Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sustainable Style: Sweatshops

The cheaper a piece of clothing you buy in a clothing store is, the more likely it is that the garment was manufactured in a sweatshop. It comes down to simple math: in order to offer the (Western) consumer cheap prices for clothes, the production costs must be as low as possible. Low production costs mean cheap labour. Cheap labour means sometimes inhumane and dangerous working conditions, low wages, and 7-day work weeks.

Sweatshops might not be all bad: after all, they offer people in the developing countries employment. Sweatshops sometimes pay high wages compared to national averages, and they shield female and child workers from prostitution. Some argue that sweatshops are the key for developing nations to enter the world of free trade and international competition, and in the long run, they benefit the economies of developing countries and the lives of the people who work in sweatshops. (1)(2) The United States has a steady history of sweatshops of its own, and look how far we've come!

Garment workers at a Nike factory

If you've read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, you know that there is nothing to celebrate about the history of US sweatshops. Just because it happened here once doesn't mean that it should happen somewhere else today. Just because we assume that this is just how world economy works doesn't mean that it is the ideal. Sweatshops employ not only young women, but sometimes children. The workers rarely have the right to unionize. The notion of steady, on-the-road-to-a-better-future employment in sweatshop factories is an illusion: the factories exist only because the workforce is cheap. They have few incentives to improve the workers' conditions or to increase wages. There will be cheaper labour elsewhere, and production moves accordingly. (3)

Sweatshops are often located in countries where tax systems are tweaked to encourage foreign investment. "Tax holidays", duty free on raw materials and exports, as well as exemptions on income tax for foreign nationals attract Western retailers, but it is unclear for how long, and what the cost of tax exemptions is for the industry and the nation in the long run. (4) It is unclear whether sweatshop workers' standard of living improves with time at all, and whether sweatshops encourage post-industrial revolution-type wealth for the countries that inhabit them. (5)(5b) Because sweatshop nations don't compete with their products but with labour, and because sweatshops exist for multinational retailers and Western consumers, their raison d'etre does not support local ownership. To claim that sweatshops are worth it in the long run is to ignore the fact that it doesn't look like we, the Westerners, are going to stop wanting cheap goods any time soon. We need other people to work cheaply for us so that we can indulge in consumerism. That's the way it works.

As for sweatshops saving poor souls from prostitution, why would we settle for substituting the worst type of work with bad work? If we want to keep women and children off the streets, why not invest in safer work conditions for them? Why not pay decent wages? Defenders of sweatshops would argue that it is precisely the cheap labour that allows the workers to have jobs in the first place - if you pay the workers more, the consumer will have to pay more for the product, hence making the production process too expensive - or that's how the argument goes. If you dig a little deeper, it is not that companies can't afford to pay garment workers decent salaries. They just choose not to. Jeff Ballinger, a labour studies professor at Webster University argued in 2007 that Nike, for example, could afford to double the wages of its 160,000 sneaker-producing workers around the world without raising the consumer price of sneakers. (6) On top of that, at least some studies suggest that people might be willing to pay more for products if they know that they are manufactured in decent working conditions. (7)(7b)

9-year-old boy sewing clothes for Primark

So who uses sweatshops? Well, pretty much everyone. On the International Labor Rights Forum's 2010 Hall of Shame are companies like LL Bean, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gymboree, and Kohl's. (8) A 2007 article in the Guardian mentions H&M, Gap, Primark, and Marks & Spencer in relation to sweatshop practices. (9) Treehugger.com lists brands like Old Navy, Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret, Nike, Express, The Limited, Calvin Klein and Wal-mart as abusers of sweatshop labour. (10) Greenamerica.org's sweatshop score card gives retailers like Target a D+, and Sears and JC Penney a D- for their use of sweatshop suppliers. (Wal-mart gets an F.) (11)

Children sew clothes for Primark

If you think that sweatshops only exist in developing countries, think again. According to the Department of Labor, over 50% of U.S. garment factories are sweatshops.They are located everywhere: California, New York, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta. (12) (12b) This month the Spanish police raided 80 illegal sweatshops in the Catalonia region: CNN reported that Chinese workers sewed popular department store brands in horrible conditions. The brands had outsourced their production to a company who, in turn, outsourced its own production to a gang of criminals. (13)

If you think you are safe from sweatshops buying luxury brands, you are wrong. In 2007 the Daily Mirror exposed Chinese sweatshops in Tuscany, Italy: the labels involved included Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Gucci. (14) Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson wrote a similar story in 2008. Luxury handbags made by illegal Chinese workers in sweatshops in Italy were sold side by side with the legal Italian-made. The consumer has no way of telling if her handbag cost 20 or 250 euros to make. (15)

