The High Cost of Cheap Labor: How to Buy Clothing without Supporting Slave Labor

By Alexis Herr

 

Informed individuals can take steps to alleviate and upend modern day slavery.  Forced labor takes many forms including debt bondage, trafficking, and forced prostitution. Although all the before mentioned forms of forced labor occur on America’s backstreets, they are most prevalent in Central and South-Eastern Europe (non-EU), Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and the Pacific. And while not everyone who reads this post has exploited sex-slave workers in the US (at least I sure hope not!), it is likely that all of us have purchased goods that directly support the industrialization of slave labor in the garment industry.

 

The Facts:

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as forced or compulsory labor/work exacted from an individual “under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”  Currently 21 million persons are victims of forced labor, of which 11.4 million are female and 9.5 million are male.

 

Slide1Forced Labor Exploitation—agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing—accounts for 14.2 million (68%) of all slave labor.

Large companies manufacture their apparel abroad at a substantially lower cost and employ underage children and slave laborers.  The collapse of a Bangladeshi factory that killed 1,129 and injured more than 2,500 exemplifies the potentially fatal work conditions in which slave laborers are found and the popular brands that employ them such as H&M, Wal-Mart, Victoria Secret, Gap, and J. Crew. Laborers lack basic safety needs and their bosses use intimidation and violence to prevent workers from forming unions. And although slave labors may get paid, they do not earn a living wage and are not compensated for overtime.

 

What You Can Do:

There are two popular approaches to obstructing the industrialization of slave labor in the garment industry. Boycotting all clothing made in countries known to condone slave labor is one approach. This is the easiest way to ensure that your dollars don’t support a seemingly endless cycle of violence and only requires that you check your labels before purchasing. Manufacturing, however, is the main source of income for many countries and some argue that not buying from third world countries ultimately does more harm than good. Therefore I am an advocate of the second option, which is doing your best to buy fair-trade items and only buy goods from companies that offer information on their manufacturing conditions. Threads for Thought is a great example of a company making sustainable apparel in humanely operating factories in China. Next time you need to pick up some basic shirts, instead of stopping by gap walk into Urban Outfitters and look for Threads for Thought apparel.

To see how some of your favorite brands measure up, check out this report by Not For Sale  that charts the manufacturing processes for some 300 brands.

 

Some of my Favorite Ethical Retailers (check back for more as I will continue to add to the list below):

BeGood is a fantastic online retailer that provides detailed information on all its products. Their company motto sums them up perfectly: Socially Responsible + Eco Friendly + Fair Trade + Fashion. This store’s commitment to fair sourcing is inspiring. Click Here to read my interview with co-founder Dean Ramadan. BeGood is now my FAVORITE source for the softest t-shirts imaginable. Check them out!  As far as I can tell, this company is no longer producing clothes. It is my hope that this is a temporary thing. I will keep you posted!

Splendid makes on trend clothing for men, women, and children. Much of their clothing is made in the US and they ensure that apparel made abroad is done with the workers rights in mind. To read more about how they are taking responsibility for their products, check this out.

Hanky Panky offers women’s underwear and sleepwear made with recycled and fair sourced cotton. Their products are made state side.

Three Dots is one of my favorite brands for upscale women and men’s clothing. Made in the US, their items offers great quality and ethical sourcing.

Toms is one of my favorite companies. They offer shoes, sunglasses, and a few clothing items. In addition to providing a free pair of shoes or glasses to those in need for every item the consumer buys, they also make a concerted effort to monitor conditions in their factories in China, Ethiopia, and Argentina.

Prana makes outstanding athletic apparel and supports sustainable materials, Fair Trade Certified clothing, and safe manufacturing policies.

Rodales provides eco-conscience consumers with a little bit of everything.  Check out their website for clothing, makeup, gardening supplies, and more.

Sundry offers fresh and fun t-shirts made stateside.

Toggery creates women’s wear designed in Philadelphia and made in the USA using organic fabrics. Check them out!

Undrest views fashion as an opportunity to support and elevate their community, which just happens to be in beautiful Los Angeles. The Undrest brand produces all of its products in its 8000 Sq. ft headquarters in LA under Fair Wage Labor Conditions. Check out this women’s wear eco-concious brand for fun, bright, and eco-conscious West Coast fashion.

