Every summer since 2005, senior Kavin Sivakumar has returned to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to visit his birthplace. Multistory buildings and shopping malls are scattered throughout the industrial city, but for him, the textile district is the most intriguing. Sivakumar designs his own garments with fabrics he purchases in Coimbatore from locally sourced materials, and he takes pride in knowing exactly where and how each piece has been made.
However, the reality of buying ethically produced fabrics isn’t the same throughout the city. Nearby, there are also factories that create garments for Forever21 and H&M. These are some of the most popular clothing brands for teenage fashion that dominate the industry with affordable styles. These brands are known for producing clothes through unethical practices, such as low pay and unsafe factory conditions.
“As someone who shops a lot at Forever21 and H&M, I greatly appreciate the variety of clothing and fashion offered at both those places …” Sivakumar said. “But I understand that even though it’s so much cheaper, the price we pay for the way the garments are made isn’t always the best ethically.”
The debate over using sweatshops in fast fashion has existed for decades, but recently the issue has resurfaced with American Apparel filing for bankruptcy for the second time at the end of last year. This brand is known for producing all of its garments in the U.S. and ensuring fair pay and treatment of its workers. However, the prices of the clothing are notably higher to be able to afford the more ethical standards.
“American Apparel went out of business, so ethical consumerism isn’t really possible or convenient because a lot of people would rather buy the cheaper thing,” Sivakumar said. “In a society where the more ethically manufactured but more expensive product is always looked down upon, it’s going to be very hard.”
Sophomore Kimberly Chen is researching this dilemma in her World Core class, and is writing a research paper on the effects of industrialization on factory workers. After reading an article about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, she became inspired to look into the lives of workers, and understand the hardships they face.
“It’s definitely a conscience issue,” Chen said. “ In Cambodia, workers who make H&M hoodies are fainting in mass episodes, and worker strikes for better pay have been crushed down with government force … which is something that’s really horrible.”
Similarly, senior Priscilla Siow recalls learning about sweatshops as a sophomore in World Studies. There was a group in her class that presented on a book called “Factory Girls,” which details a population of factory workers in China who start working at a young age with little to no pay.
Siow says she faces the conflict of wanting to have affordable and trendy clothing, but not supporting the unethical practices that many companies employ. Siow usually gets her clothing as hand-me-downs, or looks to support small online boutiques, though she still occasionally buys from more popular mainstream brands.
“When I was little I didn’t have control over [the clothing] I would buy,” Siow said, “but as I grew older I realized there’s so many articles about brands like Zara using unethical practices … so I try to stray away from it myself.”
But sweatshops don’t solely exist in Bangladesh, China or Mexico — the issue has been gaining prominence in U.S. factories as well. Just last year, the Los Angeles Times published an article detailing the numerous issues with an L.A. factory that supplies garments to Forever21. The factory is one of the few in Southern California that pays workers lower than the minimum wage. Though Forever21 may not directly endorse these practices, their business is fueled by these factories.
For one worker, Jose Garcia, sewing up one blouse in a L.A. factory earns a mere 22 cents, and even the total made from 55 hours of work per week is not enough for a quality of living.
“If you want to go out to eat, or go to the movies, or send money to your family, you’re left with nothing,” Garcia said in an interview with the LA Times.
These practices are what allow these companies’ garment prices to be significantly lower than companies with ethical standards — much like American Apparel, which had to file for bankruptcy for the second time in November of last year.
Regardless, Sivakumar believes that it’s important to simply take a stance on the issue, and support certain brands knowing the practices they use.
“I think it’s a notable issue in the world on the global scale, and unethical practices are an issue,” Sivakumar said. “It’s important to be educated and to … know the work and the sacrifices made for the garments you buy to not take it for granted.
Similarly, through her research, Chen believes that even if big name brands continue to employ work from these factories, it’s important to be aware of the consequences and make a decision with that in mind.
“We live in a society where hoodies and jeans that are made in sweatshops hang in our closets, and we don’t know about the workers that are being exploited,” Chen said. “If you’re buying clothes without a conscience you’re supporting the industries that do these things to their workers.”