As a journalist and founder of the ethical clothing shop Good Cloth, I constantly try to get people to care about labor exploitation and the treatment of workers in the garment industry. It isn’t a sexy topic and in a time of social media and information oversaturation, people are often bombarded with heartbreaking and, at first glance, helpless topics. Also, there is a sense of remoteness when it comes to worker exploitation in the garment industry. The common perception is that it’s happening to people far away with minimal, if any, contact with our lives. What can we really do and how does this affect our children, families and us? Nothing and it doesn’t is generally the conclusion, so we scroll down our newsfeed, avert our eyes and move on. This doesn’t mean we are bad people, but the influx of constant problems we can’t solve can make us overwhelmed and complacent. (Not the most productive duo.) At the same time consumers, through their pocketbooks, are the key to change in the garment industry. The result is a cliché, but very real, catch-22.
Nearly two years ago — on April 24, 2013 — the answers to those questions shifted, at least momentarily. The Rana Plaza textile factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring at least 2,000 workers. The factory manufactured apparel for Benetton, the Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Mango, Primark and Walmart, household brands that people in the U.S. and Europe wear regularly. The disaster heightened media and consumer awareness and put pressure on clothing companies to demonstrate that they were taking measures to rectify the worker conditions that led to the disaster. The backlash by consumers illustrated that the treatment of garment workers suddenly felt strikingly less remote. This pushed apparel companies to sign accords to protect workers and contribute to a compensation fund for victims. To date more than 190 apparel brands, retailers and importers from over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (though not all of the large retailers linked to Rana Plaza have signed the accord). The accord requires companies to have meticulous independent inspections and pay for fire safety upgrades (like basic fire escapes) and inspection reports are made public on the accord website.
This indeed is positive but the underlying issues that continue to create the perfect storm for labor exploitation are not yet resolved. Fast fashion brands continue to demand low cost labor and high margins, which means they frequently export their production overseas to poor nations in order to maximize their bottom line. This is compounded by the fact that poor nations tend to have inadequate and unenforced labor laws. The pressure on companies to meet high margins and the pressure on governments to be the landing pad for designers (and thereby positively increase job opportunity and benefit the economy) often results in complicity and corruption by governments and complicity by designers.
The four primary apparel exporters to the U.S. are China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The Center for American Progress reported in 2013 that garment workers in those nations earned 36 percent (China), 29 percent (Indonesia), 22 percent (Vietnam) and 14 percent (Bangladesh) of a living wage. Garment workers in Bangladesh at the time of the collapse earned $38 per month. In December 2013, the government raised the national minimum monthly wage to $68, making it still the lowest in the world. None of these wages are anywhere near a living wage. Meaning, these wages do not cover basic needs such as food, rent, healthcare, clothing, transportation, education and a small savings for unexpected bumps in the road.
Cambodia is the eighth largest apparel exporters to the United States and garment workers in the nation produce clothes for H&M, Nike, Gap and Adidas. Garment workers in Cambodia earn $80 per month and malnourished workers toil through 14-hour days, often fainting. When the Cambodian government refused to raise the minimum wage to $160 per month, garment workers and unions began sit-ins in front of the Labor Ministry and the Council of Ministers. The demonstrations became deadly when on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, military and municipal police shot AK-47s and handguns into a crowd of protesters, killing at least four people and injuring more than 29. Most of the victims were garment workers.
As individuals we don’t have control over a nation’s labor laws, enforcement of those laws or inhumane treatment of its citizens, but we do have the power to vote with our pocketbooks and vocalize our objections. In fact, the public outcry from consumers after the Rana building collapse resulted in pressure on companies to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. That said, the garment industry won’t likely completely reframe their approach until they feel a pinch to their pocketbooks.
Consumers’ purchasing ethically sourced and transparent goods is the most effective way to create a pinch and execute change. Ethically sourcing and transparency ensures that goods are created with the use of sustainable materials and production processes and that workers are safe, treated well, paid fair wages and work legal hours. It also means products are made without toxic materials like lead that not only adversely affects workers and the planet, but also consumers who unwittingly end up wearing lead-laden purses, belts and shoes. Product transparency is the checks and balances that illuminates whether designers are actually satisfying their ethical objectives. Independent designer Julia Ahrens, founder of the eco-friendly line Miakoda, said it best when she told me, “Transparency holds us accountable. It gives proof that companies are doing the good they say they are doing.”
By purchasing goods with ethical sourcing and product transparency, consumers are casting their vote with their pocketbooks. If consumers vote in large numbers, this will effect change and force fast fashion companies to get on board with ethical sourcing and transparency. For now fast fashion companies still lay in the shadows.
Stephanie Hepburn is an independent journalist whose work has been published in Americas Quarterly, USA Today U-Wire, and the journal Gender Issues. She is a weekly and monthly contributing writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. She has written two books on human rights, Women's Roles and Statuses the World Over and Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. In October 2014, she founded the online ethical clothing boutique Good Cloth, which specializes in pieces that are good for workers, the planet and the consumer.