Ethical Fashion: Part 6, Made in the USA and What it Really Means


         Whether you consider yourself to be a patriot or not, you probably agree that the phrase “Made in the USA” is a positive one, and often implies higher quality, attention to detail, and overall integrity. I remember the surprise I felt in the early years of running Ember (in the Heights) when I would unwrap a new garment and see the Made In USA tag. Admittedly, it never occurred to me to ask questions until several years later, as I assumed this catch phrase could be nothing but a great selling point for my product. As I’ve said numerous times, though, the declining quality of fabrics, combined with the increasingly shoddy construction I was seeing failed to add up to anything encouraging in my book. I began an investigation into what Made in the USA actually means these days.

There are 3 main hubs of garment production in the US: LA, the Carolinas, and New York. LA leads the pack because of its 40,000 employed garments workers, mostly immigrants, and its thriving port systems. New York and the Carolinas follow with their own unique contributions to the US fashion industry, still riding on their respective age old prestige and reputations as leaders in garment production. The Carolinas, in particular, are renown for their textile production. While I want to note that it is indeed a positive thing to bring apparel production back into the US (especially when I’ve been throwing shade at Asian and other offshore factories), to create American jobs, I also want to suggest that this trend is a lateral move, and not necessarily progress. Let me explain by focusing on apparel production in LA.

       Quite simply, when you read a label that says “Made in USA” and the price of the garment seems too good to be true, it’s because it is costing someone too much. Price almost always boils down to cost of labor. Oftentimes, a dress is sold at Forever 21 for $24, when the labor alone should have cost $30. It’s worth noting that it is common for brands to pay their workers back wages following investigations. However, Forever 21, in particular, isn’t responsible for this type of compensation as they are categorized as a retailer. In short, they have the luxury of turning a blind eye to how the product is made. The majority of the aforementioned 40,000 workers in LA have come to the US seeking a better life, but have wound up spending their days in sweatshop conditions and working for less than federal minimum wage. In fact, investigations by the California state labor department found that sewers in garment factories in the Los Angeles area were making as little as $4 an hour, and working up to 11 hours a day. The scary truth is that as the Made in USA movement continues to grow, so will the prevalence of sweatshops.

Here are some troubling facts, according to Women’s Wear

  • Of the 77 cases investigated between November 2015 and April 2016 in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, the government disclosed on Nov. 16 that officials had found violations in 85 percent of them, calculating more than $1.3 million owed to workers in back wages. In California, the hourly minimum wage increased to $10 from $9 last January.
  • On average about $1,500 in back wages is owed to the workers.
  • Between fiscal year 2014 and 2016, the Wage and Hour Division conducted 668 investigations of employers in the garment industry, the majority of which were in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and found $8.1 million in unpaid wages owed to 5,158 workers, the agency said.

         Back in 1995 an operation now known as the El Monte Raid revealed shocking slavery-like conditions that many immigrants had been forced into living. Many women had come to America seeking a triple increase in sewing wages, as compared to their jobs back home in Thailand. They were seeking a new life. Instead, when they arrived they were driven to an El Monte facility surrounded in barbed wire, 22 miles from LA. Their passports were taken for “safekeeping” and they were housed in the top floor of the facility. They slept on the floor side by side. While the workers were paid $400 a month, they were forced to buy their living necessities from their employer at outrageous prices. They were not allowed to leave. Every morning, the garage doors of the “factory” opened wide enough for bags of product to be pushed out and transported to downtown LA. Following the raid, Bill Clinton created a garment industry sweatshop task force which, to a large degree, changed the face of US clothing production and its regulation of labor standards.

    While the El Monte raid did much to discourage the likelihood of the slave-labor type operations taking root again, sweatshops still abound in LA. Only the injustices have been modified: poor ventilation, lack of drinking water, no safety training, and unfair wages. These women need our voices and they need our support. The next time you find a great deal while shopping, remember that your dollar casts a vote for the kind of world you want. Stay savvy; stay informed; and stay aware. Let’s make conscious consumerism the next big trend.

Thai garment workers during the El Monte Raid

Next week I’m tackling yet another complicated issue: Greenwashing. Stay tuned and thanks for your continued support!




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