how to support garment workers
Today marks the 8 year anniversary of the clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh killing over 1,000 people. Now the ethical fashion community looks back at this week to bring awareness to the treatment of garment workers globally. (Which frankly has not changed a whole lot in the past 8 years.)
Please don't hear me condone innocent lives being lost just to produce our clothing, but as so many systems have been questioned this year in the US, I have grown a bit tired. I am tired of the increased judgement everyone seems to be channeling about the 'correct' way to question these systems and change them. Opinions about the best ways to deal with a global pandemic (when honestly we are all new to this). So, please also don't hear me saying you must do these few things to fix the inequalities in the fashion industry. Honestly, sometimes I eat at McDonalds, and while some people assume I don't approve of the clothing store equivalent - I realize that you are probably doing the best you can with what you have.
Instead here are a few things I like to keep in mind when wading through the options and information in making my own clothing purchases...
1. In most cases those employed by factories in Bangladesh are grateful - even proud of their jobs. I think it is important to recognize that a lot of garment worker jobs in developing countries are actually really good opportunities for young women who have few options. (I highly recommend reading Where am I Wearing?) The problem of unethical treatment of garment workers is deeply rooted in poverty and therefore is very complicated.
2. Even with this reality, only 2% of garment workers are paid a living wage.
3. This year has been really hard for brands and those making our clothing alike. In countries where high unemployment is already such a problem, many workers have been laid off for months at a time as large companies drop orders mid production and factories struggle to survive. The jobs that many actually rely on have been cut. All the sustainable brands I know are working so hard to keep their workers employed at the same level as last year as they too struggle to juggle safe work environments and quarantines. While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel in the US, both India and Cambodia have new lockdowns and really high case numbers right now. Now more than ever fair trade and ethical brands could use your support.
4. Buying clothing from small, ethical (sustainable, fair trade, whatever you want to call them) brands does make a difference! In most every case there is just more accountability when the brand knows the factory that makes their clothing and has a long lasting relationship with them. I know it can confusing to find the real motive of sustainable brands as more and more companies are using terms like sustainability for marketing, but 2 things to look for... 1. Smaller brands that have a relationship with their producers (or own their own factory). 2. Companies that talk about their entire supply chain, rather than just one part of it.
5. Your purchase to these small brands DOES make a difference and it does directly impact the garment workers themselves. I have seen it again and again. The groups we support are very grateful this year for your support - in many cases because of higher unemployment they have been the only members of their family with an income this past year!
I hope these thoughts will give you a sense of balance as you think about how to make a difference. It’s ok to do only a small thing. Accountability is important; consumers and brands can do better, but don't minimize the small actions. Small actions matter.