The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.
The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.
Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.
“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.
With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.
Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.
“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True Cost Lucy Siegle said in an interview.
But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?
“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.
The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.
Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”
Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.
*This story first appeared on Observer
As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion – the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara – is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide legpants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself. I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-runfactories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be welldressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don’t want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don’t want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before – and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one. There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion — and they are not weird or ugly or any less “fashiony” than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Everlane, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing. Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles – and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can’t buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin. [Also, major revisions in terms of retailers’ and suppliers’ Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
* This story first appeared on The Fashion Law