Upholding the Dignity of Garment Workers
“The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.”
The quote above is an excerpt from Letters to Artists by St. John Paul II. It is a simple quote yet speaks volumes to who we are as people and creators. His words bring to light the innate dignity we all hold as children made in the image and likeness of God, as stated in Genesis 1:27: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This truth connects to many aspects of our lives, and the fashion industry is not exempt. We believe that the human craftsman mirrors the image of God; therefore, protecting the dignity of the garment workers who make our clothes should be at the heart of the conversation revolving around ethical fashion.
There are countless ways to better support garment workers, and the first thing we can do is acknowledge and respect the person behind our clothing. Aside from their innate dignity as human beings, their work involves real craftsmanship and attention to detail, a fact that is often downplayed or overlooked. Garment workers make such beautiful pieces despite many obstacles they can face in their daily lives, including abuse and inhumane working conditions. It can be easy to look down on the garment workers and their products when buying clothing (particularly from fast fashion brands), whether that be a comment on how cheap the stitching is, the quality of the fabric, or even the longevity of the product. It can be hard to remember a person is creating the clothing we wear, but it is untrue and unhelpful to blame the quality of fast fashion clothing on the men and women who do impressive work, especially given their circumstances. As the quote from JPII’s Letter to Artists reveals, even the craft of the workman reflects that of God’s creation as well.
So what then contributes to the low-quality clothing that fast fashion companies produce, despite having talented employees?
One thing to take into consideration when diving deeper into this topic is the amount of time garment workers have to produce a product. Fast fashion has its name for a reason. To keep up with trends and market demand, garment workers must always keep moving to meet production deadlines. Zara, for instance, puts out 24 collections a year. Across the world, workers can labor up to 10-12, or even 16-18, hours per day to keep up with this. With such tight schedules, it is easy to see why the quality suffers at times.
You may have noticed that ethical clothing is more expensive than fast fashion, but sustainable brands have a hefty price tag for good reasons. Ethical brands use higher quality material, which allows clothes to have a longer life. Secondly, higher prices connect to paying garment workers a fair, living wage. Most garment workers do not earn a living wage. Unfair wages are one of the most prevalent injustices plaguing garment workers today. On average, Ethiopian garment workers are now the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Another startling fact from the Clean Clothes Campaign states that in countries like Bangladesh and India, workers are paid on average 2-5 times less than what they need to live with dignity.
Another aspect to this is the materials factories use to make our clothes. Sustain Your Style reported that 72% of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers. These include nylon, acrylic, and polyester. Additionally, the World Bank has found 72 toxic chemicals and solvents through textile dyeing. These toxins that transfer from our clothing to our bodies can put one at risk of various illnesses, from cancer to skin issues.
How can we better uphold the dignity of garment workers? First in our mindset, second in our actions.
When it comes to our mindset, we must do our best to recognize the person behind the purchase. How can you love your neighbor through what you buy? Being aware and appreciating the human person that made our clothes is the first step to acknowledge their dignity. If we have them in our minds as we are shopping, we will naturally be more intentional about our purchases. If you want to go deeper on how you can make a change toward having a more ethical lifestyle, read: “Healing a Fast-Fashion Mindset.”
In action, we must take the initiative to respond to make effective change. Purchasing clothing from ethically made, sustainable brands is one of the top ways to respect our sisters and brothers who make our clothes. A great way to start is to research brands to see how they treat their employees through fair wages and a good work environment. Another way is to simply support organizations that strive to fight for the rights of workers. This could be through an Instagram follow or a monthly donation. And don’t forget prayer! Praying for garment workers is the easiest and most powerful thing we can do to make a difference in our own minds, hearts, and the world.
As garment workers reflect the Creator, let us always strive to be there as a voice of hope and pillar of change for them.