As we continue on this ethical fashion journey, there’s one question about fast fashion that we frequently hear. We want to take some time to address it because it’s an important conversation to have.
Here’s how it often sounds:
“Aren’t fast fashion companies that source to the developing world actually doing some good? After all, they are helping boost employment in poorer areas and helping workers who wouldn’t otherwise have any work.” We also hear the question put like this:
“Isn’t it better for someone in a developing country to have a job where they are underpaid and mistreated than to have no job at all?”
Although we feel strongly about our answer, it can be a bit tricky to put into words. It boils down to this:
Yes, a bad job can be better than no job- sometimes. But workers deserve better. It would take relatively little to dramatically improve working conditions, and we believe that companies sourcing to the developing world have a moral obligation to treat their workers fairly.
In other words, something may be better than nothing, but when that something isn’t good enough, and when it’s in our power to improve it, we have a moral obligation to do better.
Here’s how I think about it.
Do factories that exploit their workers still create jobs? Yes. It’s true that, for many workers in developing countries, getting a job at a garment or sportswear factory is better than some of the alternatives – that is why so many depend on these jobs.
In the worst of these jobs, are the working conditions acceptable? Is it fair to treat workers this way? No. The fact that people are desperate isn’t an excuse to exploit them. Workers aren’t getting their fair share of the benefits they are creating for the big companies. We welcome the fact that millions of people are earning a wage. However, this alone is not enough to lift them from poverty if employers can hire and fire at will, deny union rights, avoid paying sick leave or observing maternity rights, and pay low wages that drive people to work inhumane hours just to survive. For many workers, these jobs carry devastating hidden costs, such as poor health, exhaustion and broken families, all of which are unacceptable and avoidable. Everyone wants and is entitled to a quality job that pays “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his [or her] family an existence worthy of human dignity.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(3)).
Could companies still make a profit if they treated their workers better? The answer is surprisingly simple: they could, easily. To raise the wages and treatment of workers in their overseas factories to levels described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.S. companies would need to raise costs (or decrease profits) by pennies, not dollars, per garment.
In her book Overdressed, Cline says “Garment workers overseas are still only earning about 1 percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce. The reality is that their wages are so low and many U.S. clothing companies’ profits are so high that brands could afford to raise wages significantly.”
“The Worker Rights Consortium has found that garment worker wages could be doubled or even tripled with little or no increase to the American consumers” (Overdressed, 159).
I was astounded to read this. She continues, “Major clothing brands can dramatically improve workplace conditions and raise wages for factory workers in countries like Bangledish – where the current hourly wage is 21 cents – without passing those costs on to consumers. In fact, the Worker Rights Consortium has found that it would take as little as ten cents per garment to make necessary improvements to Bangledesh’s 4,500 factories” (Overdressed, 226).
Whether a company takes a small cut in profit in order to keep consumer prices low and sales high, or passes the increased cost on to consumers, we’re talking about numbers like ten cents. We’re talking about an amount that clothing companies, and consumers, could absorb.
So, why are we trying to spend our money only on ethical fashion? It isn’t that this is an impossible task, paying workers a fair wage for the job they are doing. But big companies are not going to make the change unless consumers demand it. It kind of makes me feel better to tell myself that my bargain purchase is helping someone keep a job, but the reality is that I am telling these companies that I care more about spending $3 on a tee shirt or $15 on a dress than I do about how they were able to make those clothes for so cheap.
When I give my money to a company that exploits its workers, I am telling that company that this business practice works, that mistreating workers to cut costs is an effective way to make a profit. I am encouraging that company to continue what it’s doing.
But we can also use our choices for good. By taking our business elsewhere, we tell companies that exploit their workers that we do not approve of, and will not support, these practices. If enough consumers give their business only to companies that treat their workers ethically, it will become clear to the fast-fashion companies that exploiting their workers is costing them business. If this happens, such companies will have a clear financial incentive to treat workers better.
Let’s use our buying power to support people that are doing good things and to send a message to all companies that ethics matter.
This is hard stuff to talk about. Something that really helped me was sitting down with a few friends and watching the True Cost movie. This really opened my eyes to what is going on in the clothing industry and educated me in areas beyond fair wages. It helps to hear the stories of people who are being affected by our choices.
I often feel like I can’t do anything to change the world, but choosing where I spend my money is an easy way to me to make a difference in something that I would be doing anyway. You can make a difference too.
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