Measuring clothing brands by the process used to produce them is as important for today’s buyers as what the clothing actually looks like.
The average shopper is likely making choices based upon style, comfort and price. My favorite brands are flattering, easy to walk around in, and fit my personal budget. What often does not cross a buyer’s mind is whether or not the clothing company is ethically sound.
California ranks highest in human trafficking statistics, with the Human Trafficking Hotline showing 1,323 cases reported in 2016 alone. While sex trafficking may get the headlines, labor trafficking impacts far more individuals. International Labour Organization and Polaris statistics from 2016 show that of the estimated 20.9 million victims, 68% are in forced labor. These individuals, a large portion of whom are women and children, create the food, electronics and fashion accessories consumers use on a regular basis.
Advertisements provide a narrow picture of human trafficking that usually involves a solemn-eyed girl looking out through the slats of a cage. In reality, traffickers entrap victims in a psychological prison that is even more dangerous than physical chains: debt and the manipulation of one’s need to survive. Traffickers use job prospects to lure the poor, who may understand that they are being mistreated but have no leverage. For undocumented immigrants in California, a low paying job in deplorable conditions may be the only way of meeting their basic needs. This opens a window of opportunity to large industries who are only looking to acquire labor and materials cheaply.
Think of your favorite clothing brand. Maybe look at the tag on your sweatshirt or jeans. Do you know where the company obtained the material to make that item, who assembled it, and where in the world each step in the supply chain occurred? Probably not, and neither do the companies.
A 2017 report by Ethical Consumer and Fashion Revolution entitled “The Fashion Transparency Index” compiled a research summary of the top 40 fashion brands based on 5 indicating factors to determine its commitment to social responsibility and standards for labor and environmental impact. What they found was that, out of a total score of 250, Reebok and Adidas scored 49%, just ahead of H&M, the Gap, and Old Navy. None of the companies scored above 50%.
This research indicates that while most companies have clear policies and some form of governance around improving standards of accountability, surveyed companies had little to no information on their 3rd tier suppliers and 40% do not have a system in place to reinforce their company’s labor standards.
The 2017 report also showed 32 popular brands that scored at or below 10%. It came as an unpleasant shock that my favorite brands (American Eagle, Forever 21, Amazon, and Urban Outfitters) all scored in this lowest tier. Scores below 10% indicate that the brand releases little to no information about their suppliers or hiring policies. Some brands even refused to be surveyed, which looks even worse.
So how could I or any other person who cares for human rights continue buying from these brands? Simple: they are cheap and attractive. As a consumer, these brands fit my budget and look good.
One could say that if you care enough about worker rights and transparency, you will buy ethically and avoid brands that don’t know which sweatshops their clothes are manufactured in. I say that is unrealistic.
Firstly, top scoring brands, including Gap, Adidas, H&M and Banana Republic do not show sufficient transparency to prove that their workers and suppliers use humane practices. Secondly, a pair of shoes from Adidas can easily cost over $110, and the average pair of pants from Banana republic is priced above $60. For the average buyer with a low or even moderate income, such clothing prices are not considered cost effective and turn customers toward cheaper options.
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to this moral dilemma. A quick search online will give you a long list of free trade clothing lines that look just as nice as big-brand clothing. They may not give you insanely good deals but they are often of equal quality. Many of the brands also support higher education, vocational training, sustainability and the end of human trafficking, making purchasing them a more ethically sound.
If you are tempted, as I inevitably am, by ever convenient big-brand fashion, take a moment before ripping off the tags to think about who made it. Imagine every step in the process and the work that went into bringing the shirt, shoes, jeans or bomber jacket to you. Maybe even post it on your social media with the #whomademyclothes hashtag. I think knowing what it took to make your apparel makes it more meaningful, while adding transparency that is necessary for you to be an ethical consumer.
Another solution is to buy used clothing. Thrift shopping is a trend that even big fashion tries to emulate. Personally, I do not like used clothing because I prefer to spend my money in a way that benefits the actual maker. Thrifting does not directly hurt workers but it doesn’t support them either.
Also, avoid the temptation to use online shopping deals that offer prices too good to be true. The clothes tend to be poor quality and are cheap for the precise reason that they are most likely not paying their workers a living wage.
The truth that consumers need to face is that shopping ethically is going to be more costly. The reason that they need to be is because companies that sell clothing would ideally be paying their workers minimum wage, hiring locally and paying expenses to keep their factories safe.
Faire Trade states their purpose is “better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world” and that “by requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade.”
If an article of clothing falls below the market price, or what you imagine it might have cost to produce the item, it most likely is falling short of the Fairtrade standards.