We need transparency in the apparel industry. Though many of us try to support only businesses with practices that mirror our morals, it’s difficult to even find that information. Supply chains, distributors, and factory owners all obscure the truth. Even the small tags sewn to the necks of our shirts mislead consumers. Every garment will announce with a whisper where it was made, “Made in China” “Made in Indonesia” or “Made in France.” These declarations, while not outright lies, mislead well-meaning consumers looking for expertly and ethically made clothing. The tags only tell part of the history and birth of each item. While something may have been made in a Western country, there is no guarantee that it is also sweatshop-free. Either by sly loopholes or skirting the system entirely, many of our clothes subvert the truth they profess, themselves.

Misleading Labels

Italy has been put in a strange position as Chinese companies set up underground garment factories within her borders, technically able to bear the sought-after tag: Made in Italy. To some, this means high-end; to others, it means that the workers must have at least some protection. But that is not the case. As clothing companies see a new way to use their exploited workers for more profit, they drive underpaid and under-regulated businesses into Italy (more on this here). This is not the fault of the workers, but the companies who push these illegal practices. They undercut traditional Italian textiles and cash in on their high acclaim in the fashion world.

Here in the U.S. it is possibly worse. While we abolished slavery with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1789, a loophole exists that still lets companies find cheap labor. As it states,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the Unites States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In the same sentence, those that wrote this amendment dissolved slavery and created an entire industry reliant on the imprisonment of American citizens. Of the millions of Americans in jail, most are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses like drug possession. While in the fictional Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” the characters make lingerie for women on the outside, companies like Victoria’s Secret have turned to prison labor to procure both the enviable “Made in U.S.A.” tag, but cheap labor as well. Many of these inmates have no choice in the matter, and they are watched by armed guards as they clock in the equivalent of a full-time job, or more, for as little as 2 cents per hour (more on this here)

Seek Deeper Truths

There is a lesson to be learned through all this: ask about the labor practices in each country, starting with your own. As of 2014, the global fashion industry employed almost 25 million people, and there are probably many more today. Therefore, to be a fair fashion activist is to be a labor activist. Ask what the minimum wages are even in countries that might not have well publicised human rights violations like China. You may be surprised to find of pseudo-sweatshops in England or the European Union through rule breaking and loopholes.

Demand that your politicians safeguard industry regulations that keep workers safe from known carcinogens or dangerous conditions, and make sure those laws are enforced. To many, regulation stifles business, but it saves lives. You can be thankful for that the next time you breathe air not tainted by formaldehyde. Then, pressure companies to adopt self-regulation when moving to the developing world. In an unequal power balance between impoverished and corrupt governments and giants of industry, one cannot expect the countries to demand better from the companies. They will move to another location before reforming. As western consumers, we can use our privilege to pressure brands to change or risk losing our business altogether.

Transparency in the fashion industry is just in its infancy. Sly companies are willing to break rules and exploit anyone to turn a profit, so it’s up to us to use our votes and brandish our wallets when confronting them. The industry will not change immediately, but with an educated electorate and consumer base, regulation and reform are possible. It takes vigilance and research, but the first step is acknowledging that there is a problem, and once you know that, the question is whether to do something about it or choose entropy.

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xo

Mary Imgrund

Mary Imgrund is a graduate student at American University pursing an MA in Political Communication, and she writes about sustainable lifestyle on her own blog, Fennec Fawn, and for Eco Warrior Princess. She splits her time between Washington DC and Pennsylvania, where she runs a market for sustainable and handmade goods. She’s a skincare hoarder, Twitter lurker, and celebrated worrier looking to make a difference in American politics and the world.

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