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?


  1. Thanks for this wonderful post! I've been interested in ethically sourced clothing since reading the book Over-dressed by Elizabeth Cline. I love Everlane. Weston Wear also seems to check out (made in SF). The NYC-based boutique Kaight carries lots of ethically-made clothing brands, like Feral Childe and Prairie Underground.

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  2. Thank you for this post! How was the sizing on Everlane silk blouses? I'm curious, but never ordered from them before and would like to know..

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  3. Great post. But let's not forget that while clothes may be made in the U.S., where's the fabric coming from? Do these companies you mention also get their fabrics from the U.S.?

  4. I love Stewart Brown, both for their organic fabrics and other fair trade practices.

  5. It's a complicated issue- on the one hand we've lost so much culture and community by moving production overseas, but there are also mamy people (many of them women) who are able to attain independence and a better life through responsibly managed textile factories. Unfortunately it's very difficult to know where those are. Which is why we need to demand transparency from our favourite stores. And they probably don't know!
    I like to buy from local designers when I can- there's such a healthy effect on the community and economy... Definitely feel guilty about buying cheap disposable single-wear tees from f21!

  6. It's a very complicated issue, I agree with Sarah.
    Personally, I don't buy cheap disposable clothes much but it's more to do with me being a snob than being socially responsible. I would like to buy more local.
    As well, the solution is not to boycott clothes made overseas. Yes, the women don't make very much money, but if we boycotted completely, they wouldn't make *any* money.
    It's tough, and unfortunately the guilty voice in my head isn't as loud as it should be.

  7. You have to understand that even though companies say they have policies in place, they just tell the factories / countries once, and never bother to check on them again.

    To find a truly ethical company is like searching for a unicorn.

    Lisa made a great point above about the fabric not coming from the U.S. -- it's from China. And I have a whole rant on basically how China has no limit in how low they will sink to make money.

    Read: Can you trust anything made in China?

    In regards to the best way to avoid all of this? It's to go thrift / consignment shopping. Period.

    I am definitely not a saint in this regard, but I can tell you a trench coat from China made by J. Crew sells for $355. Sure, the cotton is from Japan, but the labour is from China. A Burberry one, taking into account its designer name, sells for $1500.

    The markup could CERTAINLY be $1000, but it's made in England of the same Japanese cotton (or so they say), with more details and so on.

    You can read a comparison of labour and wage costs I did here with Hunter boots and Aigle boots made in France.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. This is something close to my heart.

  8. There's a price you pay for cheap clothing, or cheap anything. Someboday has to make it and if it's very low price, you know that it did not cost much to make, If you are really politically conscious, then you need to think about where you shop and which labels you buy. I have never purchased anything from Old Navy, mainly because I don't like the quality. Having said that, it's very difficult to find clothing that are made in US or not a third world country.

  9. I've had good luck with One Mango Tree ( for more casual shirts and dresses - they're fair trade, organic clothing from uganda, and the prices are pretty reasonable.

  10. Just received silk blouse from everlane and they are a perfect weight silk. Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. Wait a minute!?.. Where the hell is Kathryn!? i haven't seen that poor girl since her mother passed away. T_T

  12. Nice clothing. Especially I liked the last ones. I would like to get those jeans and a T-shirt.

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