Dirty Clothes: the Quest for Cheap Fashion

Last week it was reported that a fund is being set up to compensate victims and victims’ families of the Bangladesh garment factory collapse….but that some notable retailers whose garments were being made there were absent from the meeting.

Like Walmart, for example. But you already knew that Walmart is a giant dickhead among retailers, right? Low wages, union busting, decimating locally-owned businesses, obvious disregard for the well-being of the people manufacturing their products as long as they’re as cheap as possible. Even knowing all that, I was still a bit stunned to hear that they’re not at least playing the PR game and showing up at the table — you know, at least *feigning* that they care that people, who were forced to work in unsafe conditions to ensure Walmart’s clothes were being churned out as fast and cheaply as possible, actually died for this rather ignoble cause.

Ultimately, I think Walmart knows that there is only a tiny fraction of consumers who know — or care — that the demand for ever cheaper, faster, disposable goods is taking a toll on a lot of things we should value: the environment, human rights, worker safety, and a living wage, to name a few.

It was also widely reported that Canadian retailer Joe Fresh (parent company Loblaw) was among the clients of the collapsed garment factory. It’s not surprising, considering their extremely low prices.

People of a certain age will realize, when they stop to think about it, that the prices of clothes have dropped significantly over the last bunch of decades. Strange, isn’t it? Hasn’t the price of most things naturally gone up over the course of decades? I remember a sweater I coveted when I was a teenager in the 80s — black with a busy green & blue motif with gold threads and big shoulder pads — that I put on layaway. (For those born after 1985, layaway is a quaint practice whereby you would put a deposit down on something you wanted but didn’t have the money to pay for all at once, and you returned each week to pay more until you had it all paid off. No credit card debt incurred. Imagine that.)  The sweater was $60, which was a pretty hefty sum at the time. Nowadays that sweater would retail for probably $20.

The acrylic sweater in question. Yes, I paid $60 for it. And oh god, matching earrings.

The acrylic sweater in question. Yes, I paid $60 for it in 1987. And oh god, matching earrings.

My mother could tell you about how clothes were an even bigger investment when she was a young adult in the 50s. She saved up for clothes, and chose them very carefully, ensuring they were classic styles, well-made, and good-quality fabric so they would last a long time.

Anyway, back to that $20 sweater: how is that price possible? How can a whole garment be constructed, shipped, and sold, and all the people involved (designers, seamstresses, factory workers, shipping companies, retail workers, etc.) be paid, and a profit still be made for the parent company? The answers, I think, are obvious.

And now back to Joe Fresh. They did come to the table to meet about the compensation fund, and they did sign on to an international pact to improve conditions for garment workers since the Bangladesh factory collapse. Details of two such pacts, and which companies signed on to them, are outlined here and here.  But is this enough? Should a conscientious consumer feel alright about purchasing from such a company? I have to admit, I bought a shirt from Joe Fresh today. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I think it may feel like a dirty shirt even after it’s been laundered.

What about you? Are these issues on your mind when you shop? Can you afford to shop conscientiously? I mean, it costs a lot more for clothes that are sustainably and ethically produced. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dear American Apparel: I am done with you

Over the past couple of decades, clothing has become a guilt-laden symbol of over-consumption, exploitation, and disposable culture: in our collective quest for the cheapest possible fashion, we are responsible for mounting pressures on clothing companies to cut costs and speed up production times, leading to ‘outsourcing’ to garment factories that promise the fastest turn-around time and lowest cost. This means a once-thriving garment manufacturing sector here in North America has all but disappeared (80% of garment manufacturing jobs in Canada have disappeared since 2001), and factories in developing countries like China and Bangladesh are forcing workers to accept extremely low wages to work in appalling conditions for long hours. The garment industry is notorious for treating workers almost like slaves, often locking them into the factory (sometimes causing hundreds to die in fires that they could not escape from), not allowing bathroom or meal breaks, and threatening workers if they complain publicly.  No doubt you’ve heard of the most recent garment factory disaster at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, detailed here in the Toronto Star and here in the New York Times.  So of course I am delighted to support companies like Second Denim, which manufactures clothes in Canada, and American Apparel, whose business model incorporates paying Americans a good living wage to manufacture their clothes, and, according to their website, is committed to environmental sustainability. While I’m not a huge fan of much of AA’s designs (I already lived through the 80s once and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to wear those high-waisted, super-baggy, big-shouldered fashions ever again), my husband and I tend to purchase a lot of our basics there, like t-shirts, leggings, etc. Or, I should say, we USED to buy stuff at American Apparel.

American Apparel, I am officially done with you.

You see, I can’t support a company that, on one hand, is against exploiting workers (a stance I strongly support), and on the other hand, is quite happy to exploit women (which is abhorrent to me). American Apparel has courted controversy for quite a while now because of its ads that often depict very young women in overtly sexual poses, a controversy which has most recently flared up in Sweden. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned AA’s ads for being “gratuitous…exploitative, and pornographic” (http://www.businessinsider.com/these-gratuitous-american-apparel-ads-were-just-banned-in-the-uk-2012-4), and the list of controversies goes on.

I was going to include an example of the ads but even just copying one here in my blog for the purpose of criticism made me feel icky. So go check them out yourself at the links above. Or you can check out this article from Business Insider in which the same unisex item of clothing is shown depicted on men and women, and the difference is shocking.

American Apparel, your willful ignorance about the ramifications of sexual exploitation of women is hypocritical given your apparent understanding of why exploiting garment workers is unacceptable. Unless and until you stop treating women as sexual objects, I’m not buying another thing from you.

And by the way, American Apparel, damn you for almost being everything an informed, intelligent, concerned consumer wants in a retail store, but fucking it up so badly by deliberately promoting a pile of sexist, exploitative bullshit. Somehow that makes you even worse than a retailer that just doesn’t give a shit about any of it in the first place.