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Life Arts    H1'ed 2/17/17

Fashionable Corruption: Sweats Made with Slave Labor?

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JB: Capitalism is the basis for our economy. It's based on profits. So, how can we inject values without throwing out the entire system? Because it appears that the global fashion market is no more really than a natural, if disturbing, outgrowth of globalization and the race to the economic bottom for workers and conversely maximal profits for owners. Which is the name of the game. Do these facts leave us with a vexing, perhaps unsolvable, conundrum?

CA: There's nothing fundamentally wrong with capitalism as an economic system, though, of course, it's had its critics. The problem, as I see it, is capitalism devoid of conscience. Business is in business to make money. But business has to operate in a competitive environment where consumers ultimately determine who wins and loses. The good news is that consumers--especially millennials--are increasingly conscientious about their buying habits. We are willing to pay more for "fair trade." As a result, consumer-facing brands that seek only their own bottom line at the expense of workers and the environment will, ultimately, fall by the wayside. Those that adopt a more ethical approach will rise.

Right now, the brands (not just in fashion but across the consumer economy) are facing an existential dilemma. On one hand, they know they need to adopt a less extractive business model to compete for the loyalty of the (younger) consumers of the future. On the other, investors on Wall Street (most of them Boomers) are demanding ever greater quarterly earnings regardless of social and environmental cost. Retooling a business model requires long-term decision-making, the opposite of maximizing short-term yield. The solution, I believe, lies in the social entrepreneurs and business leaders of the future, the ones who will be starting and running companies in ten to twenty years. They know the business case for corporate responsibility. They understand the social instincts of their generation. They will make the case from the inside that I (and many others) are making from the outside. And we will see change. It won't come easily, but it will happen.

Were your jeans made with slave labor? How would you know? (cropped)
Were your jeans made with slave labor? How would you know? (cropped)
(Image by Michael Taggart)
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JB: That is a much cheerier forecast than I was expecting, Corban. You brought up something earlier that I'd like you to expand on. You asked, "Now that you know the truth, what are you going to do about it?" That is the bottom line but of course, it's more complicated than that. First of all, we may now understand more about the conditions that affect how our clothes are manufactured. But, in a practical way, how can we know how to vote with our pocketbooks and choose ethically produced goods? Where can we get that information to make us educated and ethical consumers?

CA: As consumers, we're largely in the dark about how our clothes are made. That lack of transparency is the first problem the industry has to address. And, ironically, it doesn't begin with consumers. It begins with the brands mapping their own supply chains. There are so many layers in the sourcing system, so many middlemen and subcontractors, that the brands typically only know their first-tier suppliers, the ones that get the orders from the buyers. The rest of the process happens in the dark, which is where most of the abuse happens.

Here are a few things we can do as conscientious consumers. First, we can ask questions of the brands we love. Go to the websites, find the customer service numbers, and ask them who is making their clothes? Do they know? What are they doing to make sure their clothes aren't being made in sweatshops or by forced labor? They may not have answers (in fact, they probably won't), but if enough consumers ask, the brands will have to find the answer.

Second, we can use the information out there to make the best choices possible. The UK group Fashion Revolution has published a Fashion Transparency Index rating major brands according to a number of metrics, as has the US group Know the Chain. These indices are at best general guides, but they're something.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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