Remember the boycotts against the Gap and Nike back in the 90’s for using sweatshop labor? Today, business practices have gotten even shadier — and perhaps because clothes are cheaper, shoppers seem to care even less. Fast fashion stores are particularly culpable here, due to their drive for lower-than-ever prices and the frequency of their demand for new goods.
Back in the day, companies ordered clothes for each season. (This is still the way most high fashion labels work — the clothes that are on the New York runways in October showcase what will be available for spring of the following year.) Garments might take up to a year to actually be produced, and if an apparel company wanted something faster, they’d have to pay up.
Now, fast fashion chains like H&M and Zara introduce new styles as often as every two weeks. Practically as soon as photos from fashion week go up online, there’s an immediate chain reaction of fast fashion stores rushing to duplicate the trend. How do they do it? By subcontracting manufacturing overseas to the lowest bidder — generally in countries that already have some of the leanest production costs on earth. Rather than having long-term relationships with the factories, companies are comfortable with abrupt break-ups — so if they want something faster, the factories have to keep up or lose their contracts.
The push to quickly create clothing that costs buyers as little as possible leads, predictably, to factories that put production schedules and companies’ demands ahead of safety or workers’ rights. This was highlighted by the catastrophic Dhaka fire in 2012 and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed a combined total of over 1,200 Bangladeshi apparel workers and injured many more. The faulty wiring, lack of exits, crowded conditions, and poor construction are reminiscent of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But that happened in 1911. It’s 2014.
Why is so much clothing manufacturing is going on in Bangladesh? Mainly because rising wages and inflation in China have made producing clothing there prohibitively expensive for manufacturers who seek to feed U.S. tastes for ever cheaper clothing. It won’t stop there, either — U.S. News recently reported that the Gap is looking to move some production to Myanmar (a country not exactly known for a stellar human rights record), and H&M is expanding to Ethiopia.
Politicians and pundits often the lack of U.S. manufacturing jobs that pay a living wage, allowing people who maybe don’t have a college degree to support themselves and their families. When people ask where the “good jobs” have gone, one answer is well, we can’t have decently-paid factory work and shirts that cost less than $5.
According to Northern California public radio station KQED, in the 1960’s — when roughly 95% of clothing manufacturing was made in the United States — the average American household spent over 10% of its income on clothing and shoes (like $4,000 in today’s dollars). Your average American shopper bought fewer than 25 garments per year.
Now, all of those figures have flipped. Today, less than 2% of all clothing is manufactured in the U.S. The average household spends less than 3.5% of its income on clothing and shoes (less than $1,800). The most shocking number: Now, your average American shopper is buying roughly 70 garments per year. That’s nearly 3 times as many items as 50 years ago — and yet our annual household spending comes out to less than half of the amount spent in the 60’s.
Though clothing design and marketing still generally happens in the U.S., from the 1970’s onward more and more apparel manufacturing went overseas (and in case you forgot how that went, scroll back up to item one on this list). To maintain their profit margins while feeding appetites for inexpensive clothing, manufacturers have country-hopped to wherever can provide the lowest costs. You can guess how well U.S. factories have fared. Given the higher cost of manufacturing in the states, today only about 150,000 apparel manufacturing jobs remain. Those workers make about 38 times the wage of their Bangladeshi counterparts, so yes, clothing that is legitimately American-made is not going to be that cheap.
That said, apparel manufacturing in the U.S. isn’t all decent wages and reasonable working conditions. It’s mostly neither of those things. Sweatshops absolutely exist, particularly in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, and it’s not uncommon for these to be contractors manufacturing clothing on behalf of fast fashion chains.
In particular, fast fashion behemoth Forever 21 has been the subject of several lawsuits related to conditions in Los Angeles factories that make their clothing (there’s even an Emmy-winning documentary, Made in LA, that looks at the struggles of the immigrant workers to gain basic rights). The New Yorker reports that in 2001, the company was sued on behalf of workers who worked well over full time while earning much less than minimum wage in grotesque conditions. How did the clothing chain respond? They said they couldn’t be held responsible for their contractors’ practices and filed defamation lawsuits against the groups that organized boycotts of the stores. (The dispute was eventually settled with the company agreeing to help activists but refusing to admit wrongdoing.)
But then virtually the same allegations cropped up in 2012, this time brought about following a multi-year investigation by the Department of Labor into Los Angeles sewing factories. The federal court issued a subpoena, then sued, then ordered Forever 21 to hand over records documenting workers’ hours and compensation. The workers in these factories are often unskilled recent migrants, who may be undocumented and/or unable to speak English. Their precarious status is something that unscrupulous manufacturers can exploit — and that’s how you they can be paid even less per hour than the cost of your $5.80 miniskirt.