Remember Kathie Lee Gifford breaking down when she saw footage of young girls working in a decrepit garment factory for slave wages? They were assembling her personal line of clothing to be sold at Walmart. Kathie Lee subsequently vowed to help put sweatshops out of business. But, 17 years later, have the dismal working conditions in poor countries improved? Experts on labor and workplace issues say no.
Case in point: the collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza garment factory killing 1,021 workers. The April 24th disaster has been described as one of the worst industrial accidents ever – in any industry, in any country. The death toll surpasses New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 in 1911. It also surpassed more recent tragedies, such as a fire in a Pakistan factory that that killed 260, and one in Bangladesh that killed 112 garment workers last year.
Even the Pope has joined the debate. “This is called slave labor,” he said, on learning the average garment worker earned less than $38 a month toiling in such deadly conditions.
Seventeen years ago, Kathie Lee’s tears inspired a revolution in consumer awareness about the garment industry. Did that awareness translate into consumers getting fashionable clothing made by people who work in humane conditions for a livable wage? Did that awareness produce a demand for clothing made in the United States, where we have laws protecting our workers?
“Buy American” did become a popular slogan and an admirable goal. But how does one go about buying American?
To find out I sent our 13-year-old daughter and our oldest son’s girlfriend shopping. I gave them $250 to buy one outfit each, but it had to be made in America. The result? After three hours, seven stores, and two pair of sore feet, they came home with one bad attitude.
“I was really bummed out. It was a really disheartening experience,” said Becca, our son’s girlfriend. “You just aren’t going to be able to go shopping in an American mall and buy American.”
Our daughter Mercedes, indignant at the plight of the downtrodden everywhere, said, “It was annoying because I wanted to buy an outfit.”
The day began auspiciously when the first store they saw at the mall was American Eagle. “Ah ha!” they thought, “can’t fool us. We will start here instead of JC Penney or Macy’s.” Ironically, not one article of clothing in American Eagle was made in the United States. Neither could one such item be found in Arizona Original.
Plan A was to try to find clothes made in America just by reading the tags. Plan B was to ask a sales associate where the American-made lines of clothing were. After searching for 45 minutes in JC Penney, they finally asked a manager. She said she had never been asked that question but that they were probably not going to find anything there made in the USA.
By the time they got to their last store, Hollister, tired and frustrated, Plan A was out the window. Becca went straight to an associate and asked for anything American. The tan, blond, beautiful young sales clerk looked at Becca in disbelief, “You mean not everything in Hollister is made in the United States?” It was hard for her to believe that an American store did not carry American-made clothing. This was Twitter-worthy, but first our employee was on a mission: to find something in Hollister made in the United States. As Becca and Mercedes searched through the piles of jeans and t-shirts, the clerk ran back saying she found something made in America – perfume.
Whereas the Triangle Fire in New York was the United States’ wake-up call to improve working conditions here, perhaps Rana Plaza will be the global wake-up call. Could this be the impetus that leads to global reforms of the garment industry?
According to an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Consumers can play a role in pressuring companies to move. Shoppers should examine garment labels to see where they come from and ask that clothing brands explain their policies. If major brands won’t accept the need for reforms, customers should look elsewhere for fashion items.”
Yet, conscientious shoppers have few choices. The only practical way to buy ethically made clothing is to buy online. Ethically made clothes make up only 1% of the $1 trillion global fashion industry. Your only other option is to shop at second-hand or consignment stores. Best of luck if you don’t wear a mainstream size.
Through their diligent label reading, Becca and Mercedes did find six items of clothing made in America.
“What were they like?” I asked.
“Hideous,” said our daughter.
After all this shopping with nothing to show for it, Mercedes was tired, frustrated and beyond caring where her clothes were made. She wanted something new to wear and she wanted it now.
Didn’t she care that people in poor countries risk their lives making her inexpensive, fashionable shirts and jeans?
In a word, no.
To assuage Mercedes’ disappointment at not getting a new outfit, Becca let her buy a pair of sandals at Payless. Country of origin? China. Price? $14. Final verdict? Very, very cute.