What does it mean to be an unethical clothing brand

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

In a world that thrives off competition and consumerism, it seems the “smartest” way to be a consumer is to find the most bang for your buck, quickly. We see this in the popular Amazon Prime model that boasts quick shipping, we see this in shopping brands that boast new items weekly for an affordable price, we see this in labels that lure you in with “as seen on Kylie Jenner last night, but for only 19.99!” As they say, “the devil works hard, but Fashion Nova works harder.”

We live in a society that encourages you to stay on top of your game and bombards you with trends. Fashion and clothes are intrinsic to how we navigate the world, as it’s what people first see about you. It can be people’s creative outlets, it can be people’s livelihoods (looking at you social media influencers), or simply a function (dress codes). It’s a social mechanism in and of itself, and that is why we see the garment industry has and will continue to grow faster behind the scenes than we can fathom as consumers.

But it only takes a moment, one day, one second, to pause and look at your “clout camouflage pants #campfloggnaw #kyliejenner 65.99 19.99!” and really wonder where it came from. Where was it made? Who made it? How? These questions often lead us to one of the prime answers: exploitative unethical clothing brands.

But what does it mean to be an unethical clothing brand?

Unethical clothing brands have several things in common. They have dehumanizing labor practices (sweatshops, terrible working conditions, child labor), unregulated environmental impacts(pollution, chemicals, waste) and reliance on consumers to be captivated by their prices enough that they won’t think to question the lack of transparency behind their businesses.

The labor practices these brands follow are unethical socially and economically.

Since the production cycle of a single garment piece goes through many stages, businesses “stay on top” by short circuiting safety precautions in factories that would slow down manufacturing and production such as building emergency exits, allowing their workers to have needed bathroom breaks, and even cutting down employee paychecks (a child could work for a day in a garment factory for the value of 1 U.S dollar). This creates an unsafe work environment and encourages businesses to contract with factories that exploit lower income and poverty stricken communities, whose primary employees are children and women trying to keep their family afloat.

These women and children are in contact with dangerous heavy machinery or dangerous chemicals (bleaching pools), they often work under an abusive “manager” who makes sure they are working constantly, and they work in degrading buildings that would collapse even if these factories wanted to build emergency exits (they don’t). This can be seen in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,100+ workers. It is not the first or last factory to do so.

But we cannot remove how local the garment industry exploitation is either. Even in Los Angeles, the City of Dreams, it seems many low income immigrants’ dreams are short-cutted to squatting in a room or a sweatshop working in terrible conditions to make garments for LA’s love of “fast street fashion.” Sometimes, the world of fashion is banked on others’ dreams. (See: the El Monte (LA suburbs) garment raid).

But let’s put names to these local brands that use sweatshop labor, to truly understand the consequences and production from these practices. Let’s address something that hits closer to home: the racks of the local shopping mall. According to several reports such as this and this, American brands that continue to use sweatshop labor in their production factories include big names such as: Victoria’s Secret, Converse, Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch, Tommy Hilfiger, and H&M. This is to name a few. Alarming, right?

The human rights violations is not the only unethical practice these businesses profit off of, they also profit off unethical environmental conditions. Besides putting their workers in hazardous conditions, these businesses often employ factories that use chemicals that bleed into and destroy the surrounding environment, they burn and produce products faster than they can handle (business thrives off fast fashion and the volume of fast fashion), and magnify humans’ carbon footprint by encouraging waste (yes, Becky your camouflage pants were nice two weeks ago but now it’s about that neon hot lewk, thank u, next).

So what does it really mean to be an unethical clothing brand? Essentially, it’s about manipulating existing social conditions to exploiting human lives and the environment in order to profit. It’s to create brands that will allow you to “look the best; but keep the wallet good too #AmericanDream.”

Now that we’ve identified what unethical clothing brands are and how they exist, what can we do as an average consumer? It’s not realistic to sit down and never buy another clothing item again. Because we are so removed from the whole production process, it's extremely difficult to be cognizant of the effect of our clothing purchases. However, what we can do is make efforts to be a more sustainable individual.

The first most important thing to do is realize that it is impossible to be a perfect moral shopper. It is possible, however, to make more conscious decisions when, where, and how we shop, one check out button at a time.

Some notable sustainable brands that will still keep you looking fun and fresh are: Reformation, Everlane, and thredUp. An even cheaper alternative option is to shop secondhand to stop the cycle of waste.

Thrift shops [ we heard RefineLA in an amazing one ; ) ] are a good place to start for second hand, as well as online apps such as Depop and Poshmark which tailors more to specific needs. Repurposing your clothes or supporting local shops/designers. Even the act of trying to consume less will help (no Becky you don’t need that leopard fur mid thigh boots with a clear neon heel just because animal print is coming back). This is the true way to be a “smart” consumer.

While the clothing and fashion industries’ issues are very large and cannot be fixed quickly, we can still make more decisions as individuals that will help towards end the cycle of waste. Hey, even being more continuously conscious and aware by reading up on these issues (look what you just did!) is an important small step to addressing the prominence of unethical clothing brands.

In a world that thrives off competition and “bang for your buck, what’s quality?” mentality, it is imperative we analyze our daily consumptions as individuals and place ethics inside our shopping carts too.

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