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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, June 14, 2024

Sweatshops in America and sustainability in fashion

An Urban Outfitters storefront is pictured.

The slow fashion movement was first introduced in 2007 by journalist Kate Fletcher, who detailed fashion’s responsibility regarding transparent practices, production of environmentally sustainable items and fair conditions for workers. Since then, interest in sustainable fashion has increased in niche groups and gained more public interest during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated and emphasized pre-existing inequities in society’s structure. It brought wealth inequality, late stage capitalism, environmental disasters and racial discrimination — especially during the George Floyd protests — to the forefront.

Since then, consumers have expressed interest in more sustainable and equitable practices in the textile industry. About 57% of consumersreport they have made lifestyle changes to decrease environmental impact. Consequently, brands have responded with gestures toward supply transparency, use of recycled materials, support of minority communities and, most importantly, branding themselves to care.

On Oct. 12, 2021, Urban Outfitters introduced Nuuly Thrift to its platform, allowing consumers to shop for pre-owned clothing items while browsing the current inventory. This business model has been implemented by many popular brands, such as Patagonia, REI, Nordstrom, Levi’s and Lululemon. However, there is no evidence this has transformed the linear buying model into a cyclical one.

Luxury brands capture different markets than more affordable ones. People who are buying new and those who are buying used are likely different populations entirely. Additionally, these companies have not decreased their production of new items. One of the most popular brands, Nike, has plans to decrease its carbon footprint per item rather than decrease production as a whole. This exemplifies the delusion large companies and consumers believe that profit and sustainability can coexist.

Speaking of fashionable young adult fashion retailers, Urban Outfitters is one of the biggest offenders for wage theft for sweatshop labor in the U.S. Brands such as Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Fashion Nova have been found to be compliant in supporting California factories paying their garment workers as low as $5 per hour under suboptimal conditions. These brands owe millions of dollars to their employees, often undocumented immigrants, yet launched campaigns after the George Floyd protests declaring their support for BIPOC. 

Urban Outfitters cites its partnership with Where are the Black Designers?, its HBCU Summer Intern Program and other LGBTQ and Black empowerment programs. Yet, the company is one of the biggest culprits of disenfranchising BIPOC workers. This lack of responsibility for garment workers comes from the fact that these retailers are not legally responsible for production practices if they feign ignorance.

Sweatshop labor is not just an issue of women overseas bending over to sew our clothing. It’s present in Los Angeles, home to influencers and wealth inequality.

There are arguments positing that low wages are necessary for competition against low wage garment producing countries such as Bangladesh, but Los Angeles Apparel stands against this argument. Los Angeles Apparel, created by the founder of American Apparel, was one of the solitary fair wage brands in the 2010s. The brand currently pays its garment workers an average of $20 an hour by owning its own factories instead of outsourcing. Los Angeles Apparel is vertically integrated and remains relatively small.

These issues are only the surface of what is explored in Remake’s 2021 Fashion Accountability report. Audits similar to it point to the fact that sustainability is not moving as fast as they’re advertised. As much as it is companies’ responsibility to employ ethical and equitable practices, profit is really what holds them accountable. Thus, it is a consumer responsibility to check sources, to know that 8% of companies can prove they pay their workers a living wage and to shop accordingly.