The high price of cheap fashion


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Earlier this month, models strutted down the catwalk during New York Fashion Week, sporting the latest trends from top designers. In about three to 12 weeks’ time, clothing inspired by these designs will begin appearing in fashion retail outlets across the country for a fraction of the cost.

Illustration by Lindsay Steele A clothing retailer advertises a Labor Day sale.
Illustration by Lindsay Steele
A clothing retailer advertises a Labor Day sale.

Americans are buying more clothing than ever before, thanks to marketing and low price tags. Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion,” reports that Americans buy an average of 70 clothing items each year, as opposed to 25 items in 1960.

“Somehow, we’ve been programmed to think we need all this clothing,” said Alicia Greenwood, a board member for the Ten Thousand Villages fair trade store in Iowa City. But, consumers haven’t been conditioned to think about where their clothing comes from.


About 98 percent of apparel sold in American stores is made in countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, which offer low prices on manufacturing due to low national minimum wage requirements and worker regulations. Greenwood, who used to work in the corporate fashion industry, said corporate buyers focus on getting the best deals from factory managers but don’t ask how the factories can produce the labor so cheaply. “It’s kind of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation.”
Christopher Cox, campaign manager of The Human Thread Campaign, a Catholic organization which works for social justice in the textile industry, said we’d be “horrified” if we saw the unsafe conditions and long hours in which employees of these factories are forced to work. Women are frequently denied maternity leave, child workers are commonplace and hours are long: 60-70 a week in many cases. Workers have very little time off to sleep, let alone spend time with their families. Human trafficking is also a problem. He said that labor-related human trafficking is more prevalent worldwide than sex trade trafficking. The latter receives much more publicity.

Cox said the issue of “sweatshops,” as they are commonly called, isn’t a high priority for most Americans, Catholics included. “It’s not as political and polarized as other issues we think about as Catholics … The Gospel tells us over and over again that the poor are almost always invisible to us.”

The issue received an unprecedented amount of attention after the collapse of a clothing factory in Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013. More than 1,100 workers were killed and 2,500 others injured. Concerned for their safety in the days preceding the disaster, the workers tried to evacuate but were told to get back to work. At the time, minimum wage in Bangladesh was about $38 a month.

Pope Francis spoke out after the disaster, condemning the conditions of the workers who died as “slave labor,” saying unjust salaries and the companies that take advantage of them are “against God.” He said slavery in the world today “is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.”

It was at this time that the Human Thread Campaign came into existence. Cox said the disaster is an example of what Pope Francis calls the “globalization of indifference.”

U.S. clothing companies, too, spoke out and vowed to make changes. H&M, Carters and other brands now claim that they monitor the factories in which their clothing is made. Asian wages have risen in response to criticism; Bangladeshi minimum wages have increased to $68 a month and nearby countries offer slightly higher wages, according to Sheng Lu of the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies.

But workers continue to suffer. The wages are still poverty wages – if the managers are paying minimum wage at all. Cox said there aren’t enough people to monitor the factories on a regular basis, which means that worker rights may be violated with no consequences, and even the clothing brands that claim to monitor their factories aren’t checking the supply chain thoroughly enough. Informal subcontracting is a problem, especially in Bangladesh. These under-the-table arrangements are not subject to labor legislation, income taxation, social protection or entitlement to certain employment benefits. Because of a lack of policing, most go unnoticed, according to research conducted by The New York Times.

And, disasters continue to occur. Earlier this year, Reuters reported 100 workers trapped inside an Indian clothing factory in April during a fire. Additionally, a Bangladeshi factory which manufactures clothing for H&M and JC Penney, went up in flames, injuring four employees who jumped out the windows. The disaster would likely have been worse if it had not happened while the factory was officially closed for the night. Other reports have exposed forced confinement of workers in garment factories and facilities illegally employing Syrian refugees, including children.

While systemic changes are slow coming, Cox and Greenwood said Americans shouldn’t give up on this cause. Change can be made by raising awareness of clothing origins, changing purchasing habits and pressuring companies to think about where their clothing is being manufactured. Read next week’s Catholic Messenger, which will explain steps people can take to work for justice in the textile industry.

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