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Who Made My Clothes?

Part 1: Taking a closer look at the hands that clothe us

Fast Fashion: inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.

On April 24th, 2013, in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, 1,134 garment workers died in a factory that collapsed. The factory owners knew that the building was not safe, yet they forced the workers to keep producing in order to meet the target demands. All the exit doors were locked and when the unsafe building finally collapsed, many were trapped inside for almost a month.

There are about 40 million garment workers in the world and about 4 million of them are in Bangladesh alone. They work in around 5,000 different factories like the one in Rana Plaza that produces the clothing that fills the stores of major Western brands such as H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Walmart, and many others.

The garment workers, 85% of whom are female, make the equivalent of about $3.00 a day as their minimum wage.

In a report from 2018, Global Labor Justice reports that these factories not only pay these women shockingly low wages, but they also are places where these women are sexually harassed, denied breaks to fulfill religious practices, or are even forced to work through lunch breaks if target demands are high. The amount they are paid is not even enough money to buy their own lunch from the canteens by or in the factories. Forced overtime is a common occurrence, with women working for over 14 hours a day.

The fashion industry is a $3 trillion dollar industry, so why are these conditions so bad?

Mass market: the market for goods produced in large quantities to be bought by the widest range of customers.

Since the 1950s, the average woman’s closet has gone from 9 outfits to 30. Clothing has become something that is produced and bought in large quantities. By creating larger quantities of poor quality clothing, people are now able to buy more clothes at a lower price. But the cost of goods can only be squeezed so much. When the corners are cut, it means the living conditions, safety, and basic human rights are the first to go.

The wages of workers are the place in the supply chain that are shaved down the most to provide the now commonplace prices of $15 per t-shirt or sometimes fewer. Companies get richer, and consumers feel like they’re rich too because they are able to afford an unprecedented amount of goods. But it has slowly turned fashion into a disposable good, with money being wasted on pieces that either barely get worn or wear out after a year or two of use.

Slow Fashion: an approach to fashion which considers the processes and resources required to make clothing, particularly focusing on sustainability. It involves buying better-quality garments that will last for longer and values fair treatment of people, animals and the planet.

But what was the supply chain like before this? Most clothing was made domestically, and labor laws were put in place over time. Clothing took more time to make and cost more upfront, but the garments lasted longer (i.e. the cost per wear (CPW) was less). They became heirlooms or could be sold on consignment-- this is why thrift shops even exist today. The quality of the raw goods and the care taken to assemble it created something that could stand the test of time. Now the average life cycle of a synthetic dress is approximately a year, maybe two. What’s going to be left from our fashion by the time our grandchildren are around?

Fast fashion isn’t going to help us leave a positive mark on history and help create good jobs that sustain the people who work them. Slow, or sustainable fashion, is where the best interest of the workers and the best interest of the customers come together and this is why we want to start a conversation about it. We all need to start asking the question, who made my clothes?

Now, throughout history, fashion has been notorious for having to improve the system - when child labor was a common practice, the fashion industry had to re-structure when customers made it clear that they wanted clothing made ethically. It may seem daunting to change the system, but it has been done before, and it can be done again.

Next week, we’ll be discussing the environmental impacts of fast fashion and the intersection between ethics and sustainability. Do you have a friend who you'd like to talk about this with? Share it with them! We're excited to be starting this conversation.

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