Many retailers have anti-sweatshop policies in place, and they sound great. H&M's Code of Conduct (16), for example, includes several clauses that should make any consumer happy: no child labour is accepted, workers must have the right to unionize, working conditions must be safe, no work week should be longer than 48 hours, and minimum wages must be met. But accidents happen. Last year, a fire in an H&M-supplying clothing factory in Bangladesh killed 21 garment workers and injured 50. H&M audits at the factory had found no serious evidence of safety violations, and yet, 21 people lost their lives. (17) Was it an accident? Without a doubt. But it was the second fire at the same factory within less than a year's time - garment factories in Bangladesh are notorious for their lack of appropriate fire safety. Last year in an unrelated incident dozens died and at least a hundred were injured when a fire blazed through a Dhaka garment factory which supplied Target and Abercrombie & Fitch, among others. (18) (18b) No matter how much retailers are doing to meet the demand for more ethical working conditions in their factories, they still need to do more.

Huge companies like H&M have the means to audit and sustain some kind of a presence in the factories they use - surely that is better than nothing. But there are also many large retailers who just don't seem to care. Last year, some reports claimed that Wal-mart actually tried to prevent the hike of Bangladeshi garment workers' minimum wage. (19) In the past, Target, JC Penney, Wal-mart, Kohl's and Sears have bought merchandise from a factory whose owner was eventually convicted of human trafficking, and where a US Department of Labor investigation reported that workers had been beaten, deprived of food, and forced to work without pay. (The factory in question was eventually closed down.) (20) Since sweatshops give any retailer a bad name, policies have been put into place, and the companies' websites are now full of information about charity work, audits and support for better working conditions. The price tags on garments are still showing incredibly cheap prices though, so one has to ask: is the change real, or is it all talk?

Garment workers in a U.S. sweatshop

More than three million people work in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Shagorika, an 18-year old garment worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, works 12 hours a day, six days a week. She produces 50-60 garments every hour. She is paid 2,500 daka ($34) a month, even when the minimum wage for a garment worker is 3,000 daka ($40). Even though her salary is higher than the average wage for a Bangladeshi worker (1,800 daka), she is not happy. Work is tough. She wishes "to get a good job, where I can sit and comfortably work. Then I would smile." (21) I'd be very interested to know which brand's clothing she sews.

What is the role of the individual consumer in all of this? If you stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh, Cambodia or Vietnam, will you contribute to people losing their jobs? Will the women and children end up working as prostitutes? I am not going to sit here and say that it isn't possible. We live in an ivory tower here in the Western world, and what we don't see, we don't care so much about. It is easy to hide behind the notion that at least we are giving these poor people a place to work and that we deserve a pat on the back for that. The reality is, though, that the garment industry is not charity. It is a business. Let's be honest here: we don't buy sweatshop-made clothes because we want to employ women and children in developing countries. We buy them because they give us cheap thrills and fill our wardrobes. I've been there just like everyone has. But if you keep buying clothes made in sweatshops, you establish demand for cheap clothes, cheap labour, and sweatshops. The money you spend on the clothes will benefit the retailer and the manufacturer. The person who sewed your garment gets pennies. As long as we feel comfortable buying sweatshop-made products, sweatshops will be there. They might move from country to country (wherever people are the most desperate for work), but they'll be around.

Vote with your money. Don't buy from brands associated with sweatshop practices, and don't let it end there. Tell them why you don't buy from them. Put pressure on retailers. Ask questions, and start at the grass root level if writing to higher-up places feels scary: talk to the shop assistants at the mall, write e-mails to store managers to increase awareness. Talk to your friends and family. Support brands whose code of conduct or social responsibility clauses you find reliable. Tell them that you'd like to see more transparency, and tell them that you'd be willing to pay more for clothes that are produced ethically. Don't take any random babble about good deeds at face value. Don't accept "we can't change the world overnight", "we are trying", or "there are things beyond our influence" for answers. Investigate and do research on every brand, every retailer. There is a lot of information out there. When in doubt, don't buy it.

Images: The Daily Mail, Globalresearch.ca, UN Multimedia.org, Businesstm.com


poet said...

Thank you for this well-researched, informative article!

I must admit that I do buy fast fashion that I suspect involves sweatshop labor - mostly H&M stuff, mainly because I'm a student living on a really narrow budget. But the items I buy are few, and I try to get most of my clothing from refashioning and second-hand. Still I guess I should be more conscious in the consumption that I do engage in.

From what you write, it seems that there are really few options for the everyday consumer (who is often ill-informed and doesn't have unlimited funds) to avoid unethically produced clothing. If even high-fashion brands that produce quality clothing have it sewn in sweat-shops, where shall we buy our clothes?

