There’s nothing like wearing a new outfit, feeling like you look really good and being told you look even better. It’s the ever famous follow-up question that I’d like to focus on this week: “Where did you get that?” Although your first response might be the name of the store where you physically purchased the item, that shirt might have gone through hell before it found its way to your closet.
Like many people, I have answered this question with popular brand names like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, H&M, Zara or Macy’s. All these stores are pretty hip and offer the latest trends much cheaper than their competitors. But in order to offer these tempting bargains, these companies must cut out costs in the production process. This often means paying the employees making their products less than the minimum wage. Many clothing companies today source their cotton from Uzbekistan, where forced labor is very common. The government tries to shut down most human rights movements against forced labor, making progress almost unattainable. In recent years, many clothing brands have made an effort to stop using cotton picked through forced labor by signing a pledge through the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), a nonprofit organization, to vow their opposition to child and adult forced labor.
In a survey conducted by the RSN, 49 companies were asked to report on their activity, or lack thereof, in relation to Uzbek cotton picked with forced labor. The companies were then given a score out of 100, based on policy, public disclosure, engagement, implementation and auditing. Forever 21, along with many of the companies in the report, shared little to no information about their cotton sourcing policies. The company received a 2.5, failing to indicate a requirement to its suppliers to disclose their cotton’s country of origin. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, they engaged in sweatshop-like conditions in their LA factories, where employees weren’t paid properly and often worked overtime. Urban Outfitters, which received a 0, failed to even respond to the survey, and has yet to speak up about their policies on forced labor.
In addition to forced labor, employee health and safety are important to consider when choosing where to put your dollar.
In 2013, a clothing factory called the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,138 workers. After this tragedy, H&M, as well as over 200 other brands worldwide, signed an accord vowing to create a safe and healthy garment industry in Bangladesh. In a recent report, H&M was found to be severely behind in their plans to correct safety concerns within their factories and to uphold their vow. The employees who make H&M’s clothing risk their lives every day working in buildings with high levels of fire hazards.
I would never ask someone to pump my gas with a lit cigarette nearby. I would never let a chef cook my dinner if the gas was leaking from the stove. I would never request that my neighbor help me get my cat down from a tree if I knew the branch was loose. So, why did I let someone across the world, someone’s mother or father, sit in a potentially dangerous situation to make the shirt I am wearing right now?
The clothing industry is a vast and mysterious world. I encourage you to do your own research and try to find out about where your favorite brands get their cotton or how they treat their workers. It seems that many companies are reluctant to share this kind of information.
Just like we wouldn’t allow food companies to remove the ingredient labels from our snacks, we shouldn’t allow clothing brands to withhold information about where or how our clothes are made.
I am going to make an effort to shop only at stores that are proud to share their labor and employee safety policies. If this seems like a stretch for you, maybe choose one particular issue you want to stand behind and find out which specific brands also care about that issue. For example, although H&M has poor safety and health conditions for foreign workers, they are among the list of brands who have pledged to ensure a product free of forced labor cotton. Of course, buying your clothes from a secondhand store is always a good option as well.
Even if you are unable to change your shopping habits, it is essential that we take a moment to question why such a huge industry needs to maintain as much secrecy as it does. Just because workers are being mistreated in places we can’t see doesn’t mean their struggles aren’t real. Educate yourself and your friends. Make your dollar count.
You can reach Martha Greenburg or invite her to go shopping with you at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @marthazane94.