Some of us are old enough to remember a time when clothing was made in this country and featured “Union Made in the U.S.A.” tags, when it was durable, with things like invisible hems and additional fabric in the seams to allow alterations.
In the 1960s, “mod” designers introduced disposable clothing. It was also a time when the big discount retailers, like Walmart and Target, proliferated around the country.
In the 1970s, massive textile mills began opening around the world so that retailers could relocate or outsource their manufacturing operations, saving millions of dollars.
As of 2011, only 2% of clothing was made in the U.S.A. We probably also remember the campaign to purchase clothing and other items made in the U.S.A. It’s a push that hasn’t worked, and of course, it would take work away from deeply disadvantaged populations in places around the world if we returned the entire industry to the U.S. and closed down all those mills.
Yet every day we are more aware of factories that are really sweatshops, where pay is unlivable, where there are no benefits, where children work alongside adults, where the hours are long and the environment unsafe. “From 1990 to 2012, there were at least 33 major fire incidents at garment facilities in Bangladesh.”
These stories parallel our own history in the garment industry. In the Manhattan Triangle Shirt Factory fire of 1911, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, 146 garment workers died, many by falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were Italian and Jewish immigrants, aged 16-23. The youngest victims were 14 years old. The doors to the stairwells and exits had been locked to prevent unauthorized breaks and reduce theft.
In that case, the two owners were prosecuted for manslaughter. Although they were acquitted, they were later sued in a civil suit and forced to pay the families of those who died $75 per person. The owners’ insurance compensation amounted to about $400 per person. New York City’s Fire Chief, John Kenlon, told investigators that his department had identified more than 200 factories where conditions made a fire like what occurred at the Triangle Shirt Factory a possibility.
The fire led to legislation that improved factory safety standards and stimulated the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
In recent years, social entrepreneurs have taken another approach than trying to persuade everyone to purchase US made clothing. Through the mechanism of their businesses, they address particular problems in the global social environment, particularly working conditions in disadvantaged areas. We featured several of these businesses in our blog, businesses whose clothing lines we proudly carry:
- Avatar: http://www.greenboxboutique.com/?p=311
- Mata Traders: http://www.greenboxboutique.com/?p=208
- Synergy: http://www.greenboxboutique.com/?p=319
- The Starfish Project: http://www.greenboxboutique.com/?p=162
We’ve taken important steps in this country to ensure the safety of workers, to eliminate child labor and to provide adequate compensation for work. We need to do much more. But it’s also important to see ourselves as part of a global community, not only benefiting from its pool of laborers, but helping to improve their work situations. It’s called fair trade, and that’s what we support at Green Box Boutique.