The story of how your shirt reached your back, including the hands that made it, may be more complicated and fraught than you ever imagined. But while consumer expectations for cheap, trendy clothes are at least partly to blame for the poor working conditions experienced by female garment workers around the world, the goods news is that women are also pioneering a sustainable, ethical alternative.
Take a moment to look at the label on your shirt. You may have not have looked at it before, other than for size, but there’s actually some important information on there like materials and origin. Your shirt probably wasn’t made in the U.S., and if it was, the materials likely weren’t. The United States exported $5.8 billion worth of apparel in February 2013–2014 compared to the $80 billion in clothing it imported from other nations, according to data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. Even a “Made in the U.S.A.” label can be deceptive: According to the Federal Trade Commission, a garment can still be considered U.S.–made if certain materials are imported. Many brands simply don’t comply with the FTC’s definition at all.
Where We Are Now, and How We Got Here
This is far from the United States’ fashion industry origins: The concept of mass-produced clothing was, in fact, pioneered here. The early 1900s saw an explosion of garment factories, mostly in New York City. One of the popular items in production was the shirtwaist—think Gibson Girl—which, by 1909, was produced by 30,000 women and girls. Author Gus Tyler wrote in “Look for the Union Label: History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union” that the women and girls were typically immigrants paid a learner’s wage, no matter how skilled they were, earning roughly $3 to $4 per week. The garment workers made a product for an agreed-upon pay, but bosses and subcontractors chipped at original promised wages through deductions for electricity, broken needles, and machine belts, and the women and girls were taxed for use of a locker and chair. They also faced an onslaught of sexual harassment from bosses, contractors, and subcontractors. Workers were subject to excessively long hours and dangerous, unsanitary working conditions.
On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City. The inferno killed 146 immigrant workers, mostly women and girls, some as young as 14. The fire escape stairs bent under the workers’ weight and soon crashed to the ground, nearly 100 feet below. Workers who waited by windows for firefighters quickly discovered that rescue ladders and water didn’t go high enough to reach them. Many of the garment workers jumped to their deaths to avoid burning.
Tragically, the Triangle Waist Company fire foreshadowed the lack of regard for workers’ safety that would eventually be offshored along with production. More than a century later, on November 24, 2012, a fire broke out on the ground floor of the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 112 garment workers, mostly women. Even as workers could see smoke quickly fill the building, managers told them there was no fire and prevented the workers from escaping, insisting that they get back to work. The gates were locked and exits blocked by cartons. Workers’ only potential escape was to jump from the upper floors of the nine-story building. Many, like the women and girls in the Triangle Waist Company fire, jumped to their deaths so that their bodies wouldn’t be burned and their families could identify them.
Exactly four months later, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 people (mostly women and girls) and injuring thousands. The day before the collapse workers expressed concern about a visible crack in the building. The owner of the building called in an engineer, who stated that the structure was unsafe. Despite this, managers told garment workers the building was fine and ordered them to return to work the following morning. When workers took pause before entering the building, the managers threatened to withhold their salaries.
Reba Sikder, an 18-year-old survivor of the collapse, earned $90 per month, including overtime, for working seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., sometimes through the night. Not receiving her salary for work completed was not an option for her family. So she and coworkers entered the building at the general manager’s insistence that they meet a buyer’s deadline.
… Our general manager announced that everybody should go back to their machine and start work because there is a rush for shipment—the buyer is putting pressure. He says that we have to hit our production target, then we can go home.
No more than 20 minutes passed before the electricity went out and the generator started up. Moments later Sikder heard a loud boom and the building began to collapse around her. As she and her coworkers made a run for the stairs, a machine trapped her and she lost consciousness. She awoke to blood dripping onto her face from the head of her colleague, Aminul. A beam and column had landed on him, killing him in minutes. Eventually Sikder freed herself from the machine and found a pocket of space created by the same fallen beam and column that killed her coworker. She spent days witnessing people die before she was rescued.
… I cannot say how many coworkers I left in that building, how many of them I lost. It was more like brothers and sisters, because we worked together. I can remember one whole line of sewing workers, they were just trapped—I saw them falling. I lost many, many of them.
Who’s Responsible for Today’s Manufacturing Tragedies?
Though the events happened far away, these tragedies are not remote. The women and girls who were killed or wounded, who lost their friends and colleagues, made goods for U.S. clothing stores. The Rana Plaza factory had ties to numerous U.S. companies such as Walmart, the Children’s Place, and JC Penney. Tazreen’s largest customer was Walmart, though it had ties with numerous other U.S. companies such as Disney, Dickies, and Sears.
History, it seems, repeats itself and women often pay the price. In fact, 80 percent of the 60 million-plus garment factory workers worldwide are female, according to the UN-backed program Better Work. The garment factory conditions of 1911, cited in history lessons as an example of the perils of industrialization before government regulation and unionization, are no different than those of today. Garment workers are paid below a living wage (for example, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 32 cents per hour), which means workers don’t earn enough to pay for food, rent, healthcare, education, clothing, and transportation. They face unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, sexual harassment, no sick leave or maternity benefits, pregnancy discrimination, no breaks, and reprisals if they refuse to comply with employer demands or unionize.
