Was Your Shirt Made in a Sweatshop?

By Tiffany - Friday, April 26, 2013

It's 2013 and we are still asking the question: "How can you tell if your shirt was made in a sweatshop?"

Source: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
There was an incident in a factory that makes clothes for large retail giants causing many people to once again ask that question. On April 24th, a factory fire in Bangladesh killed more than 300 people. Last November, there was another fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 people. These incidents bring the nastiness of the garment industry to the forefront of people's minds. But, many will probably forget by the time they go back to the store.

The sad part is, this is not something new. It is just that those of us in North America have increasingly been able to push it out of sight and out of mind over the last 100 years.

Just over 100 years ago, there was a similar incident in New York: the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. About 146 people died - many jumped to their deaths as doors were locked. This incident helped with the rise of the International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union, which fought to improve the health and safety of garment workers.

Source: Wikipedia

The ILGWU and the unions that came after it helped to improve the working conditions and wages of the workers. However, their success was often local (eg. New York vs. LA) and cylical. In the 1930s, the union had a big boost in membership after Roosevelt promised to recognize the workers' right to organize. In the 1970s, the union advertised that you should 'Look For the Union Label' so that you knew you were buying ethical clothing. But you can tell that from lines in their jingo (eg. "Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house") that they were fighting a battle against cheaper clothing and cheaper labour. From the 1970s onward, most of the clothing production moved out of the country.

Bangladesh has some of the lowest labour costs in the world. Large retail corporations, such as Walmart and Loblaws, have fled there for their cheap goods. Bangladesh So, here we are today with the same horrors happening over and over again. It is just easier for us to ignore, because it no longer happens in our cities. At least for now...

Corporations (and the politicians they pay) have helped to create a race to the bottom. They have done what they can to depress wages in North America (so that many have little choice but to buy cheap clothes) and to make 'union' a dirty word. The American south is becoming so depressed, I would not be surprised if the manufacture of many goods is already returning there.

Also, sweatshops in North America never really disappeared. Mexico has a booming sweatshop economy (thanks to NAFTA). And there are many underground sweatshops in Canada and the USA.

So, when you ask "was my shirt made in a sweatshop?", the answer is probably yes. Approximately 95% of clothing is made in a sweatshop. And the 'Made in Canada' or 'Made in USA' label is not a guarantee.

What can you do? If you want to buy ethical clothing, it is best to do your research and find out what companies you should support. I have decided to give up buying clothes altogether and to make my own. So far, it has been a great experience.

The next step for me is to make sure that the fabric and yarn I'm buying is ethical, too. Now that I'm a little more confident in my skills, I'm going to do that for any future purchases.

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  1. This is such a great post! I completely agree with you, and I love the reminder because often times, you're right, this gets pushed to the back of our minds because the media doesn't report it and also we're usually trying to figure out how to afford things. The lack of money on my end is why I stopped buying clothes unless they're second hand a few years, but conveniently it's also made me reevaluate my shopping and spending habits.

    And honestly, you could apply to this almost any industry, at least in the US. And thank you for pointing out the fires in Bangladesh. I was familiar with the Triangle Factory Fire many years ago but I don't even think I noticed if/when the Bangladesh fires were reported. This is just a great reminder to support local, handmade, fair trade/labor groups.

    Also, thanks for the note about the yarn - I didn't even think about that! I'd love to hear what some of your go-to ethical yarn brands are.

    1. Thanks Kristen. I should mention that I've been having some luck finding yarn and fabric second hand at garage sales and second hand stores as long as I'm not too picky. :)

  2. Update: The death toll from this incident is now estimated to be over 750. http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/08/a-final-embrace-the-most-haunting-photograph-from-bangladesh/#1