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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

Clothing brands that pay a living wage

In the age of fast fashion, headlines about clothing brands often highlight unfathomably low wages and inhumane working conditions. Companies like Nike have been accused of using sweatshops in Southeast Asia to produce their clothing and shoes on and off since the 1970s. Documentaries like The True Cost have increased public awareness about the grueling working conditions in Asian garment factories, often illegal even when workers’ rights laws are far from comprehensive, all to yield excessive profit margins for large American- or European-based clothing brands. However, some clothing companies have made ethical production a key component of their business, and they prioritize living wage for their employees over excessive profits. This article will highlight five clothing brands that pay a living wage, exemplifying ethical and transparent production practices in garment factories in developing countries.

5 clothing brands that pay a living wage

  1. Matter is a Singapore-based clothing company that sources its materials directly from rural artisans in India and Indonesia. Its philosophy is to serve as a link between these rural artisans and the global market, thus adopting a hybrid supply chain model that combines hand- and machine-woven garments. Matter’s garment factory is closely monitored to live up to international compliance standards and provide its workers with a living wage. It also exclusively uses eco-friendly and natural dyes to protect the environments of the communities where its artisans live and work.
  2. Grana’s business and production both take place in Hong Kong, modeling ethical manufacturing in a metropolis known for its sweatshops while minimizing global shipping costs to maximize affordability for the consumer. Designing, manufacturing, and shipping from Hong Kong allow Grana to pay its workers a living wage while still having a mark-up of less than half of that of most brands. Its factories are visited regularly to ensure that they live up to the company’s high ethical and safety standards. Grana is dedicated to using the highest quality materials sourced from around the world, such as Peruvian Pima cotton, Mongolian cashmere, and Chinese silk, and all these high-end fabrics are produced by workers receiving a living wage.
  3. Everlane is exceptionally transparent about its production practices. Its website shows every single factory where its clothing is produced, which of its clothing is produced there, the number of employees, and a promise that this factory lives up to international ethical production standards. Every factory the company selects to produce its clothing has received a score of 90 out of 100 or better on providing fair wages, reasonable hours and a good environment for its employees. Its website also details the exact breakdown of production cost and profit for every piece of clothing, ensuring that consumers know they are paying a fair price for an ethically produced and high-quality item.
  4. Tonlé, a clothing brand based in Cambodia, is built on the philosophy of zero-waste clothing. Its website details the exact environmental impact of every item produced, which is always significantly lower than the waste created by conventional production of the same item. To live into its zero-waste philosophy, the company either uses all of a material to create a product, or it produces the product entirely from scraps. Its products are handmade without machine assistance, and the company exclusively uses natural dyes. On top of environmental sustainability, Tonlé is also dedicated to paying its employees fairly. In a 45-hour work week, the garment workers in its Phnom Penh factory make between 1.5-2.5 times what the average Cambodian garment worker makes in a 60-hour work week. Tonlé also ensures that factory conditions are safe, and it provides healthcare benefits, free lunches and paid vacations to its garment workers.
  5. Patagonia is one of the most well-known outdoor clothing brands in the United States, and it also prioritizes transparent and sustainable production practices. Every textile mill and factory it uses, from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua, is listed on its website with information including the number and gender breakdown of employees and the items produced there. Patagonia vets all of its factories to ensure that they are “safe, fair, legal and humane,” and it additionally pledges at least one percent of sales to grassroots environmental protection groups.

These clothing brands that pay a living wage are part of an ever-growing movement toward safe, ethical and sustainable clothing. While fast fashion is far from dead, many companies are choosing living wages over profits, a crucial step toward reducing global poverty and creating a more equitable global economy.

– Macklyn Hutchison
Photo: Flickr

What Role Can the Private Sector Play in Poverty Alleviation?
The private sector constitutes a large portion of wealth and job creation in most countries, rendering it a powerful social tool that can be used to alleviate poverty and promote the wellbeing of the general public. Unfortunately, historically, this tool has been used to promote the interests of private actors.

The interests of private actors and the interests of the public have often come in contradiction, particularly as the world has globalized. However, the alignment of public and private interests is possible when you consider that those living in extreme poverty represent a largely untapped and mismanaged resource for a lot of private actors. When determining what role the private sector can play in poverty alleviation, it must be understood that poor corporate labor practices have contributed greatly to global poverty and proper practices have the ability to reverse it.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Those living in poverty, particularly extreme poverty, are often surrounded by economic deprivation, including unemployment, low wages and a lack of investment from private actors. Corporate social responsibility is one of the many avenues that can be taken to bring the structures and goals of the private sector in line with the needs of the public.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business model of private accountability to the public, meaning that businesses and corporations incorporate practices that create positive social impacts domestically and throughout the world. CSR is a broad concept, allowing it to manifest itself in several different ways. There is certainly room for error in the implementation of CSR practices, but when carried out effectively, CSR can serve as a sharp tool for alleviating poverty while also increasing a corporation’s bottom line.

Patagonia: A Model for Effective Corporate Social Responsibility

The apparel industry is one of the most competitive in the private sector. With that competition, there has historically been a “race to the bottom.” Organizations have looked to manufacture in places with the most lenient regulations on worker rights, wages and environmental waste. These places, non-coincidentally, tend to be the most impoverished. However, this has not been the case within Patagonia.

