Where Did Your Clothes Come From?

By Natalie Camrud ‘17 & Diva Gattani ‘17
Fashion Columnists

Photo courtesy of Diva Gattani ‘17

Photo courtesy of Diva Gattani ‘17

Do you know WHO made your clothes? Do you know how much they were paid? Do you know how old they were? Do you know if they were chained to their sewing machine or if they were allowed bathroom breaks? Most of us cannot answer these questions. The fast fashion industry, meaning an industry that rapidly produces cheap clothing, makes it very difficult to trace the origins of our clothes and the dark story that might be behind that miniskirt, but lifting that veil and holding fashion companies accountable is important.

On Feb. 2, 2016, there was a fire at the Matrix Sweaters factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh. The factory is a supplier to retailers like H&M and JCPenney. The fire took place early in the morning, so luckily the 6,000 workers who work at the factory had not yet arrived; if the fire had occurred even an hour later, many, many lives could have been lost. In 2014, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety inspected the facility and found dozens of safety hazards— including electrical risks and a lack of fire exits and sprinklers. The factory did not meet mandatory deadlines to fix these issues, and continued to operate anyway.

If the Feb. 2016 fire did not happen as early in the morning as it did, this story could have ended similarly to the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when a building in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1,100 people. What’s even more chilling is that on the day of the Rana Plaza disaster, the workers refused to enter the building because of the large, visible cracks, but the building owner forced them inside anyway. A documentary, “The True Cost,” contains footage of the disaster. The now-collapsed factory manufactured garments for companies like Benetton, the Children’s Place and Walmart.

These are just two examples that show the mistreatments of garment workers that are often kept silent. Today, there are 4.7 million child workers in Bangladesh working in dangerous factories instead of going to school. Of all the garment workers, about 85% of them are women. The average hourly wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is $0.24 an hour; garment workers in the United States earn 38 times as much. Many garment workers in countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh have demanded higher wages, but it’s very difficult for them to actually win; fashion companies can simply relocate to another country if the minimum wage gets raised, so this threat of job loss deters countries from actually raising wages. Some brands argue that raising minimum wages would make clothing more expensive. In reality, average clothing costs have decreased in recent years, and if wages were doubled for a garment worker, the cost of a piece of clothing would only rise by a few cents, or the company could just absorb those costs and the price would stay the same.

While fast fashion has detrimental impacts on the environment, there are also human costs that don’t get factored into the cost of that $4 t-shirt, or even that $400 t-shirt. Even extremely expensive designers use cheap labor overseas; just because something has an expensive price tag does NOT mean that it was made more ethically or that is is more environmentally friendly. It’s a common misconception that expensive clothes are made better or are higher quality.
If you want to apply what you’ve learned to your own closet, it’s easy enough to look up ethical brands, and buying secondhand or vintage is always a great option. Does this mean that every item of clothing you buy must be made ethically? Do you have to boycott Forever 21? Of course not, because it is extremely difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive to only buy items that were made “perfectly.” Just being educated on the issue and understanding the story behind your clothes is half the battle.

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