Tag Archives: outsourcing

2013: Accentuate the Positive: A Year in Ethical Fashion

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at a Thrift Shop

 Maybe it’s the New Year’s Eve champagne talking, but I must admit that I feel somewhat hopeful about the direction discussions about fashion and clothing production have taken this past year. For New Year’s, a list seems appropriate. Here are some stories from 2013 that have given me reason to hope that the fashion industry and our own patterns of consumption are changing as we head into 2014.

1. Trendsetter of 2013? Goodwill.  I appreciate Guy Trebay’s insight about the relationship between secondhand shopping and internet culture from his end-of-the-year assessment of pop culture in fashion, “We live in a thrift shop culture, compelled by daily, hourly and constantly refreshed trips to the Goodwill outlet that is the web. There we find all the stuff for assembling the “curated” selves who experts say are the new American trendsetters, D.I.Y. solipsists. Like Macklemore, we repurpose, we mash up, we grab things off the sale rack and try it on for size.” Trebay is referring, of course, to the Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the music video that celebrates secondhand culture.

Trebay goes onto say, “It was as though, in the past year, beleaguered consumers decided to take back fashion, to follow Macklemore’s lead and scour the cultural sale rack for what’s already hanging around. In the process they rediscovered the durable qualities of Made in U.S.A. labels like Filson and also only-in-America garments like Daisy Dukes.” And what’s great is the more we satisfy the shopping craving with secondhand, the less that goes into the landfill.

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students' clothing

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students’ clothing

I observed this tendency of appreciating secondhand and re-discovering clothing made in the USA in the project we conducted in my Introduction to Human Society course of counting our clothing. Here’s a pie chart of the country-of-origin for where my students’ clothing comes from. We weren’t surprised by China (in purple) taking up the largest wedge, but we were surprised that USA (in granny-smith apple green) was the second largest piece of the pie. The reason, we discovered, is that most of us were not participating in the fast fashion trend of impulse purchases and quick disposal. We were holding onto our clothing, including older items that were made in the USA, purchased when retailers like Urban Outfitters had more such options.

2.         Clothing Production Returning to the United States. In 2012, the story that the US. Olympic team uniforms were outsourced made news (for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they will be made in the USA). In 2013, the New York Times has been reporting that at least some clothing production – even if it remains priced at the luxury end – is returning to the U.S.

In fact, here in Minnesota, there are not quite enough trained garment workers to meet the new demand as a wave of sewing jobs pile up at U.S. factories. Why I find this hopeful is not really a matter of patriotism– I’m happy to see clothing production return to wherever its home consumers live. What matters to me is that this should mean clothing is being produced in better working conditions and for higher wages.

3.         Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project.  National Public Radio’s Planet Money produced a short video series that tracked the production of a Planet Money t-shirt from start to finish. The series begins with the harvesting of cotton in Mississippi to the weaving of cotton into fabric to the sewing of the t-shirts in Bangladesh and Columbia to shipping the t-shirts back to the U.S. I found the chapter on those who sew our t-shirts most compelling, and was intrigued to learn that some believe garment industry wages can only go up because Bangladesh is as low as a company can go in trying to attain well-enough-made cheap clothing. Planet Money also reports that no one – not even Bangladeshi workers’ rights advocates – want the garment industry to leave Bangladesh.

4.         H & M commits to more sustainably produced fashion. It’s great that small producers and luxury brands are able to return production to the U.S. But as I noted in The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet, it’s difficult for most people to have a completely fair-trade closet. That’s why it’s so important that the big brands of fast fashion get on the sustainability path. I’m sure H & M has a long way to go, but I appreciate that they’ve started the journey.

5.         I’ll end with a wish for 2014. My wish is that fashion brands become more accountable to their workers in terms of paying livable wages and requiring them to work in safe conditions, wherever their brands are produced. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that companies are dodging responsibility for their contribution to the fast pace that led to safety concerns being ignored before the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Here in the U.S. there is talk about raising the minimum wage  and providing workers with more livable wages– whether they are those sewing the clothing or those selling it in the malls. My wish for 2014 is a tall one – that higher wages and safer working conditions becomes a reality, worldwide.

