Fast Fashion: An Inside Look on Sweatshop Labor

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Ramsdell of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the CU Denver Business School.

Last Tuesday, I went to the CU Denver Business School to attend a discussion about fast fashion and sweatshop labor. Our panelists were Benjamin Powell, an economics professor at Texas Tech and author of “Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy,” and Joris Oldenziel, a Fire and Building Safety director of the Accord in Bangladesh. The conversation spurred some disagreements, but in the end is all about improving the conditions for sweatshop workers.

What is a sweatshop? By definition, it’s an industrial textile factory that:

  • pays workers low wages for long unpredictable hours
  • mistreats their workers (verbal abuse)
  • has unhealthy or oppressive work environments (no meal or bathroom breaks)
  • violates the few labor laws the country has

On top of this list is the physical impact of unregulated factory practices. Joris says in Bangladesh, the second largest producer of garments in the world, there is a lax building code and factories would build up, constructing a floor on top of an existing floor, to make more room for workers. Factories would also knock foundation walls out to expand their space, more or less resulting in a death trap for these workers.

In 2013, the workers in Rana Plaza refused to enter because they felt the building was unsound. However they were forced to re-enter or else lose their jobs. In the end, 1100 people died, many more were injured. Among the rubble, the garments that were pulled out seemed very familiar: Walmart, H&M, Calvin Klein, to name a few. Other factory incidents were documented at Spectrum, Garib + Garib, That’s It, and Tazreen in Bangladesh.

In response, The Accord was created on May 15, 2013. The Accord is a legally binding agreement to hold brands, retailers, unions, and factories all accountable to prevent accidents like this in the future. It requires safety inspections of at least 1600 factories in Bangladesh, conducts reports for transparency purposes, works with brands to make sure changes are financially feasible, and allows workers to refuse to work. There are 200 brands involved, such as United Colors of Benetton, PVH, Target, American Eagle, and NGOs. Fifty percent of the brands involved manufacture RMGs (ready made garments that consumers buy).  

Joris says the fire and electrical factory inspections have greatly reduced the number of factory incidents. Some problems within the factories were wall and foundation cracks, blocked exits and aisles (which was the reason for the Tazreen collapse), electrical wiring, no management of garment weight, and collapsible gates. The Accord has also implemented informational employee meetings with booklets in their language on safety and details about the Accord. Since 2013, Joris says there’s been 2,000 factory inspections, 25,000 follow-ups, 150,000 hazards eliminated, and 91 percent of remediation.

The Accord would like to transition its role to the government, but there are conflicts of interest as the government of Bangladesh is against it. (Their government officials are also factory owners… imagine that.) Joris says they appealed to court earlier this month (February 18), so there is more to follow on the Accord in the future.

Ben Powell of Texas Tech provided a logical voice to the conversation and brought up how to improve the condition of sweatshops: through wage determination and total compensation. If these factories are indeed improving working conditions, which would be a more attractive option for workers, competing businesses who aren’t in The Accord could easily take workers with a higher wage.

“Don’t jeopardize the least bad alternative in comparison to other options,” says Ben. “You have to give them more or better work options or it will push them into worse alternatives.” Bangladesh, overall, will have to create high standards for work environments, better wages, and more developed labor laws that will prevent garment workers from leaving their job for the next “not as bad” opportunity.

Joris added that brands have to be held accountable as well, not just the government or factories, and have the responsibility to make sure that it is a standard to regulate these factories.

The discussion was so eye-opening to me as our business is constantly learning about how to be a sustainable fashion collective. As much as I am for USA-made apparel, I do fully support the ethical decisions being made to create safer work environments and better wages for factories overseas. There is a market and high demand for ethically created clothing. I think about the workers, people who are just trying to make a living and support a family, who work so hard just so we can wear the hottest new fashion styles. They deserve to go to work without fearing for their lives. I hope by educating my audience about all the nuances of fast fashion, we can all be more conscious consumers in the future.