The distinction between the early 1900s and today is that, since the ‘70s, U.S. clothing companies have outsourced production and materials to countries with low-cost entry into industrialization. This allows them to expand their cost margins and increase production above and beyond what they could do at home. Outsourcing gutted our local textile market while, conveniently, making sufficient oversight nearly impossible since suppliers and producers were far away.
In the Bangladesh disasters, many clothing companies linked to the factories tried to deny liability. Some argued that they had no idea the factory was making or storing their clothing and that it was done without their authorization. The fashion industry’s convoluted supply chain of outsourcing and subcontracting makes monitoring incredibly challenging, which serves as a perfect defense for clothing companies. In 2015, Human Rights Watch identified a direct supplier for H&M that subcontracted work to a factory in Cambodia that employed children younger than 15 years old and used temporary employment schemes to avoid paying proper wages. The clothing company’s response was to state that non-compliance to the rules of short-term contracts by suppliers would be factored into internal audits. This vague rejoinder indicates that H&M may not look hard for non-compliance, nor do anything about it if it’s discovered. Certainly, the company won’t be taking on the onus for subcontractor violations.
Five-dollar tee-shirts present obvious red flags, which makes fast fashion brands an easy target for media stories on labor and supply chain violations. But the problem is pervasive throughout the industry, not exempting luxury brands and those whose entire mission is social good. In 2011, sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia publicized its discovery of human trafficking, specifically debt bondage, in its internal supply chain audit. Unlike most companies (like H&M in the previously mentioned example), Patagonia was transparent about the revelations as well as its measures to improve conditions for workers throughout its supply chain. The company audited its suppliers in Taiwan and discovered that it takes migrant workers up to two years to repay a labor broker—and that most contracts only last three years before the entire process and fees start again. This creates an endless cycle of debt that the worker can’t escape. Patagonia, with the help of worker advocacy non-governmental organization Verité, developed a comprehensive migrant standard for its factories that covers all aspects of employment, from pre-hiring to repatriation.
The important takeaway is, in part, that companies have a choice in the way they handle labor violation discoveries, but also that convoluted supply chains create transparency challenges for even companies with the best intentions. These long, complex chains create ample opportunity for recruiters to enter the picture and charge workers astronomical fees, placing garment workers in debt bondage.
When the Exploitation Starts at Home
Labor exploitation is not just a regional issue. Garment workers are also paid below living wages in Eastern Europe and the United States. Southern California factories that made clothes for Ross Dress for Less, Forever 21, and TJ Maxx were discovered in 2016 to pay garment workers as little as $4 per hour. Ruben Rosalez, Regional Administrator with the Department of Labor, told the LA Times that retailers set the rates they pay manufacturers, which they have not increased in years, yet manage to avoid liability by having multiple layers in their supply chain that put them at several steps’ remove from exploitative practices. Retailers set the nominal cost, which influences how much suppliers can pay their workers, but face no culpability for the outcome on workers at the end of a long supply chain.
This often sparks impassioned dialogue on who exactly is responsible, the clothing company or the hosting country. Certainly a country’s government is responsible for lack of compliance and enforcement of its own laws, but in the calculus, we also need to consider that governments of developing nations have significant incentive to ignore labor violations in order to appease large clothing brands. Not only might they be lacking resources or infrastructure for providing oversight of labor conditions; they also want their nations to continue to serve as landing pads for large clothing brands and retailers. Enforcement and minimum wage increases can trigger brands to move to another nation that has even less labor law enforcement, particularly one that has not yet captured the media’s attention.
A United States company should not be able to intentionally select suppliers and factories that lack regulation, turn a blind eye, and then opportunely point the finger at the host nation regarding labor violations that occurred in the company’s supply chain. That’s why house of Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 (H.R.3226/S.1968) to ensure that corporations are accountable for their entire supply chains.*
There Is an Alternative—And Women Are Leading It
Women are not just victims of exploitative manufacturing practices. They are also pioneering the sustainable fashion movement—an entirely different approach to fashion, one that includes smaller supply chains, ethical sourcing and transparency along the entire product journey, both in regard to workers and the planet. These women understand the importance of changing the industry in a holistic fashion that goes far beyond fair wages. Instead of exploiting women and girls’ marginalization to obtain cheap labor, these designers actively seek to employ and give a sustainable income to vulnerable women. They employ women who are members of minority ethnic groups, human trafficking victims, or HIV-positive women ostracized by society and their families. They provide fair trade wages and access to safe jobs, education, and healthcare. Some designers are able to pay for childcare on premises as well as psychological and legal support, if needed.
