Unearthing fashion’s history, labor practices to design a better future

Unearthing fashion’s history, labor practices to design a better future

Posted on Oct 06, 2022

When Yvett Sanchez enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, she wanted to be a fashion designer.

But by the time the COVID-19 pandemic sent students to class remotely, her aspirations had changed.

“I just don’t find making clothes as interesting anymore,” Sanchez said. “I’d rather just be more behind the scenes working with the logistics, sourcing and helping in the product development stages.”

Instead of completely switching her major from textiles and fashion design, Sanchez opted to add a certificate in sustainability to her studies.

Sanchez has had an interest in sustainability since high school — particularly in sustainable fashion after viewing “The True Cost,” a documentary that showcases harsh conditions in India’s cotton fields and in the garment factories of Cambodia and Bangladesh.

It was this passion for ethical fashion that led Sanchez to found Re-Wear it Wisconsin, a student organization dedicated to making second-hand clothing accessible to students.

A student herself, Sanchez recognizes how difficult it can be to shop sustainably.

“As college students, we’re really limited to a budget and secondhand fashion isn’t very accessible to us,” Sanchez said. “So we turn to fast fashion.”

Fast fashion, which refers to clothes and accessories made at the fastest rate possible, changed the way people shop for clothes, how long they wear garments and what they’re willing to pay for them. This industry is not new — since the 70s, Americans have been spending less of their incomes on clothing while continuing to buy more clothing than ever.

Though many want to buy sustainably, the costs of long-lasting clothing and the accessibility of low-cost, short-lived clothing means most people end up buying a large amount of clothes but only wearing them for a limited amount of time.

This is especially true for Generation-Z who base their retail purchases on sustainability practices more than Millennials and Generation X.

As awareness spreads of the fast fashion industry’s unethical labor and environmental practices, increased intergenerational support for sustainable products and the search for ethical clothing has led to accountability for large corporations and prompted local efforts to make ethical fashion feasible.

The rise of a revolutionary business model

“The forerunner of these particular fast fashion trends has got to be H&M and Zara.”

Nancy Wong is a UW professor of consumer sciences. According to her, retailers purposefully design clothing that is not meant to last. The idea is to catch whatever is trending on the catwalk and put it into production, she said.

Because it is designed to be short-lived, retailers can almost guarantee customers will have to return to their stores to buy new clothes.

“Economic productions of the latest trends mean you don’t have to invest a lot of money and going to offshore producers allows [retailers] to design their own products and brands at a very competitive price point,” Wong said.

This is made possible for retailers under the framework of transnational corporations, or TNCs. TNCs, rooted in colonialism and 16th century Europe, are corporations with operations spanning across multiple nations. Though the TNC business model wouldn’t be fully revived until the 80s, the groundwork for its return was laid a century in advance.

The modern TNC model is a relic of the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in factories and capital-intensive manual labor. After the second World War, the U.S. was in a particularly powerful position, both politically and economically. America and much of Western Europe were at the forefront of the global economy with heavy industrial production.

But quickly after the post-WWII surge in profits, such nations’ economical powers began to wane. In turn, these countries started offshoring production to cut the costs of labor and increase their profits.

The U.S. government used its access to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to influence countries looking to industrialize. This included backing regimes that were supportive of international production. By the 70s, American assets in the supranational corporations were over a billion dollars.

Despite staggering profits, TNCs do not have to take any substantial responsibility for the effects the business model has on workers.

The plight of garment workers

The West chooses the most profitable option it can and pays the lowest wages to whichever country is willing to take them. By chopping up the commodity chain and scattering the pieces across the globe, Western TNCs put low and middle-income countries looking to expand their economies in competition with one another.

UW professor Ian Coxhead — whose area of study focuses on problems of globalization, growth and development in East and Southeast Asia — said it’s likely the most profitable option for the low and middle-income countries too.

For example, the U.S. pays wages that were much higher than the local standards, even though they were four to five times lower than U.S. wages. Because retailers are not committed to particular contractors or locations for any definite amount of time, they can close factory locations on demand for a more profitable alternative somewhere else, destabilizing local economies and impoverishing garment workers.

