I spent this week nose deep in frustrating research, documentaries, and emotional anecdotes. You know, fun.
I’ve enrolled in a three week course administered by the University of Exeter and Fashion Revolution though Future Learn about the highly complex and often morally vacuous fashion supply chain. At the heart of the class is the question “who made my clothes?” Students are tasked with finding specifically who grew the materials, wove the fabric, and stitched the final pieces of their favorite outfits. For my assignment, I didn’t pick a favorite dress, but one I bought out of pure necessity.
I’m still in the process of building my capsule wardrobe, so in the meantime bought a cheap dress at Francesca’s Collection to augment my small collection of work appropriate summer attire. It was meant to be an emergency dress to hold me over until I got more ethical pieces; I bought it because, unlike some of their other goods, it bore the “Made in the USA” tag. At least, I thought, it’s being made in a country with more environmental protections than the developing world, though it may be made by prisoners or not even really in this country.
Prison Labor is Modern Slavery
Investigating the use of prison labor has been my new obsession; it’s dehumanizing and unethical, not to mention disingenuous to shoppers who, like me, might be trying to support workers being paid a living wage. To understand why our “Proudly Made in the USA” goods are sometimes made by prisoners being paid cents per hour and not American workers being paid a living wage, we must consider the prison industrial complex. The 13th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Put another way, once convicted, a US citizen can be paid slave wages for hard labor as punishment for a crime, even nonviolent ones.
There are over 2 million American adults in prison or jail; most are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offences, and people of color represent a disproportionate number of inmates when compared to the general population. Companies like Victoria’s Secret have more than enough cheap labor available to them, and the harder we are on crime, the more “workers” they have. Prisoners are paid less than a dollar per hour, sometimes as little as 2 cents, according to The Atlantic, and are watched by armed guards as they work full-time jobs in factories or fields under threat of punishment . If this is what “keeping jobs in America” looks like, I want no part in it.
“Made in” Tags Lie
If you were to see something that said it was made in the U.S. or Italy or France, you’d assume it was made by workers paid a fair wage, right? That’s unfortunately not the case. In Italy, for example, Chinese companies are undercutting traditional Italian textiles who can’t compete with their cheap fabric and labor. The result is a brand who can profit off the desirable “made in Italy” tag without having it actually be a true Italian made good.
It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end. — The New York Times
Some aspects of this story cast a long shadow of bigotry and anti-immigration sentiment, adding this to the long list of instances in which workers are blamed for the systemic problem of the fast fashion industry that makes cheap, disposable clothing possible. What concerns me is that Chinese workers in factories in Italy are not paid according to the Italian minimum wage, as one would suspect.
Finally, some factories have only the last steps done in the country that they cite on the label. A pocket or a few stitches might be “handmade in France,” whereas the vast majority of the labor has been done in the developing world. Disclosures aren’t mandatory, and brands can get away with these misleading practices because no government requires such transparency.
My dress from Francesca’s was “Made in the USA,” but I can’t even find a website for the brand on its tag. Francesca’s doesn’t make any of its own clothes, it’s simply a retailer that carries pieces from fast fashion wholesalers. I scoured the internet, but can’t find mention of the “name anywhere. I did, however, find mention of multiple lawsuits lodged against Francesca’s over being “too close” to their suppliers and wage theft from supervisors in a New Jersey location. I can only assume this dress was made either by prisoners or is lying about being made here; either way, it’s absolutely not supporting a person being paid a living wage.
I reached out to Francesca’s and they didn’t reply.
I understand that disclosing one’s entire supply chain exposes a business to direct competition and the risk of others poaching their suppliers, but this is why legislation is a necessary step towards transparency. If ALL companies are required to publish yearly documents, for example, disclosing this information, I wouldn’t be at a loss as to who made this stupid sundress that I regret buying.