This is what struck me as the most shocking new bit of information - that even brands that appear ridiculously overpriced to me produce their stuff at sweatshops, often the same ones that low-priced fast fashion is made at... I'm looking at you, casual long-sleeved tee made of fake-threadbare jersey, retailing at Abercrombie & Fitch for $90! Sure, your seams are more secure and your lace trim is better finished than those of your H&M siblings, but did the worker get paid accordingly? I mean, how high can they make their profit margin while they still have a conscience?

melina bee said...

wow, what a wonderful post, you should submit this to IFB.com's links a la mode. I think you are exactly correct with your statement "Vote with your money. " In our society your dollar is your voice in many ways. do you think buying second hand helps? it seems like nearly every major retailer uses sweat shop labor. Supposedly american apparel is not, but I don't like their clothes all that much.

Carolyn said...

Well written!
I too feel very strongly about this subject, which is why I stopped buying new clothes years ago. I either make my own or go to the secondhand shop. The problem is not restricted to clothing either, so for all our household goods I seek out things that are manufactured in our own country. This is usually more expensive, but I firmly believe one will appreciate and take more care of fewer expensive items than lots of cheaper items, (and particularly if you have made them yourself!), so it is worth it in the long run and you are supporting the economy of your own country.
As to whether my actions in refusing to buy from underdeveloped countries is actually "helping" or not... probably not and it is difficult to know how to go about changing that...
But I do know that the more people that are as globally conscious about materialism and consumption as you are, the more likely that change will come.

Peta said...

Thank you so much for this post. I've long been an activist for Amnesty International and as such, have felt increasingly guilty about how I was spending my money. These days I buy almost all my clothing second hand. Shoes are harder but I'm slowly building up a list of ethical brands to buy from.

The issue for me is that while I'm happy that I'm not actively supporting companies using these practices - I feel I should do more. And while buying 2nd hand is great, both ethically and environmentally, I understand that for many reasons it's not for everyone (and obviously, everyone shopping 2nd hand would not be sustainable). This is why I'm trying to build up a list of companies that whose ethical standards I WANT to actively support, so that hopefully they can become more successful and others who are yet to think about this issue might start to see them as an alternative.

I've also been thinking about what I can do to encourage large retailers to lift their ethical game. What with my background with Amnesty, I've been thinking of writing letters to companies (especially those whose clothes I like), but obviously that kind of campaign is more effective when more people are involved.

Of course, the issue becomes even more complex when you consider how many products other than clothing are manufactured in such appalling conditions. It's definitely a difficult problem, so thank you so much for addressing it in such a thorough way!

Katarzyna said...

A very well-written article, Waves. You must have gone through tons of research here but I do think the subject is worth doing research.

There's really not much I would like to add here, it just staggers me that those practices are everywhere. One could have been aware that cheap goods from H&M and Primark are not really manufactured in good conditions but I cannot even imagine that higher end brands do it too.

But the main point here is that we, Western people (I'm from Poland, does it count as "West"?), like to think well about ourselves. We push out from our minds data on how we may be hurting people and economy (both of our countries and the manufacturing countries) and we only acknowledge that perhaps we may be helping them by providing them with jobs. I guess we see it as a win-win situation, whereas in fact it is a lose-lose moment: we get really bad quality money which need replacement soon enough and they get inhumane working conditions and low wages.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful, wonderful post, sweetie, oxox, CR

Anonymous said...

I agree with Melina. You should submit this to IFB links of the week. I did a similar post, with a bit less research in December. In the face of the economic reality, if unions or laws are created in Bangladesh to protect workers there, the market will go looking for cheaper, unprotected labor elsewhere. Or that has been the pattern to date. This is why my clothing is entirely thrifted.

Unknown said...

Thank you, thank you! Thank you for sharing the things that really make a person think about his or her movement through this consumer culture. Your blog is an inspiration, because you allow us to follow along with your deliberations and explorations -- it's not just fashion but culture.

My mother grew up in Finland and always had a completely practical approach to clothing, wanting things to be well made and to last forever. She loved dressing up, but didn't like fashions that were passe practically overnight.

I go through phases where I'm aware of these things, and phases where my frustration leads me to a state of numbness for a while because I don't know what else to do, and I find myself purchasing things that I know in my heart (and head!) were produced in an environment lacking in ethical or humane ... anything.

Thank you for your reminders, and for bringing me back around to really thinking about these matters.

Anonymous said...

A link for you:


IrishRedRose said...

LL Bean--THAT one really makes me extra mad. With the prices they charge and their all American rep for quality and reliability, it's especially shameful. Now, I imagine they might not be doing it COMPLETELY out of greed, but rather, a wish to survive whilst pitted against a slew of newer, cheaper labels. But still--really depressing. The Abercrombie vs H/M example in Poet's reply is a very good example of what can only be the purest greed at work.

I'd like to look into companies like Sundance, which I already suspect of supreme hypocrisy, lol. (I am cynical, yes.) Also am curious about Talbots, Anthropologie brands, etc.