But workers are fighting back, as demonstrated by the workers at a factory called Brilliant Alliance Thai Global Ltd., also known as BAT. In March of 2021, workers at BAT were told they had time off for a few days. When they returned to the factory, they saw it was closed.

None of these workers received severance or an explanation as to why they were suddenly left without jobs. BAT offered to pay the workers, who are mostly female, back over the course of 10 years. This would leave many workers still struggling to make ends meet even though the pay is better than it would be elsewhere.

Over a year later, after international activism and consistent protests from former workers, BAT employees were paid by the companies that had a contract with the factory that ultimately resulted in the layoffs. Those companies included Victoria’s Secret, Torrid and Lane Bryant.

Ultimately, $8.3 million was paid to the workers, making it the largest settlement for a case of wage theft at a garment factory in history. This situation, however, is not representative of all the segments of the clothing industry, according to Coxhead.

People who work in the textile industry for clothing, making the materials instead of the garments, face worse conditions due to a lack of regulation, Coxhead said.

These materials include cotton, much of which cannot be traced back to its original source. A t-shirt might say it’s 100% cotton, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% the same type of cotton. Most cotton in a garment comes from a multitude of producers that cannot be traced to the site of production.

Twenty-two percent of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur region in China, where workers are forced to hand-pick cotton.

Uyghur Muslims’ labor goes uncompensated and unregulated. Despite federal laws that ban the purchasing of goods made from forced labor in the region, the Helena Kennedy Center conducted five case studies, across which they identified a plethora of American brands whose products are made by international enterprises whose cotton comes from forced labor in Xinjiang, China.

Many of these brands aren’t what would typically be viewed as “fast” fashion. For example, clothes from Madewell, Eileen Fisher and Michael Kors were included in the Center’s data.

The Center found these enterprises engaged in “intermediary manufacturing,” a process which hides the true source of a product’s place of origin.

Wong has visited similar manufacturers she referred to as “middlemen” that commission factories in Bangladesh and China. They hold responsibility for inspecting factories and enforcing regulations of environmental laws and labor practices.

“How well these things get enforced really depends on who the people they have on the ground [are],” Wong said. “Policies are rather pointless if there is no enforcement, and that happens a lot.”

Consumers can demand better from companies, though. After the collapse of five garment factories that killed over a thousand Bangladeshi workers in 2013, the public put pressure on the Bangladeshi government and retailers to strengthen factory regulation.

In response, global retailers and the Bangladeshi government created the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Coxhead said the Accord was the result of the world’s horrified, activism-oriented response.

“After Rana Plaza, intense consumer pressures led U.S. and EU firms sourcing ready-made garments (RMG) from Bangladesh to do business only with firms meeting certain standards of employment and working conditions,” Coxhead said.

Coxhead said the new standards were not perfect, but nevertheless, he feels they represented a major step forward from pre-Rana Plaza era conditions.

The Bangladesh Accord expired Aug. 25, 2021, prompting unions and retailers to introduce an updated International Accord. The new accord enables potential expansion to other countries. Despite calls from activists and workers, some fashion companies are refusing to sign it.

But even companies that do sign the Accord have supply chains that are vulnerable to laundered cotton. One of these brands is a Japanese clothing retailer and manufacturer, Uniqlo.

Equivocality of global brands

Uniqlo sustainability department’s global director, Jean-Emmanuel Shein, responded to the allegations that Uniqlo was among the brands identified by the Center’s case studies in an email statement to The Badger Herald.

“We want only long-term relationships with our manufacturing partners — we see this as a marriage and not a date,” Shein said. “As such, we work closely with a few, carefully selected partners, allowing us to work together in continuously improving product quality and communicate regularly to ensure ethical working environments.”

The company has also been involved in a years-long legal battle over workers’ rights, a conflict that reared its head because of an investigation into a factory where Uniqlo’s clothing was made.

In an email to The Badger Herald, Shein said the company does not have any partner factories in the Xinjiang region.

