Sweating Fashion

Brown and black hands produce the clothing that sustains entire fashion retailers and houses without ever getting any representation within the brand, within any of the companies in terms of  executive positions, and outside the brand, as in their marketing, commercial and advertising campaigns that promote branding and imaging. We are both the so-called “untapped” market (with entire divisions within companies attempting to find new ways to make us their customers) and the unwanted faces in advertising campaigns, the runways, the editorials and covers of magazines

Walking into clothing retailers and finding out that most of what is there is produced in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and other so-called “developing regions” has been the norm for the past few decades. What a lot of consumers don’t realize is that the low prices offered to customers at fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, Forever21, Macy’s etc. are only possible if money is being saved on labor wages and production aka paying workers a couple of cents per hour and having 10-12 hour work days without overtime. I’m talking, of course, about the sweatshop industry and practices that make fast, cheap fashion and clothing available to the global market and the way brown, indigenous and black hands are often bearing the burden and cost of this business model. 

It’s difficult to write about the political and ideological systems that promote and depend on unjust wage and labor regulations to stay alive in the (fast) fashion business; as consumers, we are implicated and ultimately catered to by these retailers that engage in these activities in order to satisfy our demands. Furthermore, we have to consider the way this particular industry panders to a (mostly) female-based sector, promoting the idea of “empowering” women through fashion while at the same time keeping an 80-90% female workforce in squalor through the use of subcontracted factories. But, widening the scope, beyond the (mostly nonexistent) dialogue between businesses and consumers, we must also realize that these systems are based and fostered by entire governments and countries that don’t have goals beyond making a profit off our business and our slave labor. Is our exploitation then self-exploitation? Ultimately, who is to blame and what are the driving forces behind this cycle of violations?

Before beginning, I’d like to explain the current culture and systems at play to put this analysis in the right context. After spending a short time researching sweatshops, I want to highlight two important points: first, the current culture of unregulated (sweatshop) labor is a direct result of the change in structure within the industry from investing in in-house production and formal labor to investing in fashion advertising/branding and outsourced flexible labor. What this means for the garment industry is two things: company’s shutting down their local and in-house clothing production factories, meaning an end to formal, full-time, regulated labor in order to outsource their clothing to foreign countries through subcontracting factories where labor is unregulated and cheap; the money that is then saved in the production process is funneled into the advertising and branding machine that aims to create a company’s “image” in order to distinguish itself from other retailers in the market, creating a high sense of competition between corporations over who can offer the best (read: cheapest) prices for its customers while still maintaining a psuedo-luxury image.

Second, this change was made possible and further encouraged beginning with the American national and state government shift to neoliberal practices that fostered a “hands-off” approach toward companies to encourage local and foreign investments. Fashion seasons and trends are notoriously short, with certain styles, fabrics and cuts being “in” at the beginning of the year and “out” by the end. As companies and brands scurry to capitalize off of current trends, while still appealing to the mass market and, more importantly, the budget of its target audience, the pressure is on to produce clothes quickly, efficiently, and with the least cost and risk to the company itself. Sweatshop aka unregulated labor is technically and simply put, their most cost-effective choice. Furthermore, the garment industry along with various other business and corporations that outsource labor, have foreign government incentives to produce elsewhere (such as countries with a large pool of poor, uneducated and marginalized people) as well as lax regulations and government oversee in their native country; to have people invest, fund, and build these factories in your country, state, and region you have to offer extremely appealing incentives such as low tax rates, low tariffs on imports and exports, and reduced state and government control over corporate practices.  “The state allows the systematic violation of workers’ rights” with some countries and states actually having “a vested interest in allowing these processes to take place in order to facilitate opportunities for capital accumulation” (Montero, 15). We’ve all heard about the horrible conditions that define international sweatshops: long hours without overtime or breaks, unpaid holidays or vacations, rates per hour and wages that wouldn’t even meet the poverty line, etc. 

