Fashion and Poverty
Fast fashion has been an ever-growing presence within first world countries since the 1990s. At first glance, consumers purchase cheap and trendy outfits for a fraction of the price of high-end brands. However, beneath the surface, impoverished workers in developing countries are toiling in dangerous sweatshops for minimal pay. These supply chains show a direct link between fast fashion and poverty.

Many fast fashion companies, such as Forever 21 and H&M, receive new clothing shipments every day, while Topshop features 400 styles per week. These brands are able to produce apparel at rapid speed because they do not interact with production, and instead outsource to supplier firms in developing countries. These firms then subcontract production to unregistered suppliers that operate under no government regulation. This means that brands are not legally obligated to ensure safe working conditions. This process takes advantage of the less fortunate. For this reason, more people should be aware of the processes behind their fast fashion finds.

Unethical Production Practices

Due to the fact that many sweatshops reside in countries with inadequate labor laws and little government oversight, working conditions are dangerous and dehumanizing. These sweatshops prey on the poorest people who do not have the luxury to turn down any form of work. In many manufacturing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh, the minimum wage only ranges from a half to a fifth of the living wage required for a family to meet its basic needs. Furthermore, the average worker in an Indian sweatshop makes just 58 cents an hour, and in Bangladesh this drops to 33, linking fast fashion to the cycle of poverty.

Dangerous Working Conditions

Along with the miserable pay, working conditions in sweatshops are often incredibly dangerous. Garment workers have to work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week while facing verbal and physical abuse from overseers. Employees often work with no ventilation while breathing in toxic substances. Accidents and injuries are also common; the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh provides a grisly example. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory caused over 1,000 garment workers to die on the job.

Child Exploitation

While these companies prey on the poor, they especially prey upon children in poverty. A report investigating mills in India found that 60% of the workers were under 18 when they began working. Trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, these children are extremely susceptible to forced labor in sweatshops. These unethical labor practices demonstrate how fast fashion and poverty are intermingled.

Apparel Companies Working for Change

Fast fashion companies that use unethical production are among some of the most prominent leaders in the industry, including Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, H&M, Zara and more. However, in response to these widespread atrocities, many apparel brands have made a conscious effort to utilize ethical production practices.

One of the most well known Fairtrade certified brands is Patagonia, a company that offers more Fair Trade Certified styles than any other apparel brand. In response to prominent injustices, the company has built a social responsibility program to analyze their impact on workers and communities. In addition, since Patagonia does not own any factories, it is partnering with production companies across the globe to ensure ethical practices. The company strives to be a positive force that “not only minimizes harm but also creates a positive benefit for the lives they touch through their business.”

Know the Origin is another Fairtrade brand that works to be transparent about their production practices. This brand goes above and beyond paying minimum wages and ensuring safe working conditions. Know the Origin is working to create sustainable employment opportunities that help lift communities out of poverty. Able is another Fairtrade brand that centers on ending generational poverty. As over 75% of apparel workers are women, Able focuses on lifting women out of poverty through stable working positions. While these are some of the most prominent Fairtrade companies, there are many more that any consumer can discover with a few quick minutes of research.

Why You Should Vote With Your Dollar

These Fairtrade brands are paving the way for a new type of ethical apparel production. The apparel industry has the ability to provide dignified jobs for impoverished communities rather than forcing them further into poverty. While increased prices make many Fairtrade products inaccessible to those in poverty, a significant number of people who buy fast fashion have the means to buy Fairtrade. In the end, change must occur at the hands of fast fashion companies to make a permanent difference. However, consumers can still make an impact by pushing them to make this change. When consumers choose to buy Fairtrade, they show their demand for ethically-made apparel.

As a consumer, you can act for change. In buying Fairtrade, you refuse to funnel your money into an industry that abuses and torments impoverished communities. You communicate that you are against the sweatshops that force workers to endlessly toil for minimal pay. You show that you care about the world’s poor.

Natascha Holenstein
Photo: Flickr

Slow fashion and traditional Guatemalan textile production
Global interest in slow fashion and Guatemalan textile production often leads to exploitation of the designs and the profits. The weavers themselves often do not receive a fair wage for their work, which is incredibly time and labor-consuming. Fortunately, recent efforts are pushing for collaborations to protect these traditions and the indigenous weavers while still sharing their extraordinary work with the world.

The Guatemalan Textile Production Tradition

Mayan mothers and grandmothers teach women in Guatemala how to work with cotton from a very young age. They learn to use a loom and to create traditional natural dyes from ingredients such as avocado, banana, lemon and cochineal, a local insect. The hand-spun cotton and loom that the indigenous women use represents the very essence of their cultural practices. The result of this process is beautiful and colorful garments, bags and accessories that tourists have long purchased as souvenirs. People often purchase the goods and mark them up for resale, leaving the artisan behind.

An awareness of concerns about exploitation and cultural appropriation, along with movements of slow fashion has led to efforts to protect, preserve and appropriately collaborate and share traditional Guatemalan textile weaving.

Slow Fashion and Traditional Guatemalan Textile Production

A short documentary called “Artisans Guatemaya” sheds light on the complexities of the relationship between the 1 million Guatemalan artisans who need to have their opportunities and rights protected as well as the perspective of fashion industry leaders.  Mutual goals may include a vision of sustainability, collaboration, preservation of culture, knowledge-sharing and a mutually profitable model of cultural tourism which makes tradition and history economically viable today.  In addressing the ethics of this dynamic, it is important to move away from cultural appropriation toward cultural appreciation. The women face poverty and need to make a living. Therefore, people should place attention on these women’s economic and social development.

