Why We Choose to Make Our Clothes in New York
Over the past sixty years, we have become disconnected from the people who produce our clothes. As recently as the 1960’s, we were making 95% of clothing for the United States, in New York. Today, we are only making 3%. With so much production overseas, it is easy to ignore what goes into a piece of clothing. Due to quick turnaround time, low cost, and excessive amounts of product, we think of the fashion supply chain as a very well operated machine. However, what separates clothes from other products is how labor intensive it is. People are necessary. 1 in 6 of the world’s workers are employed in some part of the fashion industry. It is not a machine stitching your shirt, it is a human being. We are not just ignoring a problem, we are ignoring people's lives. Cost of production is going up, yet the cost of clothing keeps going down. So who is paying? The wellbeing of the people making our clothing, continuously pays more and more.
When the United States passed environmental, health, and fair labor laws, the majority of production moved overseas. With the World Trade Act soon following, allowing limitless imports on apparel, there was complete freedom to create a new system of cheap overconsumption. Production moved to other countries for the financial gain, and to take advantage of their environmental, health, and social vulnerability.
When producing in other countries, there are far less environmental regulations, due to a lack of resources to enforce them. For example 90% of wastewater from production is discharged into rivers without treatment. This releases heavy metals, lead, and many other toxins, severely impacting the health of aquatic life and surrounding animals. The contamination reaches the sea and eventually spreads across the globe. Most developing countries are facing a shortage of fresh water, and untreated dye release uses 200 tons of freshwater per ton of fabric. The clothing industry also uses up 10% of global carbon emissions. Most clothing overseas is produced in China, Bangladesh, and India, countries powered by coal, the dirtiest type of carbon emission.
In the United States there are strict environmental enforcements, because of the Environmental Protection Agency. These laws protect against dyes, greenhouse gas, and much more. With more resources to regulate these laws, you can trust that your clothing is not adding to your environmental footprint.
The global health costs of producing cheap clothing is extremely high. Workers are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals and breathing in their fumes. Those who work or live near manufacturing facilities also bear the health burden due to chemicals in the water and air. The outcome of such weak health regulations is debilitating conditions such as lung disease, cancer, damage to endocrine function, and adverse reproductive and fetal effects. Not to mention the many industrial disasters caused by lack of safety. For example Rana Plaza: a factory collapse in 2013, resulting in 1,129 deaths. Three of the four largest industrial disasters have all happened in the last decade. Despite these disasters, health standards and protection have not changed for these workers.
In New York, the health of the people making your clothes is protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This assures there is proper ventilation, protection against toxic air contamination, fire extinguishers, building safety, and much more. Worker’s receive safety and health training. The machines they are working on are safe. They are able to report injuries or illnesses, since they are protected under OSHA.
In the majority of overseas production, labor laws are weak or nonexistent. Companies take advantage of no collective rights, union rights, and pensions, and a very very low minimum wage. Garment workers make about 96$ per month. The government’s wage board estimated they need 3.5 times that in order to live a decent life with basic necessities. If the retail price of a garment was increased 1%, we could pay a living wage to workers across the supply chain.
Around 80% of the factory workers are women. Issues like no maternity leave, inadequate sanitation, bathroom breaks, being forced on a contraceptive pill, and sexual harassment are magnified by the lack of a living wage. Along with having no rights or protection to report misconduct, they cannot risk the loss of income. Women have no time to take care of their children. Therefore, most children are forced into labor. Some women choose to have their children raised in villages outside of the city with friends or family, seeing them maybe once a year. They are hoping they will be offered a better quality of life.
In New York, working conditions are regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers of garment workers must obtain proper certification authorizing their workers. Workers are then protected. They are paid a living wage of 15$ an hr, and ensured pay and a half if they go over forty hours a week. By producing in New York, you can also provide job opportunities to immigrants. They are given career and job security, along with a quality of life.
Being near these workers, means companies can make certain they are treated properly. Our company recently brought our garment workers Chinese New Year’s gifts, since they were working on a holiday to finish a production. In New York, the company is connected with the people. This is also beneficial because the brand is hands-on. There is face to face meetings and communication. This helps with quicker adjustments to fit and quality, ensuring a better product.
As consumers, it was easy to make the switch to more fashion seasons and cheaper clothes. It changed so quickly and with such a strong increase in product, no one even questioned it. People buy 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year, 400 percent more than two decades ago. Clothing has become disposable, something you use up and get rid of when the trend ends or it starts to wear. However, it is not like cigarettes, trash bags, and toothbrushes. It is not produced by machines, and it is time we stop treating it as such.
Constant consumption is what drives the toxic machine of fast fashion. Stores will continue to compete if the consumer buys into it. Every time the cost gets a little lower, the people who make it are getting a little less. The true turnaround of the system relies on paying more for a product that makes certain someone lives a comfortable life. In doing so, you are also buying a higher quality product that will last and not be thrown away.
Purchase from retailers with transparent supply chains. If you do buy a product outsourced overseas, make sure it has a fair trade label. This guarantees environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, safe working conditions, and community development funds.
It is time to remember our clothes come from a person. We need to reconnect.
By Briana Goewert