Sustainable fashion designers and retailers understand that there is a critical intersection between companies who cut corners regarding the environment and human rights. Taking shortcuts means just that, in all areas. That means that the fake leather bag you purchased may have toxins. These materials are often made from oil-based polymers, which are detrimental to the environment and to people. This is compounded by dyes used on fake leather that sometimes includes lead. In fact, the Center for Environmental Health tests accessories for toxins and has found that roughly one out of every five fake leather items they test contains lead. Lack of regulation in the fashion industry has and will continue to result in human trafficking and continual environmental damage, such as wastewater—dyes and chemicals—that flows from dye houses into rivers and streams, besmirching nearby land and drinking water. In order to approach sustainable fashion comprehensively, women-owned companies like Raven+Lily incorporate recycled materials whenever they can. They even have a jewelry line that uses recycled bullet casings. Materials once intended for harm are now given new life by HIV-positive women artisans in Ethiopia. The company offers more than fair wages, as well as HIV care and educational opportunity for artisans’ families. Each woman has a safe job, sustainable income, healthcare, and education, which provide long-lasting opportunity for them and their families. Kirsten Dickerson, founder and CEO, combines her interests in social justice and fashion, and takes measures to give customers assurances that they are, in fact, purchasing a responsibly made product through certification by the Fair Trade Federation and B Lab.
Innovative startups are coming up with sustainable materials and alternative methods to address fashion industry pitfalls. For example, the companies DyeCoo, ColorZen, and AirDye have come up with waterless dye technology in order to reduce dye house waste. The Brooklyn startup Modern Meadow is developing lab-grown leather, an animal-friendly, biodegradable alternative to inorganic (non-biodegradable) fake leather and traditional leather.
Designers are using new technology and recycled materials to create products that are friendly to both people and the environment. For example, Bernadette Bodenmueller, founder of ONO Creations, creates satchels, messenger bags, fanny packs, yoga bags, and other everyday accessories made from vegan cork leather—a unique combination of cork and lyocell, a fiber made from eucalyptus tree wood pulp. The material is also durable, reusable, and biodegradable. Bodenmueller also relies on a sustainable workforce made up of individual tailors and small businesses that follow fair working standards aligned with the International Labour Organization and FairWear Foundation.
Similarly, Threads 4 Thought, founded by Leigh and Eric Fleet, often use Lenzing Modal in their clothing—a soft material made from beech trees that is a CO2 neutral fiber. Ninety-five percent of the materials that go into the yarn is recovered and reused. The company also represents an ethical way of producing clothing overseas: The dresses are made in Weihai, China at facilities that recycle and reuse more than 80% of the water used in the production process. Workers are paid fair wages and work in open, well-ventilated spaces with natural light. Aisles are clearly marked with an arrow so workers can quickly identify the nearest exit in case of an emergency, all doors are unlocked, and fire extinguishers are in working order and frequently inspected. These efforts show that with attention and oversight, overseas production can be good for manufacturers, workers, and consumers alike.
How We Can Help Restitch the Garment Industry
Since at least the Industrial Revolution, marginalized women and girls have made up the majority of the garment workers. Whether they were Jewish and Italian immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s or today’s women and girls in Bangladesh, garment workers have joined together to fight low wages, excessive hours, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, harassment, and abuse. Many who have attempted to unionize have battled reprisals for doing so. The carrot of income needed to support their families is one that managers have dangled to tragic consequences, as was the case in Rana Plaza.
The good news is that women—unionized, organized, or fair-wage garment workers and sustainable fashion entrepreneurs—may, in fact, be the key to stopping the cycle of exploitation. They are bringing attention to and fighting against labor violations, labor exploitation, reprisals, abuse, convoluted supply chains, and environmental effluent while raising awareness on positive steps consumers can take. The mass proliferation of cheap goods has conditioned us to expect closets full of quickly rotating, trendy clothes and accessories, rather than those that represent the true cost of production with sustainable materials and ethical working conditions. Making phone calls to our congressperson and senators, and putting our purchasing power behind products that have transparent supply chains and materials that are ethically sourced, rather than another $15 H&M top, are ways we can all help swing the pendulum for women in the garment industry.
* Contact your congressperson and senators to support the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 (H.R.3226/S.1968), legislation to fight human trafficking and forced labor.
About the artwork:
“New Silk Road Patterns #02” refers to the ancient trade route that connected China through the Middle East with the Roman Empire. Razmi collected low-quality clothes from various markets in Tehran, Tokyo, Beijing, Dubai and Istanbul to follow the production and sales path of these textiles, connecting five different Far Eastern and Middle Eastern places through photos of the artist wearing patterns of a deconstructed language. A common, if not dominant indication found on these clothes are spelling mistakes: Often letters are randomly combined, copy/paste text is used, known Western clothes brands and logos are sampled and deconstructed. The photographs combine high-contrast black and white shots that resemble fashion advertising with stock photo images of traditional “Eastern” patterns, printed on rice paper.
This feature originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here. Read Mind Over Money: An Interview with LearnVest Founder Alexa von Tobel or The Floridian Underbelly: A Review of Sarah Gerard’s “Sunshine State”.
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