Caring About Who Made Our Clothes Isn’t Just for Rich People

Did you know that sweatshops are a feminist issue?
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Sophie Caldecott
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Did you know that sweatshops are a feminist issue?

I was first introduced to the concept of ethical fashion on the playground as an 11-year-old, back in 1998. A politically precocious young friend of mine told me all about how Gap had become embroiled in the fierce battle of redwood deforestation in California, where the company had just bought 235,000 acres of forestland. Environmental activists were protesting all across America, she said, making headlines by demonstrating outside shops and covering a giant Gap billboard in New York City’s Union Square with a condemning banner.

Even more pressing, it turned out that various major U.S. brands (including Gap and Levi’s) had been taking advantage of the fact that Saipan was officially considered U.S. soil to sell their clothes with “Made in the USA” tags, reportedly avoiding more than $200 million in tariffs and pocketing enormous profits as a result. Chilling descriptions of workers living in rat-infested compounds surrounded by barbed wire fences circulated, along with reports that women were regularly forced to have abortions to keep their jobs.

Although at the time I was more interested in how much homework I had and whether my best friend would be coming over after school, I vividly remember this news inspiring the first pricklings of my conscience on the issue of how our clothing is made. It planted the seeds of a lifelong (if slow-burning) fascination with the ethics behind the products we buy.

In 2013 the world received yet another wake-up call that sweatshops are a life-threatening problem when Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza Factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers who had been forced to work despite the unsafe building. And, according to a BBC report, “Army Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria said... ‘Most are female garment workers.’”

Hearing gut-wrenching accounts like this, it doesn’t take long to figure out two things: First, there are some serious human rights abuses happening in the garment industry, and second, most affordable chain store brands are tangled up in them. Look a little closer, and it also becomes clear that this is a feminist issue: Women make up an estimated 85 to 90 percent of sweatshop workers.

What I’ve come to find is that, of course, none of us think sweatshops are a good thing, but most of us feel like actually changing our shopping habits is an impossible task. The most frequent comment I hear about ethical fashion is that it’s all very well for wealthy people to preach about it, but most people can’t afford to live that way.

I wish I could say that I made a commitment to only buy ethically sourced clothing at the age of 11 and have stuck to it ever since, but for most of my life, I’ve been rather a hypocrite in this area. I did my final project for my master’s in magazine journalism on sweatshops and transparency (or the lack thereof) in supply chains around the world. I went on to work at the Ethical Fashion Forum’s online magazine for a time after graduating. I insisted that my husband and I buy fair trade–certified gold wedding rings, and I founded an ethical lifestyle website promoting fairly traded and socially conscious brands.

And yet, until embarrassingly recently, I haven’t really changed my shopping habits. Not radically, anyway. I’ve been mostly all talk and no action on the issue. Money was tight, and it seemed like ethical fashion brands either didn’t sell clothes that I actually liked or were far too expensive for the likes of me. It’s so easy to forget to ask yourself where something comes from, to downplay your role in the system, when you’re there on the store floor flushed with the excitement of a great, inexpensive find. But I’m committed to changing my ways because I can’t in good conscience continue to support inhumane business practices for the sake of an affordable outfit.

Women’s Lives Are at Stake

The sad truth is, sweatshops are the norm in the fashion industry, not an exception; I could list the number of ethical mainstream brands I know of on one hand, and I’ve been researching this for a while. In journalist Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, she describes how sixty British fashion students simulated typical sweatshop conditions to see how many T-shirts they could make in seven and a half hours. They only managed to produce roughly 10 percent of the daily target set in a typical export factory in Bangladesh with the same number of machines. “The pressure on that living, breathing human being is intense. It is hard to overstate how brutal the assembly line is for the average garment worker,” Siegle says. Each worker has less than two minutes to complete a T-shirt and move on to the next one.

When factories close for any reason or because other factories can offer even lower prices to retailers, women are forced into the sex industry in huge numbers. According to Ms. Magazine, “There are no reliable statistics, but an estimated 90 percent of the island’s prostitutes are former Chinese garment workers who sell sexual favors for about $50 a night. Women recruited to work in Saipan as waitresses, or in other legitimate jobs, often end up being forced to become strippers or prostitutes, according to Timothy Riera, director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Honolulu office.”

So, What’s the Alternative?

While some studies have shown that doubling the salary of sweatshop workers would only increase the consumer cost of an item by 1.8 percent, the inescapable truth of the matter is that ethical clothes generally have a higher price point than their cheaper sweatshop-produced alternatives. You can rationalize that these ethically produced items are better made and will last longer, requiring less replacement, and therefore more beneficial financially. There are plenty of ways we can take better care of our clothes to make them last longer, too. But still, I know firsthand: It’s hard to always do the right thing when you’re faced with a choice of a T-shirt that costs $7 versus a T-shirt that costs $30.

There are plenty of socially conscious brands that are becoming quite popular these days, though. And when you read up about how they do things, that’s when you realize the true value of the clothes you’re buying, and a higher price point starts to make sense.

For instance, Naja, an underwear brand cofounded by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, seeks to “empower women instead of objectifying them” by primarily employing single mothers and female heads of families in its factory, implementing flexible work policies that make it easier for women to balance work and child care. On top of that, every child of a Naja garment worker receives school supplies and prepaid school meals. The company’s prices range from $38 to $125—not exactly crazy. Sseko sells shoes, handbags, and other accessories that generate income for women in Uganda to help fund their university educations, with shoes starting at $49.99 for a pair of sandals and going up to $139 for a pair of boots. Everlane is committed to total transparency in its supply chain and breaks down the cost of each garment for you so that you can understand what the logic behind the pricing is. Everlane has some lovely silk shirts for $45 to $98 and sweaters for $35 to $170 (the upper range being for the cashmere pieces). These are just a few examples of the many wonderful brands working to end cycles of poverty and abuse in the fashion industry.

Of course, if you can’t afford ethical fashion prices, there are other options. You can become a thrift store pro, or host clothing swap parties with your friends. Websites such as Vinted and Crossroads allow you to trade in your unwanted clothes for cash or credit for other clothes. Taking up Vivienne Westwood’s mantra of "Buy less, choose well" and making your own capsule wardrobe can also save you money in the long run.

Congress recently passed a bill banning the importation of goods made by child or forced labor. It’s an exciting development for sure but one that will be hard to enforce. The responsibility to ask the question “Where—and how—was this made?” is still largely up to the consumer. The first step toward guilt-free fashion comes from believing that this issue really matters, that we have the power to do something about it, and choosing to live as if we do.

So maybe you don’t go cold turkey on your franchise store shopping, but there are ways to make our shopping habits better while still being affordable for any lifestyle. Maybe for every three things you buy at Gap or H&M, you buy one from a socially conscious brand. Not only are the products nicer, but you’ll also feel really good about the positive choice you’re making.

As consumers, we have to ask ourselves: Would I still consume this if I knew someone was needlessly harmed in the process of its production? Would food be as appetizing to me if I knew it came from a place with low standards? So too, I hope products and services that are unethically sourced continue to be less appetizing to the public as awareness grows.

Because if we believe in feminism, or fairness at its most basic, then changing the way the fashion industry works isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. No matter our income, we all have a role to play in what we choose to consume.

Photo Credit: Xavier Navarro Photography