Sample – Sweatshop Culture & The Conscientious Shopper

Have you ever been walking around your favorite department store or scrolling through your favorite online boutique only to be hit with a sudden sense of curiosity? As you stroll down aisle after aisle of overstuffed racks or click through page after page of seemingly endless photographs, one may begin to question how there can be such an overabundance of affordable clothing. While recently searching for a cute wedding outfit I went to my go-to department store, Ross, because it’s cheap and there is an array of different styles to choose from. However, on this particular scavenger-hunt I found myself beginning to question the aisles over brimming with pieces priced at around $20 or less. It’s obvious that some of the pieces at Ross are not exactly expertly crafted, in fact many department store shoppers have a prior understanding that most of the clothing items are somewhat haphazardly made (i.e. unaligned seams, buttons hanging on by a thread, etc.), but I have never really considered why the workmanship was so shoddy. I understood that in order to sell clothing at a lower, affordable price companies had to cut back on some things like skilled workmanship or premium textile material. Yet, I never fully considered – or never really wanted to consider – what that meant for the workers who made the garments I praised for being so cheap.

I understood that in order to sell clothing at a lower, affordable price companies had to cut back on some things like skilled workmanship or premium textile material. Yet, I never fully considered – or never really wanted to consider – what that meant for the workers who made the garments I praised for being so cheap.

While considering these questions in the cheery department store atmosphere, I kept envisioning horrific sweatshops where pregnant women and young children were being forced to work 18 hour shifts at 75 cents-an-hour to sew phrases like “peace, love, happiness” on shirts that would be sold for five dollars. Although I imagine my perceptions of sweatshops is a bit dated, it turns out that dramatic image is not so far from the reality. Just a brief look into modern corporate and business practices in the fashion, textile, and sewing industries reveals some illuminating truths about where our cute, cheap clothes really come from and who benefits and suffers from their production.

Merriam-Webster defines a sweatshop as “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions;” and while it may be hard to reconcile your favorite floral romper with sweatshop labor, this is an economic relationship that is almost ingrained in American history. In a 1998 Smithsonian exhibition, Peter Liebhold and Harry Rubenstein focus on the history of American sweatshops dating back to the early 19th century. According to Liebhold and Rubenstein, the sweatshop has been an American staple since the “dawning of the Industrial Revolution”. Beginning with overworked, underpaid seamstresses, who stitched fabric into clothing for slaves, miners, and gentlemen; continuing on through majority-immigrant tenement sweatshops which operated as contract shops, and re-emerging in the present as sweatshops which “produce garments for the domestic market, primarily items that require short delivery times”. In other words, the modern fast-fashion market, where trends rise and fall in the span of months instead of seasons, has created an economy where production demands must be met with short notice and even less production time. To keep up with these rising demands, domestic and foreign manufacturers are cutting corners in attempts to cut costs across the board.

In a 2012 U.S. Department of Labor News Release, the DOL found extensive federal and state violations among garment contractors in the Los Angeles Fashion District. Each of the 10 garment contractors they inspected had violated federal and state labor laws. Many of the garment employees were paid by a piece-rate where they were “paid for each piece they sewed and cut – without regard to minimum wage or overtime pay requirements;” meaning that on average workers were paid less than $6.50 an hour. 185 workers were underpaid and owed back wages amounting to more than $326,000. According to the release, the garments produced “were destined for sale at more than 30 retailers nationwide” including popular companies like Burlington Coat Factory, Charlotte Russe, Dillard’s, Forever 21, HSN, Rainbow Apparel, Ross, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Urban Outfitters, and Wet Seal. In addition, even though the DOL’s Wage and Hour division “requested that the garment contractors voluntarily not ship the good until the violations were resolved,” only a portion of the back wages were paid before “the division lifted its objection to the shipment of the goods”. If you’re shocked by the idea of a governmental agency requesting instead of demanding that manufacturers adhere to actual Federal labor acts, and then giving the go-ahead when the reparations are only part-way dispersed, I’m sorry to say you shouldn’t be.

Taking a look at the Wage and Hour Division’s “Handy Reference Guide to the Fair Labor Standards Act” it becomes obvious how much – or how little – the DOL is willing to do for its workers. Originally established in 1938 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act, “established minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments”. However, the FLSA does not require things like “vacation, holiday, severance, or sick pay…meal or rest periods, holidays off, or vacations” or even a discharge notice. In other words, the government seems to be doing the bear minimum in setting labor standards, let alone enforcing those standards. Now, you might be wondering why the companies themselves don’t hold their manufacturers and producers accountable for these obvious violations, but many retailers are willing to throw their manufacturers under the bus to cover their own assets.

