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.

Slow Fashion

Photo courtesy of Robins Photography

Just about every sector of business is geared toward sustainability these days. Sustainable agriculture, energy and tourism are all a given, but sustainable fashion is just beginning to disrupt the traditionally wasteful mainstream fashion industry.

Denverite Deb Henriksen, owner and founder of the rocker-chic brand Equillibrium, is poised to keep moving the fashion industry’s momentum forward. Her mission is to educate others about their own consumerism while bringing her sense of style to life with responsibly sourced textiles and materials.

Henriksen owns a storefront, and creates and sells clothes made of sustainable textiles such as organic cotton, bamboo and hemp. The idea for Equillibrium was born in 1998, when Henriksen began to dream of having her own eco-friendly fashion boutique. In 2000, Equillibrium began as a wholesale brand that was carried in skate and snowboard shops around Denver and Breckenridge. She opened her first store in 2004 (now located on West Custer Place) and hasn’t stopped since.

Continue reading “Slow Fashion”

Standing Up

I read a post on Facebook the other day asking friends to offer words of support to her brother being bullied at school. What stuck out to me was that she said she had never been bullied before which is why she was asking in the first place. Never been bullied!? I guess it surprised me because I figured everybody has been bullied at least once in their life. I’m almost 24 years old and I still have adults who try to bring me down.

Continue reading “Standing Up”

The Grey Area No One Talks About

After growing up in a predominantly black community then living in an all-white community, you see the stark differences of each other’s perceptions of race. When I lived in Cleveland, the first person who had ever called me out on my race was six years old and he called me Chinese. He was black and I was so stunned I didn’t say anything at all because until then I was color blind. In my mind though, I knew I was Filipino, not Chinese, but little did I know I was going to have to listen to that presumption for the rest of my life. I was very shy all through elementary and middle school, which is the time I lived in Cleveland, and if I said anything, someone would bring up my race or call me Chinese again. Why? I have no idea. It wasn’t ever relevant and if it was, I didn’t see a reason.

There were two kinds of black people. There were the ones who looked past the race because possibly it was their innocent minds or their parents who had taught them that it wasn’t nice to discriminate. Then there were the ones who could only see race. What struck me most was how much they hated white people and everything affiliated. It was bad to act white, look white, talk white, be white. Obviously, as we got older and we went to school with white people, this shushed down a bit but I knew it was still a living thought inside their heads. When I grew up, my version of learning about slavery and black history month is very different from the white perspective. When we learned about lynching and how the slaves got beat, you could see shame and sadness in my fellow classmates eyes but you could also see anger. So that’s the root of this. So that’s why we live one way and they live another. Although it was beneficial to learn about our history, I felt like it created an even bigger divide because racism clearly isn’t over. I vividly remember watching this cartoon in fifth grade about what would happen if segregation didn’t end and how this kid couldn’t talk to his black friends because they didn’t even go to his school anymore and the Mexican girl he was friends with didn’t even speak English and she was mopping up the floor. My teachers didn’t teach us how to get over discrimination. They just told us about it. So subtlety, they passed down this bit of information and engrained in our little 10-year-old minds is how white people treated black people badly because they were black. Now at this point, it seems obvious what was currently going on but no one was going to come out and say it, no one was going to come out and admit it.

As for the other side, when I grew up in Kirksville, there were almost no black people. None of my peers or friends outright ever said anything about black people for fear of being racist. They liked their music, movies, clothes, etc. No one talked about race but once again, but that’s because no one had to, they didn’t have to worry about being white. But racism runs deep and hides, just waiting for that crucial moment to reveal itself in the ugliest fashion. And it comes out in spurts, unknowingly adding to that divide I was talking about earlier. I’ve heard white people call black people niggers, even though the term is derogatory. I’ve heard white people call black people colored, which is incredibly discriminatory because not too long ago, there was a white line and a colored line.

In my cross-cultural class, we learned about a term called legal lynching. When Lincoln abolished slavery, there is a clause in the Emancipation Proclamation that says black men are free until they commit a crime. And what do you know? A clause that continues slavery. There are more black people in jail now then there were black slaves in 1860. America has the highest incarceration rate. Slavery hasn’t ended. Instead of burning black people at the stake, lynching them, dragging them through town on a horse… they are thrown in jail. Still ripped apart from their families. Still unable to qualify for a good education or job. Still viewed at, differently, because of his skin. Black people don’t have to have shackles around their ankles or a sign that announces that they’re black. They are born into systematic racism and there is nothing for them to do about it. And without this tidbit of knowledge, it’s easy for black people to hate whites. It’s easy for white people to say these things without knowing about it’s consequences. Adding to the divide. Adding to the racism that has never properly been taken care of. It’s hard to wrap your mind around this. It’s hard to undo everything you’ve ever heard or seen because that’s what you’ve grown up to knowing. But this is the truth. It is cleverly hidden, using the media to portray only black criminals therefore pushing that divide even more.

What upsets me the most is how in recent events, I have found out who my racist friends are and they don’t even know it. I understand the riots in Ferguson are unnecessary and violent but both sides are to blame. This is beyond Michael Brown. He is just another casualty, another piece in the puzzle of racism. Everyone is acting how racism wants them to. What do you know, violent black people? What do you know, white people who are still talking shit over a problem they created? Instead of being peaceful and understanding and wanting to make a change, everyone is letting their anger take over. Everyone is quick to jump the gun and point fingers and find someone to blame. On both sides. I’ve never been so disgusted by social media. Oh, think of Darren Wilson’s family. Think of the tax payers who have to clean up this mess. Tell them to shut up and get jobs. We have our guns to protect us from them! If it was a white guy who got shot, no one would care. All uneducated responses. Irrelevant. This country is still racist and this is going to happen again because of your indifference.

I want this all to end. I want everyone to stop hating each other. I want to be able to meet someone without them seeing my race first. This goes beyond black and white. This country doesn’t even want Latinos here, even though they are running from persecution. I wish I could tell everyone not to immigrate here because it is not worth the discrimination and hate. It’s not fair to be six years old and my first lesson in America is how I’m different and how I will be treated different because of my race for the rest of my life. Don’t come here until this problem is fixed. As for everyone else, please be conscious of your words and actions. Stop the divide. Do your homework before you speak. Open your eyes. Think of the consequences and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to get over this once and for all…