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How to Make Affordable, Socially Responsible Clothing Purchases

By Mary McCoy

fair trade clothingIn May 2013, consumers looked on with horror when news agencies reported the deaths of 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers in a factory collapse. But unfortunately, for every high-profile report of exploited garment workers, there are thousands of untold stories of abuse within the fashion and clothing industry.

The supply chains of American-worn clothing are complex and involve workers in many countries and many phases of textile production. As a result, many consumers – even consumers who are socially conscious – are likely wearing items that are made by exploited workers and modern-day slaves.

Thankfully, nonprofit organizations, worker advocates, some clothing lines, and the general public are increasingly concerned about abuses within the clothing supply chain. With a little knowledge and effort, it’s possible to make socially responsible clothing choices that save lives without destroying your finances.

Exploitation Within the Garment Industry

The fashion industry, supported by the production of garments, is big business. According to the Fashion Performance Network, the global apparel retail industry was valued at $1.1 trillion in 2011, which doesn’t even include the sales of shoes and accessories. A great deal of the market is supported by the sale of inexpensive (and often low-quality) garments that are churned out in sweatshops and sold to consumers. Once these garments wear out, the consumer then returns to the retail shop for another round of low-quality apparel, thus creating a cycle of demand for a supply of cheaply made clothing.

Although it’s challenging to estimate how many garment workers are employed or held in unfair conditions, Labour Behind the Label reports that the majority of the world’s garment workers earn no more than $2 per day, and that it’s common for employees to work 16 to 18 hours per day, seven days per week. To further drive down the costs of production, textile factories often maintain dangerous facilities that do not meet the building codes, even in developing countries.

This cycle of impoverished and exploited workers in unsafe conditions creates a perfect setup for tragedies like the one that occurred in Bangladesh. And sadly, these reports do not even account for the workers that are held as modern-day slaves, which is also a regular occurrence within the garment industry.

clothing being made

How to Make Socially Responsible Clothing Choices

The complexity of the clothing supply chain can make it challenging for consumers to make socially responsible choices. Ultimately, a socially responsible choice in the context of clothing should mean that you’re making decisions that take a stand against the exploitation of workers.

With that in mind, it’s important to have an understanding of the types of choices that can actually make a difference. A smart choice is one that reduces the demand for a supply of clothing made by human beings in unacceptable employment.

1. Know Your Favorite Brands
For many years, it was impossible to really know whether your favorite brand had exploitative practices in its supply chain. Even if the brand was made in America, it was possible for the cotton in the product or the cloth itself to come from a dubious international source.

Thankfully, there are now nonprofit organizations that have made transparency their mission. For example, Free2Work provides comprehensive information about brands related to trafficking and other labor abuses. You can now look at Free2Work’s Apparel Industry Trends for information about a wide variety of beloved apparel brands, including a grading system to help guide you to responsible choices. For instance, both Lacoste and Abercrombie & Fitch earned very poor grades, but Adidas and Timberland actually scored fairly well on the grading system.

Although Free2Work doesn’t have information about every brand available to purchase, it’s at least a starting point. Surprisingly, the cost to consumers between the brands is comparable, no matter the grade of each particular brand. As a result, you may not have to spend any more money on a brand with an “A” grade than a brand with an “F.”

2. Avoid Notorious Sources
For those brands that are not on Free2Work’s guide, you’ll need to make a decision informed by what you know about the industry at large. Exploitation, child labor, and modern-day slavery are huge problems across the entire global garment industry. Some international sources are notorious for deplorable practices. For instance, we know that nations like Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia regularly use children in their clothing production. Avoid purchasing clothing that has any one of these nations listed on its tag.

3. Look for Fair Trade Options
Unfortunately, you may find that your options are limited once you start looking at the place of production. If you find that all of the clothing for purchase at your local Walmart is made in Bangladesh or India (which is quite likely), you can begin looking for Fair Trade options.

Traditionally, the Fair Trade certification was used on foods like coffee, tea, and cocoa, but Fair Trade USA recently began to offer the certification to clothing companies. A Fair Trade certification on clothing means that your purchase fairly compensates the farmers who grow the cotton all the way to the workers who sew the garments. This is a new certification, so the only companies that have earned it so far are Good & Fair Clothing, HAE Now, prAna, and Tompkins Point Apparel.

4. Purchase From Companies that Rehabilitate
Even though all of the information about labor exploitation can be devastating to learn about, there is amazing rehabilitative work happening around the world. Companies such as Bajalia partner with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and churches to sell clothing, accessories, and crafts produced by men, women, and children who are escaping exploitative conditions.

If you purchase goods produced by a former exploited worker, you’re supporting the livelihood of an individual who escaped horrifying conditions. Essentially, you’re not only boycotting conditions that are unacceptable, but you’re putting your money towards working conditions that are good, honorable, and humane. You can expect to spend about 50% more on goods that are fairly traded if you purchase through Bajalia.

5. Reduce Your Consumption
All of the above-mentioned ideas are pointers for purchases. But it’s also worthwhile to consider your purchasing patterns, and whether or not you want to make reductions in the number of products you purchase so you can afford to buy more responsible clothing in smaller quantities.

It’s easier to afford the 50% markup on fairly traded accessories if you’re not shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on items that are the cheaply made fashion of the moment. Not only that, high-quality items are likely to last longer than their inexpensive but cheaply made counterparts.

clothing being made

Final Word

Making sure that you’re following fashion trends from day to day is not worth supporting labor exploitation. With a little mindfulness and research, it’s possible to appear trendy without making another human being pay dearly for your fashion. All of the Fair Trade brands mentioned above, and many of the brands that have an “A” or “B” rating on Free2Work, are also quite fashionable and affordable.

Mix your socially responsible clothing with statement accessories to put forth a fresh look that you can feel good about. A little bit of effort and restraint on the part of American consumers can make a global difference.

How do you plan to apply your knowledge of labor exploitation to your clothing purchases?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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  • Teffany @ Critical Financial

    I have some Guess t-shirts and I really loved the fabric of the cloth. It’s quite expensive but the quality of the cloth is worth it.

  • Stapler Confessions

    Thanks for the suggestions. I am a bargain shopper, so I’m sure that most of my clothes are cheaply and exploitatively made. But now I might change my tune. I also will try to find the clothes I want at consignment stores too — hopefully not perpetuating the cycle as much as I usually am.

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