It’s pretty normal at this point to enter a grocery store and check the ingredient lists of the products we’re interested in buying before we buy them, right? We know that if we’re looking for something that isn’t full of crap, it’s best to take the front of the package at face value and that the back is where we will find out whether or not the product is really worth the purchase.
It’s also well known that by supporting the cultivation of local goods you’re likely to find at a farmers market or health food store, there are many benefits to be gained. Not only as far as your personal health is concerned, but as far as the community, economy, and environment are concerned as well.
I know, I know, you don’t come here for info on the food industry. I have a point, I promise!
And that, my friends, is that the clothing industry needs to be approached in the exact same way we have learned to approach the food industry. However, it’s a concept far less recognized, and the labels on our garments tell us far less than what should be considered vital information.
It’s time to refuse the front of the package as truth (the pure marketing of products) and question the industry itself so we can really begin to understand the kind of impact the clothing we purchase has on us, the farmers and makers of textiles, those who sew the garments together for us, our economy, and the environment.
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family.” -Kofi Annan
But before we question the industry, it’s important to realize the role we’ve played as consumers and question ourselves.
How much do you know about the clothes you have on right now?
Do you know where your shirt, pants, and shoes came from?
A quick glance at the tags and you will likely find that they were manufactured overseas, but that’s probably it besides the materials that account for the largest part of the garment and how to wash them so they don’t fall apart.
Look further into it on the internet and you may quickly realize that getting an explanation of where your clothes actually come from may very well be about as complicated as explaining to a child where babies come from (hint, it ain’t a stork-type situation).
But dare I say, it’s just as necessary a conversation to have.
And we’re going to have that conversation today (about clothing ladies and gents, not sex).
“We must know who is making our garments. We must care about that. We must ask questions, plea for a better way to create a sustainable environment for the people, places, and things that inhabit our planet.” -Erin Loechner
So, where do the majority of our clothes come from?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 97% of apparel being sold in the US has been imported from China and other offshore manufacturing facilities in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. That leaves only 3% for domestic consumption, which, in the 1960s was almost the exact opposite- 95% of apparel sold in the US was indeed made in the US. And until the 1990s, the majority of apparel sold in the US was still being manufactured on home turf- the Carolinas, Cali, New York, Washington, and Georgia being the primary producers. Iconic USA-made brands I’m sure you’re familiar with were Levi’s, Hanes, The Gap, Nike, Cherokee… I say “were” because many of these brands began their production in the US, but are now outsourcing production (information junkies click here for extra credit).
Why the change?
There were a few brands who experienced immense financial growth (The Gap and J. C. Penny for example) and could venture overseas to outsource their production. There were larger textile mills and factories in China (where it all started) and they were not only offering raw materials and cheap labor- they were offering more workers up for the assembly line which would yield larger quantities in less time.
To add to that, those powerhouse brands ended up developing global supply chains in which they could divide up the production process amongst the factories that would manufacture different pieces at lower prices. The Gap, for example, by 2003 was ordering garments from over 1,200 factories that were spread over 40 different countries.
From what they could see, there were only benefits to gain in the case of not only their brand but the US consumer as well- lower prices.
And due to those lower prices, the consumption of apparel grew, and by the 2000s it was completely normal for a business to have their products made overseas because companies manufacturing in the USA couldn’t keep up with the competition- it was too expensive. By 2011, apparel manufacturing had faced an 85% decline in employment.
And the consumption of clothing has only continued to rise, resulting in lowered standards on all fronts of the apparel industry- from the import restrictions on foreign-made clothing to the materials and chemicals used to construct the clothing itself, to the working conditions and wages the modern garment worker subjects themselves to in order to pay for food and shelter.
“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” -Gandhi
All of that has led us to where we are today which, I know, seems pretty bleak. But the ”slow” fashion movement is gaining traction and more companies are beginning to focus on the sustainability of their products. I’m pumped about it because it’s leading to the development of some pretty kick-ass technology (a topic for another day) that will allow us to not only start improving what we’ve done in the past to the planet, but to all who are involved in the manufacturing process as well. It’s also important to note that not all overseas manufacturing is the devil- there are quite a few companies out there that are empowering local craftspeople around the world by giving them a platform to sell their goods and even teaching farmers about more sustainable practice.
“Sometimes if you want to see a change for the better, you have to take things into your own hands.” -Clint Eastwood
The clothes that we wear come with a host of stories, both good and bad, and we’re going to keep sharing those stories in efforts to further send a message that desperately needs to be sent. And that is that we as individuals, small business owners, and big business owners need to be educated on where our clothing comes from, who made it, what it's made out of, and the effects those materials have on a global scale so we can reform the apparel industry for the betterment of, well, everyone.
by Alexa Francisco
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