ethics in fashion; hope for what's to come
My generation has something to say about human trafficking. Ask just about any one of us — we will speak from our hearts about how awful it is and show you the red “X” on our fists to prove it. When we hear “human trafficking,” that usually comes with a link in our minds to sexual exploitation, and that is indeed a part of it.
The International Labor Organization figures that out of the millions of people involved in forced labor today, 4.5 million of those are victims of forced sexual exploitation, and a whopping 14.2 million are victims of forced labor exploitation in things like agriculture and manufacturing. We’re talking sugar, tea, coffee, flowers, produce, electronic devices, Christmas decorations, toys, clothing, etc.– basically just about anything you can imagine has the potential of having a slavery footprint. I don’t mean to say that the attention paid to combating sex trafficking is misplaced, but isn’t it interesting that we don’t really talk much about this side of the issue? I can only speak for myself, but there was definitely a hint of avoidance of responsibility involved.
I had heard of sweatshops when stores like Gap and Nike went under fire for their poor manufacturing ethics in the 90s, but as far as I knew they had cleaned up their acts. I’ve spent my life mastering the “sales walk”—a fluid swing of the legs back to the cozy corner full of markdowns in places like H&M, Forever21 and Target. Pinterest, Instagram and fashion magazines galore gave me inspiration of where to find all the best deals. The availability of such affordable prices ingrained in my psyche the idea that if something cost more than $30, I was being swindled and could find it cheaper elsewhere.
Then I learned to sew. Anyone who has dipped as much as a toe into the fanciful art of needle and thread knows what a painstaking experience it can be. I began to realize that constructing the sort of garments I could buy at most major apparel chains took a lot of know-how, patience and expertise. When I started selling my pieces, I found it fundamentally offensive that people weren’t willing to pay more than $20 for a handmade dress after I had spent hours upon hours making it. Sewing is labor intensive, not technology intensive. The most modern factories around the world still have a veritable army of workers sitting at sewing machines producing their garments. Our clothing is still made by hand.
Did you know that it wasn’t until the latter half of the twentieth century that the prices (and quality) of our clothing began plummeting? Before that, people were well accustomed to laying down serious cash for their garments. After World War I, you could buy a simple dress from a department store for $8, or $200 in today’s money (Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline). A 1955 edition of Seventeen magazine advertised dresses for only $11, or $90 today. I went to Forever21’s website and couldn’t choose just one to share with you because there are three pages of dresses for less than $15.
Prices of clothing are so low these days for a number of reasons. Decades of advertising have changed the cultural perspective on fashion as a whole, subtly directing us to buy mass amounts of cheaply made garments, and the globalization of the industry has been the enabler of our new price appetite. A pair of jeans made in the US today, in accordance with the cost of production, retails for around $300, whereas if they were made in China, the price would drop to $40 (Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline). Eunice Lee, a New York-based designer, called out the unfortunate truth, “YOU, the consumer have chosen. You have chosen to buy cheaper, and companies have listened! They moved their production offshore.”
Our taste for discounted prices puts pressure on companies to continually cut costs, and the easiest way to do that is to take it out of production. In vulnerable communities, this usually does not have an effect on whether workers will show up and get the job done—little money is better than none at all (and that is textbook exploitation).
There are roughly 40 million garment workers around the world today, and nearly every one of them endure unfair labor practices: hazardous working conditions, long hours with few or no days off, ignored overtime, zero workers’ rights, and well below a living wage. In many cases, a month’s salary isn’t sufficient to cover the cost of food for one household, which is when children drop out of school to join their parents in the factory to earn extra income– perpetuating the cycle of poverty. If workers protest for better treatment, oftentimes companies using those factories will drop them and find another factory willing to meet their price point, devastating the situation altogether. What kind of life is that? One study even showed that Cambodian women preferred working in prostitution than in the garment industry, painting a grim picture of the reality many of these women are facing.
Fashion is wonderful because self-expression and art hold enormous value in the human spirit and society. Still, the fashion industry as we know it is broken. We are profiting off of the world's poor, and that is not okay.
I don’t have a perfect solution, but I will join the choir of countless other voices with this mantra: buy less, spend more, make your purchases last.
Buy Less: Fast fashion is what makes stores like Zara, H&M and Forever21 do so well – they are high volume companies that manufacture ridiculous amounts of cheap garments and sell them for a very small cost. They get shipments of new items weekly, if not daily, to keep us always wanting more. It’s these sort of companies, with their massive orders, that perpetuate the demand for unethical labor. While many brands are now advertising their newly improved ethical practices, it's important to remember that fast fashion and fair trade have a really hard time coexisting-- because the bottom line in that framework is money, not people. It’s not unheard of for large volume companies like these to use and abuse factories way below their professed standards to fill a large order and then promptly drop them, or to announce factory audits before they happen, giving workers a script of what to say to the auditors. Lets not forget that the disaster at Rana Plaza, where garments for many Western apparel companies were produced, happened AFTER workers noticed cracks in the foundation and were forced back inside by management in order to meet the daily quota. Don’t let dopamine (or propaganda) tell you to keep buying – life can be way more fun than going shopping every weekend! Mix and match what you already have, go outside and see what the flowers are wearing, or spend the day noticing how people's countenances do far more for their appearance than their outfit ever could.
Spend more: If you want to make a positive dent in the global economy and activate the incredible potential of lifting entire communities out of poverty, don’t just buy second-hand. Recycling is GOOD (only about 10% of the clothing donated to thrift stores actually gets sold), but it’s not the only answer. And don’t just make clothes for yourself. We must actively support fair trade initiatives around the world that are partnering with factories and artisans to see social and economic empowerment come to communities. Whether we like it or not, the garment industry is the livelihood of many nations! 4.2 million Bangladeshis are employed in ready-made garment factories, with the US being the largest importer of their goods. If we withdrew all business, individuals would be hurt. Save your pennies and purchase goods from companies you trust to take care of their workers, from the cotton fields to the looms to the sewing machines. There are many brands that partner with groups of artisans around the world in production-- honoring traditional skills, celebrating unique cultural beauty and paying fair wages every step of the way. These items will be more expensive, but your money spent will actively change the world, and your garment won’t fall apart after a wash or two. It may even be made from organic fibers and spare your skin the sneaky toxins that pesticides and dyes used on cheaper garments carry. And for the families who live by cotton farms and have their air and water sources continuously dusted with toxic chemicals, how awesome would it be if buying organic became our norm?
Make it last: Before you buy a garment, ask yourself, "Will I wear this at least thirty times?" If not, it's possible you're only shopping with your eyes and not your heart. When we keep our clothes around and determine to get the most out of them, we celebrate the effort and craftsmanship of whoever designed and made them. You’re refusing greed by acknowledging that you have enough.
If you’ve caught the vision, pass it on by proudly wearing ethical fashion. Get to know the stories behind your clothing, and tell those stories with a determination to be kind and give dignity to both those who made your garments and those who don’t yet know the dark side of the fashion industry. May clothing not act as a separation between people any longer, but a celebration of the beauty that each of us possess! As a practical step and a supplement to the research you can do to find out what fair trade clothing opportunities there are in your area, here are a few companies doing really cool things in this arena worth checking out:
Raven + Lily, Arrowroot Clothing, Thoughtcollective, Everlane, People Tree, Imagine Goods, Root Collective, Threads for Thought, Nisolo, Teysha, Noonday, Ssecko Designs
Search #ethicalfashion on Instagram and see what else is waiting to be discovered.
Happy storytelling, my friends.
--Molly Hardwick, Creative Director and CEO of The Simple Kind