Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fast Fashion and Other Dilemmas

A few weeks ago, I stopped in at Old Navy. I picked up some things for my kids - pants for Rowan for $15 a pair, tees for Kate, on sale for $4 a piece. I browsed the women's section, and picked up a mint-colored cardigan for $22. It was a simple, and pretty harmless way to scratch the itch for a little something new.

At least, that's what I thought then.

A little over a month ago, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1100 people. Rescue and recovery efforts are still going on but the chances of finding any survivors in the rubble grow slimmer by the hour. I can't even begin to imagine the ordeal that those not killed immediately must suffer through, as they wait - many of them in vain - to be saved. This is not the first tragedy of this kind to occur in Bangladesh and other developing countries, where factories packed with laborers in poor working conditions hearken back to the U.S.'s own shadowed history with unsafe working conditions and related deaths in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I like a good deal as much as the next person. But not enough that I'm willing to put people's lives in jeopardy. Turns out that I'm not alone and the majority of surveyed Americans feel much the same way.

(I ordered a couple of these silk blouses - they're really lovely and the quality is good. Just an FYI, the lighter colors, like the gray, are a bit sheer, so I'll be wearing that with a cami underneath. The navy was great as is.)

So, with that in mind, I'm paying more attention. And in doing so, I was disappointed to note that only two American companies (Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and IZOD) have signed onto a new factory safety agreement that has been signed by some prominent European companies, including H&M, Inditex (owner of Zara), C&A of the Netherlands, and Primark and Tesco from Great Britain, among others. The new accord is a legally binding contract that calls for independent and rigorous safety inspections in all Bangladeshi factories, with all mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by the western companies who are signatories.

There's some controversy about whether such an agreement is putting the cart before the horse. For instance, critics of the plan say that there's no point in stressing worker safety in a country that has no legal provisions for worker rights as it is. Others point out that it should be the responsibility of the factory owners, not the companies contracting the factories, to pay for safety improvements.

It seems to me, however, that in a country as poor as Bangladesh, where the average factory worker makes $37 a month, it's not entirely unreasonable for wealthy multi-national companies who are contracting the factories to help protect the well-being and safety of most vulnerable in this system. 

This is not to say this is problem that's easily corrected. There are a lot of systemic changes that need to be made to ensure that workers' safety and rights are protected. Still, it's important not to feel defeated by the complexity of the issues, or the complications that may arise. We, as consumers, have an important role in this - we can "vote with our pocketbooks" as it were by shopping with brands and retailers who utilize ethical and sustainable practices, as well as actually call or write companies and ask explicitly about what they're doing to prevent future tragedies as well as human suffering, in the production of their garments.

As an example, I reached out to one of my favorite retailers (Nordstrom) to ask them what they do, and was relieved to hear that they actually have a company policy about this (you can read it here) that includes standards of workers' rights, providing fair employment practices, and ensuring safe work environments; audits of building permits, maintenance records, and safety procedures prior to entering into contracts with factories; and monitoring and auditing processes that include direct management of relationships with factories, auditors, and agents on the ground by Nordstrom team members.

I have to say that while researching for this post, I found it discouragingly difficult to find fair trade, ethical, sustainably made fashions that I actually wanted to wear. There are lots of accessory companies, but not as many clothing ones. In the meantime, I'll keep looking and will post here, occasionally. So far, I came across the following brands who are making clothing in Los Angeles, using thoughtful and sustainable practices: Everlane (blouse pictured at near the top of the post), Kristinit (see dress pictured), and of course, AG Jeans (above) of which I've long been a fan (yay for AG Stevies!). 

So, what about you? Do you know of any good fair trade, ethical fashion brands that you'd like to share? Is this something you consider when you shop?