How did the clothes you're wearing get to you?
April 22, 2014 3:51 AM   Subscribe

The Shirt on Your Back. Guardian writers trace the human cost of the Bangladeshi garments industry in video, pictures and words. (SL Guardian interactive documentary)
posted by Ziggy500 (29 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Planet money did a similar concept more widely focused across the entire process that I found very interesting especially for the perspective it brings to these factories and the wages they pay etc...

Link to it here
posted by chasles at 4:08 AM on April 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


So if we keep buying stuff they keep getting shit on. If we stop they don't even get that.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:23 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Powerful. Thank you for posting this, Ziggy500.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:40 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


If we stop and figure out how to make our own clothes we can send the materials and structural plans for how we did it. We haven't actually figured out how to make work healthy and well paid for the employees while still accessible for the general consumer market. We simply have outsourced the hardest labor at cheap prices to improve the quality of life in "more advanced" nations. That's how an empire works, exploit entire nations of vulnerable labor forces for better ease of life at the home base. Then call yourself more advanced.

If we can figure out how to have high quality of life for all people here in our own country maybe we can actually help other nations on their own terms as opposed to exploiting their vulnerability and pretending it's "aid" so we feel better about it.

What's more if we actually stop buying goods there until there is proof of quality living conditions (expect the same regulations there as we have here) companies will still want to make products and would have to come up with a better solution and prove they are treating their employees well.
posted by xarnop at 7:18 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


"We simply have outsourced the hardest labor at cheap prices to improve the quality of life in "more advanced" nations. That's how an empire works, exploit entire nations of vulnerable labor forces for better ease of life at the home base"

That's not really what happened. We had trade restrictions on the garment industry (to protect western jobs) up until the 70's. Then China got a little expensive and shady so India, Vietnam and Bangladesh stepped in.

It's not about the "hardest labor", many Americans would love to work for one of the few American apparel manufacturers the problem is, yes, American labor is prohibitively expensive for the clothing prices we have become used to.

A big element missing here is quality of goods and disposability. The West has become far too comfortable with shitty quality, knowing they can just replace a pair of $20 jeans once the stitching starts to go.

So as technology and raw goods can be shipped anywhere, "made in the USA" is only now a selling point on patriotism, the quality of a foreign good is getting equal to that of a US good (assuming they use the same fabrics). Cars, guitars, wetsuits and t-shirts included. People don't crave quality like they used to, they crave disposability and low risk.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:35 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


xarnop--those are quite a few "ifs" that involve a millions of people, vastly different and conflicting interests and different economies. I fear it is a bit more wishful thinking and "I hope" rather that the history of the world and economic development. Out of interest I Googled the trade figures for some of the Scandinavian countries ( where income inequality is reasonably balanced) and their trade with India, China and Bangladesh are similar to other industrialized countries. I think it is safe to say--as much as one may wish it away and protest--capital follows cheap labor until it is no longer cheap and then moves on. In the long run--longer than most of our life times it will most likely be cyclical--just as some manufacturing is returning to the US (improved technology and cheaper labor).
posted by rmhsinc at 7:40 AM on April 22, 2014


BlerpityBloop- I agree with you, what I meant including in "hardest" jobs is basically low paying and under-appreciated. That IS hard and yeah it's not specifically what type of labor but more do to with how trapped they are in it even if it isn't suited to their health needs and how well they are paid to save up to do something different, learn a new skill, or hope for retirement/vacation/flex schedules to spend time with family or doing other things.

So yeah I probably worded that wrong when I said "hard" it's the way we're treating the welfare of the worker and their needs that makes some of these jobs "hard" because we just don't value the workers enough to pay them well and treat their individual needs as valid. A lot of jobs use toxic chemicals and create many different types of harmful exposures for the employees that we could choose to design the manufacturing process differently so that it's not so toxic to the environment or so harmful to the workers. But unfortunately both businesses and individuals will more often choose to let these harms happen as long as it's more convenient and easier for them.
posted by xarnop at 7:44 AM on April 22, 2014


Well, out of sight out of mind, right? I'm typing this comment on an iPad that likely has a Chinese child's fingernail stuck in the circuitry.

People like cheap shit and big, varied wardrobes. When my wife complains in front of a full closet each morning that she has "ugh, nothing to wear, I need to go shopping", the last thing on her mind is factory conditions in Pakistan. It sucks, but it's the hole we've dug ourselves (I say with an equally big closet packed with Old Navy hoodies).
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:53 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sometimes things that suck can change though if we, as a culture, stop excusing them with "and that's the way it is, probably just how it has to be." Maybe it doesn't have to be this way? So we, a large portion of us as humans, messed up or even were legitimately powerless to stop our participation in this stuff at times... doesn't mean we can't learn about ourselves and our difficulties and do better going forward and appreciate that we are not always powerless and every time we DO have a choice we need to make it count, and go out of the comfort zone and challenge ourselves to push harder to make it happen.
posted by xarnop at 8:00 AM on April 22, 2014


It's not about the "hardest labor", many Americans would love to work for one of the few American apparel manufacturers the problem is, yes, American labor is prohibitively expensive for the clothing prices we have become used to.

