping at their stores, you are not, as you may tell yourself, “creating jobs overseas.” You are filling already full pockets and you are inhibiting those countries and those people from actualling prospering. This is NOT development, make no mistake. It is creating a never-ending cycle of poverty.

And here’s a fun fact about working in America as a juxtaposition to the above facts for you in case you just don’t care about those folks in Asia. According to this list: of the Top 12 worst companies to work for IN AMERICA, six are based at least partially on clothing! They are: Dollar General (10), Ross (9), Sears (6), Forever 21 (4), KMart (3), and (Dillard’s) (2). So imagine, if these companies are this bad to work for where there are labor laws, imagine where there are not!

Remember the uber-rich Walton family? This was a piece done by PBS talking about Wal-Mart’s sweat shops and the fact that they are anti-union (in the US) and, just generally, are a detriment to society all in the name of cheap products, so Americans can have lots of cheap stuff and feel rich…which they are compared to the workers in Bangladesh.

I can hear the teenagers going, “Well, like they should get a better job. I totally can’t afford more than $22.99 for my prom dress.” Those of you who aren’t teenagers have no excuse. You know the job situation in your country. You may not have visited a factory in Asia, but do some googling; it’s not a big secret. Jobs are not a luxury, especially to the poorest people. I am not suggesting only the rich in America deserve clothes, but it is a matter of quantity. We, as Americans, are drowing in our stuff. (More on that in a later post.)

Do your clothes actually make you happy? No, they don’t. Could you get by with $100 worth of jeans if that meant two pairs rather than six? Yes, you could. Do you NEED 34 pairs of stilettos? No, you don’t. Would you be willing to pay $3.00 more for that cute top if you knew that each person–from its cotton grower, to its seamstress, to its packager, to its sales clerk– that touched that cute top was being compensated well and fairly for their work or do you “need” it so badly that none of those people matter?

If we don’t support these companies; if we buy ethically; if we buy less, we will value what we have more; we will actually help to develop countries that want to develop; we will reduce our environmental impact; we will not have blood on our hands simply to fill our closets.

I think one or two things need to happen. 1.) I think consumers need to accept that they have to pay a little more and/or 2.) I think shareholders need to accept that they need to squeeze their own paychecks to make sure that EVERY SINGLE farm laborer, garment worker, driver, packer, stock boy and sales girl make what they need to live in the coutnry they call home and and that the work is not life threatening.

Neither of these things will happen if we, the consumer, continue to blithely stand by and demand cheaper and cheaper clothes while more and more people suffer at our hands.

I will write more on some of the finer details of this at other times, as well as provide some more alternatives for you. For now, do yourself a favor and watch this. It is the most recent documentary I have watched on the subject, and I can highly recommend it. I got it on Netflix.

And try to think before you buy. Imagine the faces behind your clothes and ask yourself is it kind to buy this? What am I supporting? Do I believe it is okay that lives are in danger so that I can have this cheap top that I will probably wear only once? Will it make me happy and at the expense of whose happiness?

Just think. Pause. Buy smartly. Buy kindly.

I want to share with you some links to some resources that you can use to decide where to shop.

Good resources for information (watch dog NGOs):

Resources for consumers trying to shop ethically

A couple ethical clothing lines: (Safia Minney is just one example proving that an ethical company can be profitable. I actually interviewed for a job with her a few years back, but she was not as enamored of me as I was of her. lol)

This article highlights 30 options:

In later posts I will look at the environmental impact, animal cruelty, recycling clothing, other options for ethical shopping, Fairtade coffee, food,chocolate and flowers and I will always find new sources for buying ethically!

Shop happy!!

PS Lest there be any doubt, I have quite literally not bought anything new from any source that I did not research since I wrote that paper in 2011. Any clothes you see me in are second-hand, hand-crafted or bought from an ethically minded company.As I mentioned in my first post, my father maintains that it is hard to be me…sure because I think about what I’m buying, but it’s not sooooo hard. Try it–maybe it will help to make you a tiny bit happier!


8 thoughts on “Ethical Fashion: Whose job is it?

Add yours

  1. It is well nigh impossible to buy British-made menswear, even though we once had a thriving textile industry. My Ethical Wares shoes and New Balance trainers were made in England, but that’s as far as it goes. Oh, I have two t-shirts and two hoodies made in Canada that I bought in Canada, eight and nine years ago.

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