Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ethical Fashion: Shopping with Conscience After Bangladesh Disasters

Image courtesy of african_fi/
What is fashion? In one sense, it's how we express ourselves: how we translate our aesthetic desires into a deeply personal form of self-expression. Fashion also connects us: It identifies us as part of a culture, a subculture, even a global trend.

If art is about how we see the world, fashion concerns how we wish to be seen in the world. We hope to communicate something about who we are through what we wear-- and have fun doing it!

Yet, none of these things happen in a vacuum. Although we might think of fashion as something personal, these days it's positively global.

Most the clothes we buy are made in factories far away, factories that we'll never see or hear about in the news. What goes on there is hidden from view, but more and more, people are starting to take notice. Many of our clothes are made in unsafe or deadly conditions, by workers without adequate pay or the right to stand up for their needs.

The recent deadly collapse of a factory in Bangladesh, has made people all over the world realize: the way clothes are made has got to change.

One way to make a difference is to ask retailers to sign on to agreements that they will monitor their supply chain and raise standards in working conditions and wages. The National Consumers League has started a petition asking Americans to sign on saying that they'll pay $0.10 more for clothing made by better paid workers in safe conditions.

Would you pay $0.10 more per garment to prevent disasters like the factory collapse in Bangladesh? Then sign on at the National Consumer League's Facebook page for the "10 Cent Pledge."

You can also sign on asking Walmart to help stop retaliation against workers in Bangladesh who are standing up for fair working conditions. Click here to add your name.

What else can you do?

Lots! Support local and smaller artisans who create garments closer to home. Etsy is a great place to find some of those handmade items (but be aware-- there are a few "Etsy sellers" who ship obviously factory-made items from overseas.) Etsy is also a great source for vintage finds.

When shopping for new clothes, look for the Fair Trade label. Artisans in the developing world who make Fair Trade goods are paid a higher fraction of the purchase price of the item. Check out this fair trade shopping guide. Or look for a Made in the USA or UNITE label on clothing. American Apparel, the San Francisco based company, offers US-made clothes-- but their sizing (often only going up to size L or XL in women's wear) puts their clothes out of reach for curvier women.

Among the big clothing labels and retailers, there are no "gold star" standouts, but Eddie Bauer,  LL Bean, J Crew, TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Abercrombie and Fitch, Liz Claiborne and Timberland get a passing score on measures of fair labor practices.

If you need a little good news, know this: Many global clothing companies have signed on to the very important Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Code-- a legally enforceable deal that includes independent inspections of Bangladesh factories. Signatories, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, "commit to underwrite improvements in dangerous factories and properly confront fire safety and structural problems."

IndustriALL Global Union General Secretary Jyrki Raina said, “The companies who signed up are to be applauded. We are talking improving the working conditions and lives of some of the most exploited workers in the world...” Companies that have signed on include H & M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Benneton, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger. Sadly, industry leaders Walmart and Gap have not signed on.

As more people become aware of the serious problems in garment manufacturing, we can expect to see a bigger and better marketplace of fairly traded and USA-produced clothing and accessories.  Would we all agree to pay a little more for clothing made in fair, safe conditions? I think so. ❉

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