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What to know about the apparel industry

| Monday, November 9, 2015

The recent debate over the University’s pilot program to allow selected factories in China to manufacture University-licensed products has caused me to think of my own apparel choices. As a college student, how many times have I walked into the bookstore (or any clothing store for that matter) and shaken my fist at the ridiculously high prices? In the moment, I am certainly not thinking of how inexpensive apparel actually is when compared to the amount of labor used to create it. At the same time, the University is pursuing a way to affect change in the arena of worker rights violations, I am wondering how aware we as a student body are of our contribution toward this cycle of exploitation.

So, as college students, what should we know about the workings of the apparel industry?

There is no such thing as a “good” deal.

Being a college student means counting every penny, finding every coupon and searching desperately for the words “two for the price of one.” Since these deals are good for us, the consumers, as well as the retailers, the question can be raised: “From where does the profit margin originate?”

The answer is from outsourcing production to nations with limited labor laws. In fact, the United States only produces two percent of its total apparel domestically. “Fast fashion” retailers, such as Forever 21 and Walmart, are able to turn out such inexpensive and unique products by outsourcing their labor to foreign subcontractors that are responsible for the condition and safety of their workers. According to a 2012 study conducted by free2work.org, popular companies received a below-average rating on their protection policies against child and forced labor. For example, Walmart received a C, Forever 21 received a D, and Fruit of the Loom received a C. More shockingly, Walmart received an F grade in the study’s “worker’s rights” category. Quality of clothing doesn’t always match workers’ quality of life. So if purchasing inexpensive clothing is not the answer, is buying expensive clothing the solution?

Not always. While some more expensive brands, like Patagonia and Maggie’s Organics, pride themselves in providing transparent supply lines and fair wages for all employees, many high-end designers are not inflating their prices to benefit their workers. In the category of “worker’s rights,” Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle both received a D grade, while Aeropostale and Express received an F. Victoria’s Secret has also come under fire for paying workers four cents per $14 bikini created.

It’s a long jump from the bandwagon.

Unfortunately this seems to put us in a lose-lose situation. On top of these economic considerations, the social pressure to have a large variety of quality clothing forces students to seek both “fast fashion” and quality retailers. While wearing high-end brands is by no means a social requirement at this university (thank God), showing up to a presentation in worn clothing can give evaluators a negative first impression, even if it is completely unjustified. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves if we are truly willing to spend the time and energy to only purchase highly regulated clothing. If we do make this choice, will our contribution be significant enough to make a difference if the entire system is so corrupted?

While its is impossible to ask college students on both a limited budget and schedule to completely alter their purchasing habits, the knowledge of how the apparel industry has promoted the exploitation of numerous people around the globe is the first step to finding a solution to this issues. In the words of David Foster Wallace, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

As a college student, I am proud to attend a university that is taking such an interest in this issue. While other institutions are mainly focused on cutting costs for consumers, Notre Dame is truly seeking to find the most effective means of change for production-line workers in China. Whether that is completely cutting off business or leading by example in the form of facilities that promote equality, the results of this pilot program will, no doubt, be useful to other institutions that are also battling with similar moral issues.

I highly encourage readers who are interested in these issues to view the April 26, 2015, episode of “Last Week Tonight” and read free2work.org or the Huffington Post column about Victoria’s Secret.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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