Small collectives of indigenous women join forces to protect their rights. Pablo Martinez of Etnica Travel Eco Tours says there are occasions when outsiders offer the women help that is inappropriate and therefore not useful. He emphasizes the necessity of listening carefully to the needs and wishes of local, artisan women and including them in the outcome of the exchanges. Through co-creation efforts, one should not lose sight of the artistry of the women.

A New Protected Artisanal Market in Guatemala

Slow fashion and traditional Guatemalan textile production also led to a specialized and protected artisanal market in Guatemala. Ethical Fashion Guatemala protects the rights of artisans and prevents high markup resale of goods purchased and then resold. James Dillon and Kara Goebel, both from the U.S., founded Ethical Fashion Guatemala. They bring the technology platform to provide a global market to local artisans. The pair also led the battle against 64,000 Etsy sellers for copyright infringement of Guatemalan patterns. This legal action was highly effective in curbing the blatant stealing of designs.

Ethical Fashion Guatemala claims transparency. It states that Guatemalan artisans receive 80 percent of the money that people spend on textile goods on its site and that all other sites that make such claims are imitations. Customers can purchase traditionally woven goods and can also arrange to have a tourism experience and connect with the local weavers. Many local artisans create very high-quality and high-fashion handmade goods. People especially know them for purses and bags.

The Consequences of Fast Fashion in Guatemala

One side effect of fast fashion that threatens traditional practices is the occurrence of pacas. Pacas are small, second-hand clothing shops that some indigenous women run as a small business. Indigenous women chose to run these as opposed to weaving as a matter of convenience. Weaving traditional textiles is time and labor-intensive, often with a small payout. It can take weeks or a full month to weave a traditional garment.  Resale of used clothes arriving from the U.S., on the other hand, is quick and easy. There is a concern that this model could be a threat to traditional practices as fewer women will pass on the ways of dying and weaving to their daughters. Pacas are one of the primary reasons that indigenous women have stopped wearing their traditional clothing. Guatemalan factories still churn mass-produced textiles (fast fashion), known as maquilas. This type of industry is highly competitive with China and continues to boom, despite a movement for more sustainable products. Ten to 20 years ago, the spotlight revealed the labor violations in these maquilas. There are still some labor violations, but paople have been paying much less attention to these factories in recent years.

In summary of slow fashion and traditional Guatemalan textile production issues, artisans can protect their heritage and legacy, and craft in collaboration with each other and with concerned and interested outside partners. There will always remain the vulnerability of exploitation, but awareness, legal action and strong relationships can minimize these challenges.

Susan Niz
Photo: Flickr

Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is a term that the fashion industry uses to refer to the cheap manufacturing of runway styles in a quick manner and it has established dominance in today’s consumer market. Top brands like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 utilize this production technique to hook customers on seasonal goods through low-cost labor that often puts employees at risk. Several controversies in the past have led to disasters, taking the lives of thousands and putting into question the ethics of mass production. In the wake of such calamity, slow fashion has risen up as a movement against the large companies. Through the promotion of improved safety measures and higher quality groups, small businesses are attempting to counteract the damage done.

Fast Fashion Disasters

Past grievances physically showcase the drawbacks of the Fast Fashion industry. The work conditions often put employees in dangerous situations which results in severe consequences. The Rana Plaza Factory collapse goes down in history as an example of this for the fashion industry. The factory, located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, manufactured clothing for European and American companies. On April 24, 2013, the building collapsed in on itself and killed 142 employees in the destruction. The disaster was a wakeup call for most, as the building itself violated several safety codes and builders constructed the upper four floors without a permit. The event called into question the ethics and legality of mass production factories. Specifically, the fashion industry entered the debate because not only do companies put lives at risk, but the monetary compensation is notoriously low.

Low Wage Workers

Another significant aspect of this problem is the location of the factories. Companies often take advantage of underprivileged and impoverished nations in order to reduce costs. The wages that citizens of these countries receive often do not measure up to the amount they work. One prime example is with the brand H&M, which has faced recent backlash for failing to provide fair living wages to its workers in various countries, such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Turkey and Bulgaria. While H&M responded by arguing that there is no global standard for a living wage, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) found that workers in Cambodia earn approximately half of those in Turkey. It is therefore evident that the company has been taking advantage of the low quality of life in Cambodia and exploiting the poverty of the nation.

The Slow Fashion Movement

The slow fashion movement has surfaced in recent years as a response to the controversy surrounding fast fashion brands. Members of this crusade work to fight against current practices by producing higher quality goods in safer working conditions and for better pay. These businesses also receive help from organizations like the Good Business Lab, a start-up that focuses on finding a compromise between company goals and employee treatment. At the moment, the nonprofit is located in India and has a sister branch in the United States in order the spread the aid.

The Need for Consumer Awareness

With materials and business practices put under a lens, others have forced the fast fashion industry to refocus itself. The fashion industry is reframing products and their value in the eyes of the public. Additionally, it is finally addressing the imbalance between labor wages and work conditions for the employees. Ultimately, as consumers become more aware of the malpractice occurring behind closed glass store doors, these companies will have to reevaluate their practices and make some drastic changes.

Eleanora Kamerow
Photo: Flickr