But who exactly is suffering these injustices? The answer is mostly poor, young, brown and indigenous women. In a typical factory, it’s not uncommon to find that “about 84% are women between the ages of 14 and 24” with “low levels of education, few know[ing] their labor rights, and 50% [being] new migrants from the campo (rural areas)” (Armbruster-Sandoval, 557). With a makeup of mostly female factory workers, the violations of rights tend to veer into the constant threat of being sexually harassed or abused from male supervisors, the imposition of birth control in order to avoid pregnancy which represents a loss of profit for the company,  wrongful termination if such a pregnancy were to occur as well as the larger issue of labor unions and labor organizations being banned. What does this say, when the industry that caters to the insatiable female demographic the most is the same one abusing and trapping women in a vicious cycle of unregulated labor and violated human rights? More importantly, what does it say about an industry that promotes, upholds and projects the image of a rich, white stylish woman as its ideal consumer knowing that black, brown and indigenous hands and labor is the foundation to their entire business? What does it say about an industry that attempts to show and foster diversity in their advertising campaigns in a masked effort to cash in on the same minority market  they knowingly and willingly abuse in their outsourced factories? Furthermore, how implicated are we, as consumers and followers of fashion, who promote and idolize companies, brands, and retailers on social media and in walking life, when we know that the clothes we wear comes at the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of people across the world?

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Brown and black hands produce the clothing that sustains entire fashion retailers and houses without ever getting any representation within the brand, within any of the companies in terms of  executive positions, and outside the brand, as in their marketing, commercial and advertising campaigns that promote branding and imaging. I walk into local chains of global retailers knowing that I will only see white models splayed across the showroom, knowing that the clothes on the racks were made by our (underpaid) sweat and labor, knowing that an entire industry and franchise couldn’t exist without the conditions in our countries in Latin American (civil wars, political instability, inflation, corruption, all either backed or caused by US intervention and imperialism) that make us go into sweatshop labor. The fact that many Latin American countries have adopted American-style, neoliberalcapitalistic ideologies and governments shows how strong the global thread of capitalism and consumerism is, to the point where a lot of the factories that American brands outsource to are brown-owned and operated, with  32% Latino and 12% Korean or East-Asian owned.

Ultimately, as consumers and voyeurs in fashion, there are systems in place that both allow and encourage the use of sweatshop labor by brands that are beyond our control. We have to understand that entire infrastructures of capitalism, imperialism, and globalization are at play in every industry, from food to fashion, in every step of the way. This is not to say that we are completely powerless or helpless because at the end of the day, these companies want to cater and appease us since it’s good for business. But to go against this business model is to go against proven success for these companies and for entire countries whose governments have depended and gotten millions from. This is not a call to boycott one or even a list of particular chains; not shopping at a certain store at or entire catalogues of stores won’t do anything to get to the root of the problem and it definitely won’t affect stores and companies enough for them to change the systems of oppression they are founded in and allow them to exist and profit.  Instead, this is a call to realize how much overlap exists between business and fashion, between capital and government, between economic gain and unregulated labor.

How much autonomy and choice do minority populations have when it comes to choosing whether or not to buy  clothing at their local Gap, Forever21, JC Penny or Walmart when we are just as marginalized and exploited as the people who make the clothes we buy?  How much choice do the people who end up being funneled into unregulated labor have when their governments are only looking out for the good of foreign corporations and their investments? How much say or input do the populations of state and national governments who create the perfect environment for sweatshop labor to thrive have? People love to place blame on the consumers of these products of capital as being the ones who maintain, fund and sustain this production line of exploitation and oppression but it is the higher elite of CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs and political leaders who ultimately are in control within a capitalistic and neoliberal governed nation. Until these ideologies (and the people who promote and inject them into a culture’s conscience and existence) are restructured we cannot attempt to break these chains of oppression with temporary or quick solutions like boycotts or the closing of one or more sweatshops; it will take an entire upheaval to end the oppression of global communities of women, workers, owners, consumers and nations trapped by capitalism and imperialism. And we cannot do it alone.