A big element missing here quality of goods and disposability. The West has become far too comfortable with shitty quality, knowing they can just replace a pair of $20 jeans once the stitching starts to go.


And a lot of us can't afford nice things since wages are crap, and at this point clothing production's such a mess that even paying a premium won't necessarily get you high-quality goods. Or clothes that have a fair chance of fitting you well. If you know them when you see them, which leaves out most of us who don't sew.

And fabric's more expensive compared to wages than it used to be, so making your own's not as frugal an option as it was fifty years ago. It's still worth doing, considering very few people's measurements exactly match whatever patterns the manufacturers are using to create clothes. Among the reasons a lot of current clothing is stretchy and shapeless? They can't be bothered to try to really fit anybody, because that costs money and takes time.
posted by asperity at 8:03 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


A big element missing here quality of goods and disposability. The West has become far too comfortable with shitty quality, knowing they can just replace a pair of $20 jeans once the stitching starts to go.

...Which in all sorts of ways both subtle and obvious also radically accelerates our rates of resource use and depletion, in a tidy masterstroke of Capitalism's blindly mechanical, self-devouring genius.

To say nothing of the vaunted "razor-razorblade model" I saw economic leaders from China ballyhooing as one of the industrial innovations from the West that they were beginning to embrace a few years back.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:11 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I was growing up, my grandmother worked for a stretch in a small garment shop part-time when we were facing some financial shortfalls. It was a decent enough job, but paid unskilled wages even though it required special skills (and didn't offer any kind of hazard pay even though it was dangerous and people were always stitching their fingers up).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:16 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


People don't crave quality like they used to, they crave disposability and low risk.

Well, there's also outright affordability to consider. How many decades has the American middle class (never mind working class) gone without a real pay raise? (On preview, what asperity said. I would add the observation that sleeves are now the exception in women's dresses, even wedding dresses where demure is traditionally de rigueur, because leaving them off is a big money saver for the manufacturer.)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:32 AM on April 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


I would love to be able to buy more ethically made apparel but I've found the options to be pretty limited. You've got American Apparel and Alternative Apparel but not much in the way of anything you could wear to work or somewhere nice. There are a few smaller brands but the selection is insanely limited even if you are willing to pay a decent amount.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:19 AM on April 22, 2014


"Well, there's also outright affordability to consider"

That's part of it, sure, especially with kids clothes that will be outgrown in 6 months. I would imagine your average consumer these days doesn't invest in high quality, durable goods ( clothing, electronics, kitchen appliances e.g.) because if they break they are easier to replace than fix. Buying a cheap lawnmower from Home Depot is much more reasonable to a lot of people than buying one that's well made and will last.

We are a disposable economy, regrettably, and cheap clothing is a symptom. I don't know how true the anecdote is, but I've certainly heard stories of people throwing out underwear and socks rather than doing laundry.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 10:56 AM on April 22, 2014


I work in a professional environment and struggle (non-financially) with clothes. We have decent consignment and thrift shops here, so I rarely purchase new clothes. I agree the cost of fabric is high. My tactile son fell in love with a crafter's velvet scarf. When I saw a simple velvet/velour dress in the same color at a yard sale for $5, I bought it and repurposed it for two soft rectangular scarves, which is how I sometimes get around fabric prices. We have a sewing machine. I run through giveaway sewing kits with mending. We're not afraid to hem, add a button, or take in a well-made garment, either. I just wish people could talk about these things without garnering lower-caste stares....
posted by childofTethys at 11:08 AM on April 22, 2014


We definitely are a disposable culture, but I think it's important to point out it's a myth we are that way due to consumer demand or lack of self-restraint or discipline.

The producer markets decided all on their own many years ago that the public interest (being charitable here) would be best served by innovations like built-in obsolescence, the razor-razorblade model, and mass market goods and components deliberately engineered not to be easily user serviceable. These decisions just coincidentally happened to align with their business interests, but it's all our fault for being such terrible consumers, as we'll be reminded every day by people who don't understand that different markets respond to different kinds of demand and are not all created equal.

We're not afraid to hem, add a button, or take in a well-made garment, either. I just wish people could talk about these things without garnering lower-caste stares....

My wife picked up knitting and sewing over the last few years basically to try to give us more options in making and repairing our own clothes, if/when the need arises, but there's just not time enough in the day, and I'm pretty sure I'd get a lot of awkward stares coming to work dressed in crudely finished, homemade button-downs and khakis.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on April 22, 2014


I've certainly heard stories of people throwing out underwear and socks rather than doing laundry.

I live in Old Navy camis. They are $4.50/ea but are usually on sale for $3.50/2. It costs me $2.50 (in precious quarters) to wash and dry a load of laundry. It's often cheaper and/or easier for me to walk over to Old Navy and buy another cami than it is to wash a 1/4 load of delicates. (I could hand wash them but I often wear them as a first layer when I run so they can get gross.) I guess the plus side is that at some point I'll have enough camis to do a full load....