Skip the Shower with Zola Oil Company

Photo courtesy of Brit Cole

Dry skin. Sunburnt noses. Itchy scalps. It’s the less glamorous side of living in a state as arid as Colorado. We already know that washing your hair every day is bad for you, but choosing in-between-wash products is often a mysterious shopping process. How hard is it to find a dry shampoo that’s made of ingredients that we can understand?

One day, I was perusing the Denver Fashion Truck storefront in Sunnyside and found a little bottle of dry shampoo by Zola Oil Co. that checked my list: a chemical-free ingredient list, striking packaging, and made by a local business. I also loved that it was a powder, which soaks, rather than alcohol-based, which dries your locks even more. Leña Leyva, Zola’s founder, says she was tired of washing her hair every day but couldn’t find any dry shampoos in the market that worked nor catered to people of color’s hair types. That’s when she took it in her own hands to create her own.

Photo courtesy of Nigel Penhale

With the help of her family and friends (a nurse practitioner mother with a holistic background and a geneticist cousin whose colleague just happened to be studying the microbiome of the armpit), Leña was able to successfully test-run her own batches of dry shampoo and deodorant and launched Zola Oil Co.’s online storefront in January 2017. Her mantra, “Save the Flora,” refers to keeping everyone’s unique natural microbiome healthy since it’s often disrupted by over-washing and stripping the body of its good-for-you bacteria. She says her products are made of gentle enough ingredients that work with, not remove, the flora. 

Zola Oil Co. business owner Leña Leyva wanted to make beauty products with natural ingredients that you could use in between washes without disrupting your body’s local flora. Photo courtesy of Brit Cole

Leña has rolled out more products in the past couple of years such as facial oils, beard care, and feminine deodorant, and hopes it will start more conversations about each other’s bodies and personal hygiene. Zola is definitely a beauty goal that we all can get behind.

Zola Oil Co. can be found online or at any of these Front Range storefronts

Head to RiNo’s MAM Couture Boutique

The colorful rhino insignia represents the RiNo (River North) Art District, one of Denver’s fastest growing neighborhoods.

MAM (MakeAMill) Couture Boutique has been around Denver since 2000, so it’s no surprise that they have a cult following from professional athletes to entertainers as well as local and visiting clientele. Owner Rashad Randolph, backed by his business partner, Delgie Jones, and brothers, Brandon and Kyl, started MakeAMill in his mom’s garage by printing and selling Supreme and Tall t-shirts (circa the time rappers wore long t-shirts to layer under jerseys, velour jumpsuits, and, ahem, the infamous sagging jeans trend). In 2017, Rashad opened up his first brick-and-mortar, MAM Couture Boutique, by the University of Denver where college students frequently visited the shop. However, when school wasn’t in session, business fell short and he knew that MAM Couture had to move. This past March, Rashad was in luck and landed a lease at the former RiNo Art District headquarters on Blake Street and now neighbors a marketing mogul and furniture company.

The art mural that decorates the boutique’s left inside wall was leftover from the time the main office of the RiNo Art District occupied the space.

Don’t let the constant construction and pretentiousness of RiNo stall you from coming. You aren’t going to find threadbare bohemian dresses or Patagonia outerwear here. Instead, Rashad provides affordable options for male and female shoppers who are looking for an urban-meets-Colorado streetwear boutique. Rashad says he’s inspired by designers such as Ronnie Fieg (owner of Kith in New York City) and knows his customers appreciates trends, fabrics, and details you wouldn’t find anywhere else. If you find something you like, you better grab it fast — to keep items exclusive, Rashad only sells a limited selection of each item (one in each size). A few new lines in the works for MAM Couture are “Yes MAM,” curated by Rashad’s partner, Angel, and “Chief Couture,” which will focus on high-end couture clothing. If you’re searching for a boutique that genuinely captures Denver’s urban spirit, look no further than MAM Couture.    

Address: 2901 Blake St., Suite 165
Phone: 303-472-7937
Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. noon-6 p.m.