People Tree exemplifies the type of company that wants products to foster productivity. Their website sums up this sentiment perfectly: “We make beautiful garments that are a living blueprint for our values: people and the planet are central to everything we do. Our garments are hand crafted in organic cotton and sustainable materials, using traditional skills that support rural communities.” Another thing I appreciate about this brand is the level of access they provide their costumers to their products. You can easily find out where each item is created and sourced, and People Tree makes it is mission to work closely with people in developing countries to ensure responsible manufacturing processes. Check out this fantastic UK company that is literally setting the bar for ethical clothing.

Pact describes itself as a company “obsessed with a big idea: super soft organic cotton that makes the world a better place. Socks with soul, altruistic underwear and other everyday essentials ethically manufactured with fabrics that feel good and go easy on the environment. Sounds good? Oh it is.” Check this brand out for some comfortable options! [For the sake of transparency, if you purchase clothing from this vender using my link I get a 7% commission of the sale].

Amour Vert makes beautiful clothing for women. They describe their style as Paris, France meets Cali cool. Here is their tagline: “At Amour Vert we believe that women shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability. We put fashion first, but always employ a zero-waste design philosophy and use only organic and sustainable fabrics, along with low-impact dyes.” 

Patagonia inspired the founders of BeGood Clothing to make a sustainable line of slave-labor free clothing and with good reason! Patagonia has a zero-tollerance stance on slave-labor and all of its products are ethically sourced and manufactured. Simply put, Patagonia is a leader in sustainable and conflict free production.

Yoga Smoga practices responsible production by dying and manufacturing its clothing in the USA. It places great emphasis on protecting our environmental resources and supporting American workers. Take a look at their beautiful clothing and ethical work practices!

Weston does west coast style at its finest. Their clothing, with its bright colors, modern cuts, and fun prints, is made in San Francisco. You can find their products at Anthropologie and on Shopstyle.

Eileen Fisher is an incredible women’s clothing brand because of its ethos, eco-minded fashion, and attention to all realms of sustainable manufacturing. In addition to my appreciation of Eileen Fisher’s beautiful clothing, I admire their transparency with regards to all elements of their manufacturing. To see what I mean, check them out!

United By Blue is an outdoor clothing brand committed to combining capitalism with environmental improvement. In their our words, “We believe that products designed for enjoying the outdoors should also be kind to the outdoors. We put a lot of thought into the materials that make up each piece and always opt for textiles that keep our oceans, air and soil a little cleaner.”

ThinkingMU designs for men and women. They think about everything, from using organic dyes and 100% organic cotton to manufacturing their clothing in fair trade factories in India.

Veja  is a French shoe company that describes itself as company defined by action and transparency. I first discovered Veja through Amour Vert’s website (to learn more about this fantastic company, see above). One of the things I appreciate most about this company’s ethos (in addition to their cool kicks) is how they present information about the ethical sourcing and construction of their products. To learn more about their cotton sourcing, for example, click here. They also have vegan and leather products to chose from. If you are on a budget, keep your eyes on its subsidiary retailers for discounts (as of now Anthropologie carries them) and take a look out the outlet link on their homepage.

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8 Comments on The High Cost of Cheap Labor: How to Buy Clothing without Supporting Slave Labor

  1. I”m looking for a fair-trade company to have shirts made for our gym. Do you have any idea about a company that does that?

    • Hi Kory,

      Admittedly the market is narrower for men. If you are looking for simple cotton t-shirts I recommend taking a look at Threads for Thought. I have found these are great light and soft shirts for the gym, however, they usually don’t last me more than a year with continuous use and washing. I am a big fan of Patagonia shirts, too. If you want more high-tech materials Patagonia products are a good bet. Another option is to look at the Nordstrom Website. You can search for “Made in USA” and then narrow the search from there to look at athletic apparel. Best of luck and please report back if you locate any other good options.

  2. Thank you for this simple and to-the-point write up! I am committing to begin spending a little more on a little less clothing as long as it’s fair trade, and this was very helpful to get me started!

  3. Thanks. I especially appreciate knowing about the Not For Sale website. Wish it included even more companies. I’ll check out the ethical companies you list.

  4. I appreciate your sharing ways to continue the American tradition of opposing slavery. That is especially poignant as we are observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

    • Thanks for your support of this blog and for reminding us that it is the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the US!

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