My casual lifestyle and very small clothing budget means I live in a lot of things like Old Navy. The unexpected upside for me is that I generally take much better care of my clothes now than I did when I bought higher-quality -- but more durable -- fashions.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:20 AM on April 22, 2014


Ugh. It's not true that there aren't companies that are ethically sourced and in your budget. I work for Levi Strauss & Co, and they are committed to maintaining their legacy as an ethical brand. That means you can buy from any of their lines: Denizen for Target, Levi Signature for Walmart, Dockers for business casual, and of course Levi's themselves.

The downside is that also means our marketing budget is super low compared to the industry to make up for the margins. So people aren't readily aware of it, despite the fact that it's a huge brand.
posted by politikitty at 11:33 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Saulgoodman-It's more about the goal. Hemming is manageable.Sewing pants is not. Curtains, maybe. Slip covers definitely not. I have a family member who ADORES sewing, and buys sale-rack fabric. We have fun pajamas, and this person knows that we will select fabric for anything involving work, or non-family members. She is well beyond the learning curve. Everyone is happier that way.
posted by childofTethys at 11:34 AM on April 22, 2014


I'd get a lot of awkward stares coming to work dressed in crudely finished, homemade button-downs and khakis.

I'm new to sewing, but one thing I've liked so far about it is that my finishing work's superior to most of what I can find for prices I can afford at the stores lately. One of the easiest places for clothing manufacturers to cut costs is in seam work -- I've seen skirts in the stores that don't even have real hems, just some kind of blanket-stitch on the edge.

But yeah, it's hard to recreate all the work that's done by all those people at the factories (and it is people, not just machines, as you can see in this FPP), so it's usually faster and more cost-effective to alter clothes I find that mostly work rather than to create them from scratch.

I'm much better at crocheting, so I try to rely on my crocheted clothing items to make my otherwise boring and cheap wardrobe look a bit nicer. It helps that for those, there's nothing you can purchase in a store that's directly comparable, so I don't look as "homemade."
posted by asperity at 11:37 AM on April 22, 2014


"The downside is that also means our marketing budget is super low compared to the industry to make up for the margins. So people aren't readily aware of it, despite the fact that it's a huge brand."

Levis just sponsored an NFL Stadium for $220Million dollars, the margins can't be that bad. I don't know of any other clothing brands that are doing similar, except maybe Izod.

I don't mean to harp on Levis, but virtually all of their production is overseas, they aren't exactly a beacon of hope for American apparel brands. They've had some pretty shady production issues in the past, I hope the page you linked is a new way forward.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:06 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


As escapism I spend more time than I should on women's fashion forums, where whenever the topic of capsule wardrobes (fewer items, higher quality, well-planned-out) comes up, people are captivated. But while everyone really seems to love the idea in the abstract, very few people seem to actually implement it.

I think that as a whole, in the U.S. at least, there's much more of an emphasis on discrete clothing items and fleeting trends than there is on holistic wardrobe planning. We tend to shop as a hobby rather than with a plan, and just buy whatever catches our eye, and as a result we have far, far more clothes than we really need.

I don't think it's just about stagnant incomes, in the case of people who buy a ton of fast fashion. Because having 100 $25 pieces costs the same as 25 $100 pieces. The problem is that if you're going to have that 25-piece wardrobe you have to be really careful and really deliberate about what you buy and when, and you have to not care about the fact that people will see you in the same clothes (albeit in different combinations) repeatedly. You're swimming against the current because that's just not how our culture and our retail system are set up.
posted by payoto at 12:23 PM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Because having 100 $25 pieces costs the same as 25 $100 pieces.

True, though the latter option requires more money available up front. That's hard for a lot of people, no matter what our wardrobe-planning ambitions are.
posted by asperity at 12:43 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


For me, it's the cost issue. I can't bring myself to spend 100 dollars on any article of clothing because spending that much money on myself, for something I could do without, without any expectation of some ROI to justify the expense just triggers crazy anxiety for me.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:51 PM on April 22, 2014


True, though the latter option requires more money available up front. That's hard for a lot of people, no matter what our wardrobe-planning ambitions are.

Which is why I said in the case of people who buy a ton of fast fashion.
posted by payoto at 1:02 PM on April 22, 2014


Levis just sponsored an NFL Stadium for $220Million dollars

Yes, they've identified they spend far less than their competitors, and are trying to change that. They're also spending their marketing dollars very differently than their competitors. That five year sponsorship is cheaper than five years of wide-spread print/online/tv advertising, which is the industry norm.

I don't see that having having a global supply chain is an inherently exploitative venture, since I imagine people outside of America also have dreams of eating, and having a roof over their head. Many companies who contract out their global supply chain don't bother to guarantee minimum wages, avoid child labor and the other practices that make articles like this possible.
posted by politikitty at 1:12 PM on April 22, 2014


But they're not necessarily buying it all at once. $25 a week over four weeks is different from $100 once a month.
posted by asperity at 1:13 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Levi's became an internationally-sought brand before the Cold War ended, so there's that, too.
posted by childofTethys at 1:18 PM on April 22, 2014


« Older Famous Names, Lost Interviews   |   "Everybody dies someday - At... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments