At this point we all know well that the garment industry as it currently exists is largely about pumping out quantity (at varying levels of quality) cheap and fast.
As I continued reading Overdressed, Cline spends a significant portion of the book retelling her travels and experiences visiting both factories and middle men in a variety of countries. What is so interesting is that she has no access to the sweat shops or buildings with poor working conditions, the factories that she visits are for the most part positive workplaces that are at least (from the worker's perspective) supplying their worker's needs.
I loved this portion of the book because it reveals just how complicated the whole situation is. Here are some of the issues she runs into on her journey:
1. Cultural norms and values effect worker's perceptions and opinions of their working conditions. In the factory she visited in China, the hours that employees work and the conditions that workers live in may seem inappropriate to Westerners, but were sufficient and acceptable to the makers that she met with.
2. "Sewing should be a good job; it should be a great job" - Even the factories with the highest technology require people who are experienced and knowledgeable about sewing. Beyond that, sewing as a profession is rewarding, communal and can be so much fun.
3. "The Race to the Bottom"as controlled by customer's insistence on the cheapest fashionable clothing has dictated and driven manufacturing, pushing manufacturing out of countries with higher minimum wages or where workers require better compensation or treatment.
4. China is not the ultimate perpetrator of workplace abuse. Over the last 5 to 10 years workers in China have increased their savvy, entire generations of people moving out of the country into cities are better educated and more fashionable themselves. Factories have the highest technology, provide housing, food and often other job benefits. However, producing in China is becoming more expensive (a 10-30% increase yearly) and several designers and retailers have moved production to less expensive countries.
5. Whether or not consumers like it, we may have hit rock bottom with clothing prices and it is highly possible that regardless of ethical fashion movements, clothing prices are on the rise because as manufacturing has now been in countries for almost a generation, cost of living is increasing, wages are increasing and workers are requiring more (as they should be).
I am excited and overwhelmed by all of this information. As consumers the veil needs to be lifted on the production chain and primarily the factories that are producing our clothing. Not only out of concern for the people making them but the environmental impact is important. What dyes are being used on our clothing, how much air and water pollution is being caused?
Did you know that when you pay more for a piece, you aren't necessarily getting a higher quality? How do we learn fabrics and clothing again so that when we purchase we aren't purchasing just a brand, but also a well made piece of clothing. (Could you pick a french seam out of a line up?)
I think it is absolutely possible for us to look at tags and just from the information given know more. We can know that if it was made in China, it's likely a higher quality piece and working conditions were possibly slightly higher than other countries, however, there was likely no concern for environmental impact in production. In Bangladesh or Vietnam it's all bad. In the U.S., what does "Made in the U.S.A." may or may not mean that it is ethically made, more homework may be involved.
Where does our journey to an ethical wardrobe begin? I think in the tags of the clothing we already own....
We've been talking a bit around my dining table (our online team's frequent work place of choice) about this and wondering where our current wardrobe stands on an ethical scale of 1-10. YIKES. A "come to Jesus" may be brewing for our closets. More to come...
Photo Cred: NYT and Hercampus.com