Happy New Year!

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Taking A Count of What We Already Have

 

fiber labeled

I’m not a big fan of Black Friday. I’ve never been one to get up in the morning and take part in a shopping frenzy. In fact, I’m not a fan of early morning at all, so perhaps my aversion to Black Friday reveals that I believe retailers should give me expensive electronics and cash to get me out of bed on a holiday weekend before the sun is shining. That still might not be enough of an incentive to leave my cozy warm bed for vicious crowds and over-the-top consumerism.

Here’s what I did instead for Black Friday (after a late brunch, of course). I counted my clothes.

I’m taking part in an assignment I also gave my Intro to Sociology students. We are reading Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline begins her exploration of the fast fashion industry by counting her own clothes that she had accumulated through years of bargain-hunting. She had 354 items of clothing, most of it cheaply-made fast fashion produced in Asia.

In order to not make the clothes-counting task overly burdensome for my students on Thanksgiving weekend, we are only counting our clothes that are currently in circulation – if it’s in a drawer, hanging in a closet, piled on the floor or hiding in a laundry basket, it gets counted. If it’s in a storage bin, it doesn’t get counted. Ditto for underwear, accessories, shoes, scarves, mittens, hats. That means our clothing counts are conservative. Besides just the total count of clothing items, we are also keeping track of what country of origin each item came from, for the sake of appreciating the laborers who made the shirts we wear on our backs. For my own personal interest, I also recorded brand, fiber content, whether I purchased the item locally or from a national retailer, and whether it was vintage or non-vintage.

Part of my motivation for giving this assignment over Thanksgiving weekend is I proposed it could be a fun family activity if my students could convince parents, siblings or cousins to help with the count.  So with my honey filling out an Excel spreadsheet while I went through drawers, closet, and laundry basket, the count began. The results were interesting.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ll present my results with pie charts. Pie charts are like little festive Christmas ornaments for sociologists. Feel free to print them, cut them out, and hang them on the tree!

Here is a pie chart illustrating the different types of clothing items in my closet, the grand total of which was 186 items of clothing (and that’s a conservative number, given I didn’t count storage).

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I was curious to see what proportion of my clothes were vintage. I have a passion for vintage, yet my vintage garments have to compete with the many t-shirts, jeans and skirts that form the staples of daily dressing. Indeed, I found that the non-vintage items dominated my wardrobe.

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A breakdown of my closet by brand and/or origin of purchase reveals why non-vintage makes up the largest proportion of my closet (by the way, this would be the prettiest of the festive pie-chart Christmas ornaments if I were judging purely on an aesthetic basis).

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I also checked the proportion of garments I had purchases locally, in non-chain shops. I thought my results were respectable, though non-local purchases did dominate.

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What I found most interesting was the breakdown of my wardrobe by country of origin.

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The largest proportion of my clothes were made in the U.S.A., followed by China, and Scotland (huh, Scotland? Yes, Scotland).This is where my wardrobe tells a story about the U.S. fashion industry that Cline details in her book. The high proportion of USA-made items in my closet mostly comes from garments that were made before 1990. Combined with new clothes I sewed, and a few pairs of USA-made jeans and leggings, this explains the strong showing for USA. Made before 1990 also explains the curious position of Scotland in third place. I live in a cold place, and I have a thing for vintage cashmere sweaters, almost all of which were originally made in Scotland.

But all my new t-shirts with their various sleeve lengths, in a rainbow of  colors, my cheap pants and dresses from various fast fashion retailers were produced in Asia or Latin America. Embedded in this data is a historical story of how the fashion industry moved from being located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere before 1990, to moving into the Southern Hemisphere due to companies outsourcing for the sake of finding cheap labor and lax regulations on working conditions. Recoding country by Northern or Southern  hemisphere in my closet, here’s the proportion:

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I’ll be curious to see what the results of my students are for this same exercise. I am guessing that China and other Asian countries will account for a larger proportion of clothing in their closets. And I am sure it will generate a discussion about the labor conditions in the countries where most of our clothing is produced, as this is an compelling theme in Cline’s Overdressed.

