The uniform of one my jobs requires I wear, under a coat, a white t-shirt and a pair of khakis. I don’t think I have ever owned a pair of khakis so, a few days before I was due to start, I waltzed into a Gap store thinking my problems would be solved in a matter of minutes.
Apparently, khaki pants are going the way of the dodo – not such a great loss but one that left me scrambling: a Gap assistant showed me pants in an unflattering shade of bird excrement (no wonder the chain is in trouble); Banana Republic, my next stop, could provide me with a beige variation for $80.00; Target: zilch. Wal-Mart I refuse to shop at for labor reasons. I was out of ideas. So I shelled out $89.00 for a very nice pair of khaki colored dress pants from JCrew, not really suited for work in a hospital but, at that point, what had started as a quick shopping expedition was turning into a nightmare, and I was desperate.
A couple of days later, Zara answered my call: $35 for a pair of slouchy khaki pants. Made in Morocco. H&M provided a heap of white t-shirts for $5.00 each. Made in Ethiopia.
These were exactly the prices I had in mind for a uniform that will be in the wash on repeat.
It turns out that some European retailers, like H&M and Zara, have expanded their manufacturing to Ethiopia and Morocco respectively, while maintaining a foothold in Asia: labor costs in China and Vietnam have increased exponentially, and Bangladesh, if not poised to follow suit in the same percentage, is inching up its minimum wage too. Hence, the European behemoths are looking to closer shores, to countries where labor and land are still cheap, shipping costs, by virtues of their geographical locations, are lower, and where labor laws are stricter.
Maybe the collapse of the Rana building in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people, was the beginning of a media backlash that is forcing the fashion industry to apply more oversight, much the same way Nike had to when, in the 1980s, the truth of their fabled shoes made in Vietnamese sweatshops came to light.
But I am afraid the backlash is more media than consumer driven. When it became known that Apple subsidiaries in China were forcing workers to accept punishing overtime in order to meet iPhone demands, the media made a big hullaballoo for a few days but I was still first in line to order my iPhone. And Apple is probably not event the worst offender.
While I feel better having researched the business practices of H&M and Zara, I can’t possibly do the same for every piece of clothing I intend to buy: being an ethical shopper can be a full-time job. I wish some of the food industry standards could spill over to different manufacturing areas: if I am willing to pay a premium for coffee, tea, chocolate or produce that display “fair labor” stickers, I would be willing to do the same for clothing – assuming the fashion industry ever decided to implement a similar system. Which they won’t unless we, the consumers, demand it.
As sofagirl pointed out a little while ago in a style related post, at our age, we don’t need more clothes: fewer, better quality ones will suit our needs much better. For every H&M, there are a thousand offenders whose profits are built on the backs of people working in Dickensian conditions, fuelled by our inability to resist a bargain, no questions asked. It will take a long time to break the cycle but it looks like shaming companies into adhering to better labor practices can yield some success.
Image of the inside of a Bangladeshi garment factory courtesy of The Guardian
Image of Ethiopian factory courtesy of the BBC