Why Your T-shirt Might Be Hurting People

Indian women picking Fair Trade Certified organic cotton.

Today is Fashion Revolution Day. It was created to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster that happened two years ago when more than 1100 workers were killed when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. The apparel industry was sent reeling with panic as brands tried to determine if they were making clothes there. The truth is that many brands don’t know where their clothes are made and with the disaster in Bangladesh, it appeared as though the consequences of cheap t-shirts had come home to roost. Some exceptional companies took on the challenge of trying to make things better, but so far the dead bodies in the factory haven’t proven to be the canary in the coal mine across the industry.

The apparel industry has been one of the most exploitative in the world. Up and down the supply chain the well being of people and the earth are compromised so we can have cheap clothing. The atrocities start with the raw materials. Look at what you’re wearing. Those jeans are cotton. That t-shirt is cotton. Your socks and underwear are cotton. Your athletic gear is polyester or nylon. Those fabrics are synthetic plastics. Plastic is oil. Clothing is made from cotton and oil — two of the world’s most highly traded commodities and two of the world’s most socially and environmentally destructive commodities.

Just this week CNN published an article entitled “Why India’s Cotton Farmers are Killing Themselves”. 11,772 cotton farmers committed suicide across India in 2013. That’s 44 a day. Poor farmers are getting played by big ag like Monsanto and their cronies who force genetically modified seed and toxic fertilizers on these farmers. The farmers go deep into debt to pay for these inputs because they are promised bumper crops. Most of the time a farmer’s bag ends up half full, but even when they do get cotton to market, the traders take advantage of these impoverished farmers by paying them far below market rate for their cotton. The farmers are desperate for cash — they take what they can get. Since India is now the world’s largest cotton producer, it’s likely we all have some clothes in our closet made of cotton from this corrupt system.

Unloading cotton at the gin.

I recently heard an executive from a major apparel brand say that marketers across the world have been incredibly successful at convincing consumers to buy clothes to the tune of more than $1 trillion per year. He then said, for some reason those same marketers have not been able to figure out a way to convince consumers that they should pay a teeny bit more money for that clothing to ensure that it hasn’t killed a farmer, taken advantage of a worker, or destroyed a river with toxic dyes along the way. We want cheap clothes and we want them now. The question to ask ourselves is whether 1100 dead Bangladeshis is an acceptable human cost so that we can have a $9.99 t-shirt.

There must solutions to end this madness, right?

I often hear the rally cries to bring the apparel industry back to America. Let’s not forget though that the apparel industry thrived here in the US because of three factors: slavery, unsafe working conditions, and low wages. Once these conditions no longer existed here, it became too expensive to mass produce clothing at prices consumers would pay and at margins that brands and retailers needed. The only option was to go in search of these necessary conditions somewhere else in the world. As consumers demanded cheaper and cheaper clothing it sent brands to the far corners of the globe in search of cheaper prices. These cheap prices came at the expense of worker’s wages, safe working conditions, and environmental protections.

Workers on the stitching floor at a Fair Trade Certified factory.

The industry has started to realize that it has a big problem on its hands. A few years ago it came together to form the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. This group is trying hard to find a solution that appeases brands, retailers, suppliers, NGOs, and governments around the world. It’s a lot of parties to bring together but they are truly making strides. However, the reality is that many brands still have no idea who is making their clothing — one European executive recently told me that they have only been able to identify 60% of their suppliers. And they certainly don’t know who is growing their cotton — an American executive recently told me that her brand has no cotton strategy at all.

These complications in the mass production of clothing inspired me to start PACT Apparel with the goal of addressing as many of these issues as possible. We’ve managed to source organic cotton directly from sustainable farming co-operatives in India and Turkey. We pay farmers a Fair Trade Certified price for their crop and then shepherd that cotton through the supply chain, working only with factories certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). In India we sew our clothes in a Fair Trade Certified garment factory. In Turkey, our socks are made on energy-efficient machinery so the factory uses half the power of a typical facility. We know all of our suppliers — the farmers, the ginners, the spinners, the knitters, the dye house and printers, and the final sewing and finishing facilities. This took a lot of effort and we are far from perfect.

So it’s Fashion Revolution Day. Who wants to start a revolution? First, consumers must be willing to pay a little more for their clothing. Brands, retailers, and suppliers must be willing to invest in big changes. And most importantly, Wall Street must be willing to be patient and supportive. Changing the apparel industry for good is a long game — the efforts don’t show up as positive gains on the next quarterly earnings report. But it has to start with some radical commitments across the industry. Until then, we’re just talkin’ about a revolution.