And I also hope that by counting clothes over Thanksgiving weekend, everyone felt thankful for what they had and maybe Black Friday held less enticement than in previous years.

– Nancy L. Fischer

All pie charts created on SPSS by Lars D. Christiansen. Thanks!

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Can America Really Make the Suits that China Makes?

Team USA at Olympics opening ceremonies. Photo by Reuters.

On July 16th, the U.S. House of Representatives announced legislation which would, if passed, ensure that future U.S. Olympic team uniforms are made in the United. States. However, Li Guilian, the owner of the Chinese company that manufactured Team USA’s opening ceremonies uniforms asked in a Los Angeles Times story, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

Guilian asks a fair question. If Congress passes the bill requiring that uniforms be made here, will the United States still have enough of a viable garment industry to produce them?

I have been reading Elizabeth Cline’s excellent new book on the manufacture of contemporary fashion: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In chapter 2, “How America Lost Its Shirts” she explains just how dire American clothing manufacture has become. In 1965, 95% of clothing worn in the United States was made here. By the 1970s, that number had fallen to 75%. Today, according to ABC News, just 2% of clothing purchased in this country is now made here. Moreover, the U.S. lost 650,000 apparel jobs between 1997-2007.

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

In a previous post I explored what Team USA’s uniforms might have looked like if they were made by some of the better-known clothing companies that still make clothing within U.S. borders.  It turns out that not just any clothing manufacturer can handle making structured, fitted garments like a blazer. American Apparel seldom includes fitted blazers (they do have loose-fitting ones in outerwear) in their seasonal looks. Given the proposed legislation and the Chinese owner’s question of whether America can still make a suit,  it’s worth exploring which companies could master the task of a blazer.  Karen Kane company now manufactures 80% of their garments in the U.S. and blazers (for women at least) are regularly in the line.

 

Karen Kane Indigo Linen Jacket, Made in the USA, from KarenCane.com

But since we’re talking about Ralph Lauren as the  contracted designer for 2014, where is he likely to go? Would he use the same factory as Karen Kane? One would think it is likely he will return to Dalma Dress in New York since that is where Ralph Lauren apparel that was made in the USA was once produced.  According to Elizabeth Cline, Dalma Dress is known for producing garments that require skilled labor, such as suits. And hopefully, Dalma Dress will still be a viable company if Lauren returns. Just this week, Ecouterre.com asked “Are the Days of New York City’s Historic Garment District Numbered?” in an article discussing how the Garment District is likely to be re-named since so few garment manufacturers remain there.

To have a U.S. industry that can produce uniforms (and more importantly, clothing for everyday use by Americans), we need more than just a bill which stipulates that the uniforms be made here. Members of Congress who would like to bring back U.S. clothing manufacture need to explore other types of legislation that would re-seed the industry through providing companies with tax incentives to run such businesses, training, equipment financing so that the newest technology in clothing manufacture can be purchased (see an earlier post that discusses LiaMolly’s efforts to bring a modern knitting machine to the U.S.), and other types of support. Consumer education efforts about why garments made here cost more and hopefully are worth more (reading Cline’s book Overdressed is an excellent place to start in terms of self-education about this) is also necessary part of the package.

The controversy over Team USA’s uniforms comes at what is hopefully a key moment when change is possible. In the last chapters of Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline discusses how the days of fast, cheap fashion from China may be ending – the price of Chinese-made clothing is increasing while quality from many factories is mediocre at best, leading some companies (such as Karen Kane) to bring back production to the U.S. So, perhaps we should be thanking Ralph Lauren for providing us with a chance to have a timely conversation about the current state of the U.S. garment industry and what it would take to make it viable, once more.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Chinese Maker of Team USA Uniforms Disparages American Manufacturing

Ecouterre and the Los Angeles Times report that the owner of the Chinese clothing company that made Team USA’s uniforms asks, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

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July 31, 2012 · 10:59 am