Just last year, the LA Times  published an article by Natalie Kitroeff and Victoria Kim that highlighted the different ways retailers like Forever 21 avoid liability for the factories they hire which underpay workers.  Not unlike the sweatshop nightmare scenario I imagined earlier, Kitroeff and Kim tell the real-life story of a 44-year-old factory worker who spends 11 hours a day pinning tags on almost 700 Forever 21 shirts for only $6 an hour. The sad truth is that many of these workers do make labor violation claims only for both manufacturers and retailers to deny them their deserved backpay. According to Kitroeff and Kim “Forever 21 says it’s a retailer, not a manufacturer, and thus is always one step removed from Los Angeles factories”. While it would be easy to blame and shame retailers like Forever 21 for their unsavory business practices; if we’re being honest with ourselves, we shoppers cannot say we deserve total immunity either. Although I admit I am intrigued and can be blinded by an affordable price tag on a nice dress or pair of pants, when you think about it logically some of the price tags on these items simply don’t add up. How can companies make profits off shirts that cost $3 when the minimum wage is $7.25 and above? Even cuts to material costs only make up a fraction of the production; the only other option to make up for cutting sales costs is to cut back on the cost of labor. Manufacturers are being paid in single-digit dollar amounts to make garments, and in turn workers are being paid in cents to the dollar to sew these pieces. In an effort to ensure we shoppers feel “treasured” and to keep us coming back for the best deal, sweatshop wages become, “the hidden cost of the bargains”.

So what do we do now?

So what do we do now? Our insatiable appetite for bargains has seemingly fostered an industry that relies on exploitation to make profit. It may seem practical to think that since our dollar got us into this mess, it can help to rectify the problem. We simply stop shopping at stores which use and promote sweatshop labor and practices. Right? According to Michael Hobbes of the Washington Post, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. In his 2012 article Hobbes addresses the “myth of the ethical shopper” and argues against the idea of “buying better” as the only valid form of protest. While mid-90s pressure against sweatshop production did lead to new codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility, in recent years these restrictions and standards operate more as guidelines to follow when the inspectors show up.  Hobbes maintains that “these structures aren’t designed to make factories take better care of their workers. They’re designed to make factories look like they are”. In addition, the global manufacturing landscape is starting to branch out in several directions which shoppers, and their almighty dollar, have no control over.  As Hobbes states, “In this fast-fashion era, Western brands can’t afford the luxury of working with the same suppliers and ensuring that they meet the company’s standards… most of them have outsourced their coordination to mega suppliers”. In turn, these mega suppliers contract their production out to different manufacturers who then contract their labor out to different factories. One biliion dollar Chinese mega supplier, Li & Fung, has 15,000 supplier factories in 40 countries, contracting and coordinating with all of them, but it does not own or operate any of them. Oftentimes these contracts are done without the prior knowledge of the companies and retailers who originally placed the orders. The companies that we consumers once possessed a certain amount of buying control over, have now lost track of and control of their own supply chains. This expanding and fracturing of production and manufacturing makes it harder to hold companies, retailers, and manufacturers accountable. But, just because it has become harder, does not mean that we, as shoppers, still cannot help to foster a better fashion community and industry or create change.

Although American buying power is not as autocratic as it once was, our buying decisions can still influence corporations and retailers. By choosing to spend our money more economically – making sure to vet and check who we purchase our clothes from before we buy them, we show companies that we are not just looking for the best deal. While the current manufacturing system does make it hard for shoppers to acutely pinpoint whether or not companies are using sweatshop labor, resources like fashionrevolution’s Fashion Transparency Index help shoppers to compare different brands’ social accountability and identify which companies are supporting a better fashion industry. Choosing to make a majority of your purchases second-hand or through cooperatives, fair-trade, and union-made organizations helps to guarantee that your clothes are not being bought at the expense of someone else. We could, as Hobbes suggests, create change “with our policies, not our purchases”. Instead of demanding the places we buy from uphold specific standards, we could make those standards mandatory, so that companies have no choice but to follow them. Oftentimes our fashion helps us define who we are as people, so the next time you find yourself perusing an aisle or scrolling over a page, consider what statement you wish to make. 

Although American buying power is not as autocratic as it once was, our buying decisions can still influence corporations and retailers. By choosing to spend our money more economically – making sure to vet and check who we purchase our clothes from before we buy them, we show companies that we are not just looking for the best deal.

Image Credits: CC Image courtesy of marissaorton on flickr

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