Umbrla Supply’s “Buy a Hat, Plant a Tree” Mission

Photo courtesy of Matt Brodeur

You may have spotted the upside down umbrella logo stamped on hoodies, hats, and t-shirts around the streets of Denver. Beside the clean design, neutral tones, and comfort factor, those umbrellas stand for something more. For every purchase made at clothing brand Umbrla Supply, one tree is planted through the non-profit reforestation organization, Plant-It 20/20.

The brains behind this green fashion dream, which brings another meaning to circular fashion, was manifested by Adam Swartz, an Indiana University-Bloomington graduate and founder of Umbrla Supply. While he was studying art management, he was given a project to come up with a real world business plan. Adam began to make shirts to sell around campus, with the idea that every garment sold would go toward the planting of one tree.

When he graduated in May 2014, Adam moved to Boulder, Colorado and has been in the Centennial State ever since. He ran Native Roots Dispensary’s social media until this past summer, while scouting new manufacturers and suppliers for Umbrla Supply in the meantime. In October 2016, the brand branched into a new venture, Umbrla Creative, as Adam teamed up with business partner/roommate Matt Brodeur, a freelance photographer, to help him with his brand. Umbrla Creative has grown immensely in the last two years; they offer videography and marketing services out of a brick-and-mortar in LoDo, and get to travel all over the world to represent brands they love such as Boulder’s trek-gear company Matador and Ned’s Full Spectrum Hemp products out of Paonia.

When Adam’s not focusing on his business, he still designs for Umbrla Supply on the side. He describes his clothes as a reflection of his personal life: minimalist and clean, earthy heather tones combined with grey, teal, and fuschia. Adam says since he’s started, Umbrla Supply has planted 5,200 trees through Plant-It 20/20 and other local organizations. This winter, be on the lookout for Adam’s latest designed sweatshirts and hats, as well as a possible Tokyo pop-up shop and more collaborations in the Far East.

Dior: From Paris to the World


The highly anticipated fashion exhibit, Dior: From Paris to the World, will be open to the public on Monday, November 19 until March 17 at the Denver Art Museum.

After two years of meticulous curation, an A-team led by Dior expert Florence Müller, the museum’s Avenir Foundation curator of textile art and fashion, and renowned architect Shohei Shigematsu, an OMA New York director and partner, visually tells the story of the iconic French designer Christian Dior (1905-1957) and the playful path the House of Dior follows.

In 1947, Dior shocked the fashion world in more ways than one. After the devastation of World War II, Dior’s bright and colorful vision put Paris back into the international spotlight as fashion capital of the world. It was as if the end of the war allowed Dior to finally breathe and express himself freely. The result: a “New Look” of dresses that celebrated the female body (cinched waistlines, fuller pleated skirts, embellishments) and becoming a fashion pioneer by being the first to accessorize his creations with his own purses, gloves, and heels. “The world was his playground,” Müller says, as Dior was invited to India, Japan, and the Americas to design dresses for the wealthy and royal. Though Dior reigned for a short 10 years, his vision has inspired six more artistic designers to pay homage to the house he built.

The exhibit is chronologically set for the most part. At the beginning, as you pause to admire Dior’s rendition of the New Look over the past seventy years, you’ll notice the up-cycled mill aluminum backdrop, which Shigematsu says was to mimic the titanium juts of the art museum itself, but also feels like a nod to Denver’s own growing industrial feel. After checking out designs by Dior and his successor, a then-novice Yves-Saint Laurent, you’ll be stunned by “The Office of Dreams,” a wall full of suspended dress sketches made of white cotton muslin. Then take a tour of women who’ve sported Dior throughout the years (Marilyn Monroe, Rihanna, Charlize Theron, to name a few) and get a glimpse into Dior’s evolving line inspired by surrounding eras, culture, and art. There’s much to see at the Dior exhibit (18th century French-inspired dresses sure to impress Marie Antoinette herself, as well as a neatly stacked rainbow wall, chock full of bold statement accessories), so visit to get in on this exclusive display of fashion history today.

Written for Hand in Hand, a publication. See original article here.