Fast Fashion: An Inside Look on Sweatshop Labor

fashion, social change
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.

A Fresh Take on “This is America”

news, social change

one thing I cannot believe people have NOT talked about yet is the impact of music videos on our youth, especially young black children. we’ve been warned in the past about how too much MTV is bad for you, but what exactly are music videos doing to children? in Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video, we watch a stream of recurring problems for African Americans (which we are sadly desensitized to at this point), but I feel like the biggest one has flown right above everybody’s head.

there’s a reason he chose black school children in uniforms as his dancers. if they were in any other dress, we would forget that these kids are only in school. imagine being a young black child after school, scrolling through the channels. all he or she sees is a sea of white: white actors, white problems, white music. then they stop at BET or MTV or ESPN and sees someone who looks like them. they see talent, fame, and a ticket to respect. (something children clearly do not have enough of, but more on that later.)

they see these moves. they imitate them, in hopes to be as good as what they see on their TV screen. then there’s the words, the enticing rhythm and flow. violence is a common theme they rap along to. so is sex, alcohol, and drugs. when they repeat this cycle enough, it becomes the norm. then they bring it to school. they start living it out on the weekends. and when life gets to be too much, there’s the unlucky ones who take it to the streets and probably end up belonging to the streets till they hit the grave. the streets are where those music video dreams can come alive.

in “This is America,” among all the chaos and crime, the children dance as a way of expression, but ultimately represent the influence black musicians can have. Donald Glover shows how he can smile and dance and rap without taking a second look at the chaos behind him, and the teens blindly follow in suit. he’s blatantly calling out the rappers who are not using their privilege to speak the truth and break the cycle. the same can also be said for the media, which has a track record of depicting African Americans as criminals.

going forward, we should empower youth, especially black youth, to show them a way out of this false narrative. I feel like there’s a lot of unnecessary hate in this country and to fix it, we need to take a step back, think about that feeling, and learn as much about it as we can to offer a solution. rap artists should take note that they have a very difficult/important role to play, too, but rap & hip hop may very well be the bridge that brings us all together.

Eating Rights

agriculture, social change, what I'm eating

Three years ago, if you told me that I would be an animal and environmental rights activist because of what I was eating, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. My food writing journey has been an amazing one – sampling, sipping, and telling stories about the best food and drink you could imagine. But along the way, I began to listen to other stories – ones that affect you and me. The “local” eating movement goes beyond supporting local businesses. It’s about supporting practices that are 1. humane and 2. sustainable. And while the concept seems pretty simple, finding restaurants that follow those same ethics are not.

Slow Fashion

Boulder Weekly, news, profiles, social change
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.

Standing Up

personal, social change

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.