This wasn’t the first time Uniqlo had come under fire. In a 2020 statement, Fast Retailing — Uniqlo’s parent company — denied claims made in another report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute linking Uniqlo to two factories associated with Xinjiang cotton.

But Fast Retailing Co. also released a statement of support for the new International Accord, agreeing to adhere to its guidelines.

Shein said Uniqlo has a code of conduct and a third-party verified audit program approved by the Fair Labor Association. He said Uniqlo and its parent company demand that no cotton in their clothes come from forced labor. The company is also working toward having a higher level of traceability of the raw materials in its supply chain, Shein said.

Tangible alternatives to fast fashion

Sorting through a rack of clothing labeled “Classics” in her State Street store, local business owner Jacqueline Iribarren said buying second-hand high fashion will never go out of style.

The sentiment seems to be catching on, with Wong noting it makes her hopeful to see vintage and thrifted pieces becoming increasingly popular among UW students.

Iribarren, who owns and manages the store Rethreads, is excited about that too.

For almost a decade, the local entrepreneur’s store Rethreads has operated out of its State Street location. Iribarren said sustainability has always been a way of life for her since growing up in Latin America. It was there that she was surrounded by a culture of consciousness, one she said she sees reflected in Madison.

Iribarren said Rethreads began as a thrift store where people could buy, sell and trade clothing — until five years ago, when she raised the standards of the clothes she buys for the store. Now a chic boutique, Rethreads specializes in quality care and attention to detail.

A big part of this rebranding resulted from a boost in high fashion sales to the store from workers at a nearby — now shut down — store called ShopBop. This was a turning point for Rethreads’ trajectory.

Since then, Iribarren has focused on buying and selling second-hand high fashion items in the best possible conditions.

The store offers deals to students, Iribarren said. She keeps up with sorority and fraternity events at UW so she can provide dresses and suits to students looking for quality, fashionable pieces.

Iribarren credits her localized, community-based approach to the business’s success in a town that’s constantly rotating young people in and out every year.

To Iribarren, it’s imperative Rethreads is rooted in sustainable practices. For her, slow fashion is a mission. Iribarren said she keeps trends in mind when making purchases for the store, but they don’t dictate what she decides to do.

Rewearing, sharing and being cautious when purchasing clothing can all help one lower their carbon footprint. The more people who get into these habits, the likelier brands are to respond to environmental and ethical concerns.

It’s been just over a year since Sanchez launched Re-Wear It as a community engagement project to satisfy a requirement in her sustainability certificate. She said she was inspired by similar student-led organizations on other campuses and felt UW had the right audience.

Twice a month, students gather at clothing swaps where they can choose to bring clothes or simply browse, Sanchez said. At a Re-Wear It meeting in March 2022, the organization teamed up with local non-profit The Sewing Machine Project to teach its members how to mend clothing.

Currently, Sanchez is working on a proposal to claim a permanent space on campus for Re-Wear It through UW’s Green Fund.

Sanchez isn’t the only UW student taking on a role as a group leader for sustainability — Corina Robinson is the director of the JVN Project, a nonprofit organization founded by First Wave scholars that uses the elements of hip-hop to build a curriculum educating young people in the Madison area.

This past year, JVN put on a sustainable, hip-hop-themed fashion show.

“Hip-hop is a culture that relies on building off of itself to create new things, and sustainable fashion is kind of that same idea,” Robinson said.

According to Robinson, designers used some recycled fabrics from clothes they already had, thrifted items or clothing from Re-Wear It Wisconsin.

Nzinga Acosta is one of the student designers who participated. For her designs, Acosta used both second-hand and self-made clothing.

“A lot of my wardrobe is thrifted. It has been for a really long time,” Acosta said. “I personally enjoy finding pieces that are unique that I probably wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

As an aspiring designer, Acosta said she feels sustainability is incredibly important.

Acosta said knowing how much the fashion industry contributes to pollution makes her feel awful. But, as a consumer behavior and marketplace studies major, she knows there’s a possibility to change that.

“The consumer has a lot more power than they think,” Acosta said.

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