Thursday, August 16, 2012

Clothing and Social Justice

A few months ago, I had someone contact me about some clothes that had been put in a consignment shop but hadn't sold.  The shop's policy is to donate those clothes to some type of charity.  However, the woman responsible for divesting the shop of the clothes decided she wanted the clothes to go to "people who don't have any clothes."  She knew I was involved with several charitable organizations in the area and asked if I would find a place for the clothes.  What I thought would be a couple of bags of clothes ended up being an entire minivan packed to the gills!

Over and over again I hear people talk about having clothing that has been barely or gently worn and wanting it to go somewhere.  Often they ask about having it sent to Haiti and I have to explain the difficulty in getting it there - and the costs involved.  They shake their heads and comment on how sad that perfectly good clothing has to go to waste.  What never occurs to them is that perhaps we Americans should refrain from buying so much clothing, avoid the waste, and donate what we would have spent on clothing to an organization that provides clothing and other necessities to third world nations.  But it seems we don't want to do that - we want to have new clothing on a regular basis and then give our castoffs to the less fortunate rather than buying quality clothing that we can keep and wear for years.

This article in Grist explores the history of clothing in the US and reveals the environmental cost and social price we pay for this glut of clothing.  Prior to the 1970s, most clothing was moderately priced, with most items costing between $60 and $300 in today's dollars.  For many people today, buying articles of clothing in that price range would deter them from shopping binges.  However, nowadays we have either extremely cheap clothing or designer clothing.  That means most Americans buy on the cheap end.  Decades ago, if a dress cost $300, a woman might have a handful of dresses.  Now, when one can get a dress for $15, it's easy to stock up and end up with twenty or more dresses.  

Wonder why a dress or any other article of clothing is so cheap?  It's because most of the textile and garment workers are overseas, working for pennies an hour (and taking "our" jobs).  Even with the jobs that remain in the US, this article points out that over half of those jobs qualify as sweatshop jobs.  We are able to pack our dressers and closets beyond capacity on the backs of poor, young, mainly immigrant women who labor long difficult hours for wages that cannot sustain them.  According to Global Exchange, sweatshop workers often face verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse.  Workers are sometimes paid as little as 24 cents an hour to make clothing that costs over $100.  Do we really want to encourage what amounts to virtual slavery?  

Having so many clothes also comes with a high environmental cost.  The Grist article points out that we discard approximately 68 pounds of textiles a year.  And our fiber consumption exceeds what should be normal for our population.  We think that when we give away clothes to charity and other shops that they go to do good.  Not so.  Only about 20 percent of donated clothing is actually sold.  So most used clothing goes to landfill.  What is worse, 63 percent of textiles are synthetic, meaning there was an environmental cost to manufacturing it and it won't readily break down in landfill.  Again, do we want to dress more fashionably at the cost of the environment?

Global Exchange explains that the current textile/garment industry is a "race to the bottom":
A footloose industry scours the world for the cheapest wages; countries eager for any kind of investment auction off their workers to the lowest bidder; government regulators deliberately look the other way when abuses occur in order to keep foreign investors happy.  It's that combination of desperate profit-seeking and equality desperate investment pursuit which as created the race to the bottom that is at the root of the sweatshop resurgence.
For workers, the current system is a trap.  The apparel manufacturers fear that if they raise their workers' wages, and therefore their prices to the US retailers, the US retailers will simply go someplace with even cheaper workers.  The threat is real.  Because the garment industry is so mobile, and because the purchasing ability off the retailers is so flexible - they can shift sourcing from one country to another in a matter of fashion season - any country that raises its wages or enforces its workers' rights risks is, as mainstream economists say, "pricing itself out of the market."
It's difficult to really explore the problem in this limited space.  I would love to go into more detail but instead I'll leave you with a trailer for a movie that is highly recommended by a friend.  Made in LA follows three women working in a sweatshop in Los Angeles where they struggle to gain basic rights.  These women worked for trendy clothing manufacturer Forever 21 whose clothing they couldn't even afford - and they aren't even designer clothes: 

No comments: