Before clothes end up in our closets, they are a part of a highly labor-intensive industry that employs around 300 million people worldwide.1 The industry is built on exploitative labor practices from farm to fiber, and disasters such as the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh or the COVID-19 pandemic further expose the cracks in its labor systems.
These exploitative practices built the textile industry. Europe and the United States became textile powerhouses in the 1800’s by using a massive labor force of enslaved people. These reprehensible systems set the stage for the industry’s rapid growth at the expense of their workers’ lives. These systems live on today. For example, it takes only four days for a top textile CEO to earn the equivalent of what a Bangladeshi woman garment worker earns in her whole lifetime.2
Across the United States, new bioregional economies are connecting farmers, processors, designers and consumers. These local textile economies are based in interconnected value chains that build wealth for workers and preserve the land by growing natural fibers.
“The hidden and the forgotten dwell in the shadows of our clothes.” - Carry Somers CEO of Fashion Revolution, 2020 Fashion Transparency Index
Support transparent textile brands and producers that share annual social investment progress reports, often called corporate social responsibility reports (CSR). Look for links to independent third party audit reports across value chains and compare the median wages of workers to the local living wages.
Living Wage Checker
Wage inequality is a significant issue in the textile industry, but more brands are adopting Enforceable Brand Agreements (EBA), making living wage agreements publicly available. These benchmarks go beyond the minimum daily living requirements, and instead recommend wages that can support a family above the poverty line and enable them to develop savings.
Look to Policy
Policy can ensure brands are held accountable to protect garment workers and provide living wages. For instance, in California, the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB1399) would defend workers rights through multilateral supply chain accountability, but it has yet to be passed.
Ending Unsafe Working Conditions
The Safe Circle Approach has been employed in Asian factories to preventively address gendered violence on garment production lines. Through a gender-based training program, this approach goes further to employ specific communication skills before, during, and after gendered violence occurs.
Ending Piece Rate System
In the United States, it is still legal to utilize a payment model contingent upon the speed of a garment worker's hands, enabling employers to pay no higher than an estimated $6/hour. Of the $1.30 production cost of an average garment, 51 cents goes to the worker.
Equity by Design
Beyond material pricing, sourcing strategies should include social equity. Brands must advocate for higher wages for factory workers and be willing to pay higher margins.
In an industry fueled by unsafe conditions and labor exploitation, inequity is by design. The Design Justice Network is working to create new design processes with marginalized communities at the center. To do so, they believe designers must acknowledge their power in the current global system.
Integrating positionality into your design thinking requires examination of materials and their cultural histories. For instance, denim was originally made using both cotton and indigo that had been farmed by enslaved workers in the American South. Harlem-based Oak & Acorn creates indigo dyed hemp denim apparel in homage to this material culture.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the average garment worker’s wage in Los Angeles was $6/hour. Because many orders were cancelled across the industry, workers who were already paid a low wage faced unemployment or overtime, and potential illness. This tracker pressures 40 major textile brands towards worker protections and compensation.
Garment workers are subjected to wage theft and lack of health and safety protections. These issues are exacerbated in times of crisis. The Know Your Grower, Know Your Sew-er program feeds over 200 furloughed or sick garment worker families per week to provide relief during COVID-19 crisis.
Key Product Considerations:
- Workers Rights: Was the textile and its raw material safely produced in accordance with fair labor protections? Were the textile workers paid a fair wage?
- Accountability: Does the textile operation provide access to transparent information of auditing, compliance, or supply chain practices?
- Community Development: Are resources reinvested in the community? Are textile producers investing in the local community beyond employment?
The following selected products are a few of many that promote socially preferable life-cycle impacts.
Alpaca + Wool, New York Textile Lab
The Textile Lab Fibershed links designers, end users, and local fiber systems to foster bioregional local economies in New York State. A short textile supply chain allows for transparency in the end-products while benefiting the local communities and the environment.
Flannel 100% organic cotton drapery, Two Sisters
This US based upholstery and textile company, started by two sisters, pays careful attention to health, social and ecological concerns and has GOTs certification. Fabrics are suitable for LEED projects and carry Oeko-Tex® and GOTs certifications.
Alpaca Donegal Crewneck by Corridor
Corridor is a New York-based, independent brand focused on contemporary American clothing, natural fibers, and responsible design that uses ISO-9001 and Sedex socially accountable certified factories throughout parts of their supply chain.
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