Patagonia has been integrating CSR into its business model since its conception in 1973. The corporation operates in several nations around the world, with portions of its manufacturing happening in Sri Lanka, Mexico, Thailand and more. The company has prioritized its Fair Trade Certifications, paying a premium on top of the costs that they already incur. This money goes straight into the hands of factory workers who get to vote on its use. This not only ensures that Patagonia’s workers are well compensated but also that the most pressing needs of the community are met.

At the Hirdaramani Mihilia CKT Factory, workers decided to spend their premium on a daycare. For many women in the factory, employment would not be possible without it. The piece of mind workers get from knowing that their kids are not only safe but progressing in their development, allows for more diligent and quality work in the factory.

What Role Can the Private Sector Play in Poverty Alleviation?

Fair Trade USA CEO, Paul Rice, stated that the organization has to “prove that fair trade is good for business.” Patagonia is one of its partner companies that is doing just that for them. Patagonia has more Fair Trade Certified styles than any other apparel brand, and it is expanding every year. In 2017, 30 percent of its product was fair trade certified, indicating that there is plenty of room for further expansion, but also that expanding the scale of CSR practices can be sustainable for business as well—even when its competitors do not engage in the same practices.

Consumer awareness of the Fair Trade Certified seal has almost doubled to 63 percent since 2008. As the world has globalized and the reality of billions of people living on less than two dollars a day has become common knowledge, consumers have begun to pay greater attention to how their goods are made. Corporate responsibility is becoming the standard, and as consumers, governments and most importantly corporations themselves continue to promote and enforce that standard, the number of exploited and impoverished workers will fall.

Today, transparency and responsibility translate into dollars. More consumers are willing to pay for goods that they know were made ethically, employee turnover is lowest at corporations that integrate CSR and workers in developing countries perform better when their wages and standard of living are adequate. More than 1,250 corporations have recognized this to be true and that number is sure to increase in the coming years. So what role can the private sector play in poverty alleviation? The answer is, quite simply, a large one and one that can also benefit their business as well as the public.

Julius Long
Photo: Flickr

Yvon Chouinard Awarded Ethics Prize for Patagonia Inc.
Yvon Chouinard has been awarded the CWRU Inamori Ethics Prize. Yvon Chouinard, at age 14, was a member of the SCFC, or the Southern California Falconry Club, which spent its time training hawks or falcons to hunt. In 1953, through this club, Yvon Chouinard was taught how to climb, or rappel, down the cliffs to reach the falcon nests and became a “climber.” He fell in love with the act of climbing and ended up learning how to climb as well as rappel, traveling across the state to climb. At the time, the only way to climb was to use soft iron, which stayed in the rock – this meant for each climb, climbers had to use hundreds of the “pitons,” or spikes that climbers drive into the rock. Yvon Chouinard decided to make his own reusable equipment to make the climb easier for himself and his fellow climbers from the Sierra Club.

Yvon Chouinard began to teach himself how to blacksmith in 1957 in order to make this reusable hardware for climbing. Soon, his friends heard about his new invention and started to buy them for $1.50 each. This was the beginning of Patagonia Incorporated. Of course, the Patagonia Incorporated of 2013 is much different than the small friends-only business Yvon Chouinard started in 1957. Now, Patagonia Inc. is a global business that sells clothes for climbing, skiing, and many other outdoorsy activities. Patagonia Inc. focuses on sports that are for the connection with nature rather than the cheering of a crowd. The company is focused on minimalism, and the products they sell never contain motors – they only sell things for “silent sports.”

The start of Patagonia Inc. was based on a love for the beauty of the outdoors, and with that in mind, the company has spent time trying to save the environment. The company, and in particular Yvon Chouinard, is committed to reversing the decline of the global environment. Not only do they spend time volunteering, but they also give at least 1% of their sales to grassroots environmental groups through their earth Tax Fund around the globe – with such a large company, but this is also no small feat. In addition, the company uses many sustainable practices, such as using recycled polyester and organic cotton for their clothing.

Due to this commitment to the environment, Yvon Chouinard has been awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize. The reasons that Yvon Chouinard was awarded the Ethics Prize? Primarily, Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia Inc. have their focus on employee wellness and their focus on the environment. Not only does Patagonia Inc. have flexible hours and onsite daycare, but the company uses solar panels to give its headquarters 10% of its total energy (located in California). Yvon Chouinard is being awarded for his “conscientious, humanistic business approach,” and is honored for “his integrity as a business leader and [his] lifetime commitment to corporate social responsibility.”

Yvon Chouinard was a pioneer in the idea of corporate social responsibility. From the start, he wanted to help the environment and keep the world beautiful. This Ethics Prize honors him for staying true to his values. Still, he is just one man of one corporation – many other corporations have followed suit and are also committed to corporate social responsibility. Profit and corporate social responsibility do not have to be two separate ideas. Rather, a business can focus on profit, but still, help the world and communities around them. If enough businesses commit to this idea, then perhaps reversing the decline in the global environment is not such a far-fetched idea.

– Corina Balsamo

Sources: Newswise, Patagonia, Herald Online