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By: Mia Kibel
In ninth grade my favorite shirt was a grey deep v-neck from American Apparel. If you are currently studying at McMaster, there is a decent chance that at some point, some variation of this shirt featured prominently in your wardrobe. In 2008 and 2009, it was not uncommon to see four or five girls wearing the same shirt in a range of different colours on any given day. In retrospect, two things become striking: one is a disturbing adolescent penchant for uniformity, but the other is the fact that on Oct. 5, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy.
The company is well known for its commitment to “sweatshop-free” clothing. It is one of the only mainstream clothing companies manufacturing its product in North America, specifically in Los Angeles. American Apparel pays its employees minimum wage, and according to their website offers comprehensive healthcare and benefits. This is not to say American Apparel does not have labour rights issues — they have been accused of aggressive anti-union behavior, immigration entanglements, and sexualized hiring practices by the former CEO Dov Charney. But despite this, because they produce in America, the company still has a better human rights record than its counterparts.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh made headlines when it collapsed, killing 1,100 workers (mostly women). There were no fire exits, no adequate air supply, and the women were forced to stay and work even when they noticed cracks in the foundation. The Rana Plaza factory and others like it are associated with Zara, H&M, Uniqulo, Forever 21, and many more of the world’s largest brands. Despite the news coverage, we continue to shop exhibiting a profound collective amnesia surrounding garment worker rights. In comparison, American Apparel is looking pretty good.
Unfortunately, it is not a coincidence that American Apparel is the one going bankrupt. Minimum wage for workers in California is $1,440 a month, compared to $68 in Bangladesh. These high production costs mean that American Apparel is not able to compete with “fast-fashion” like H&M, Zara and Forever 21, because producing ethically costs too much money. However little we like to admit it, we as consumers agree. I have walked into American Apparel, looked at a $24 shirt, thought, “this is too expensive” and walked out. The past five years of American Apparel sales show that a whole lot of people are doing the exact same thing. Fast fashion — dependent as it is on the mistreatment of workers — is really cheap. The cheapest plain jeans at American Apparel are $78.00, compared to $9.99 at H&M, $10.90 at Forever 21, and $29.90 at Zara. Human rights are out of my price range.
Theoretically, we have the ability to make consumption choices that protect human rights, but for a lot of people, especially students, those choices aren’t affordable. Not to mention any shopper who wears a size larger than XL lacks even the semblance of a choice, because American Apparel sizes don’t run that high. This exclusivity in socially conscious fashion isn’t unique. If you google “socially conscious clothing” the first hit is a list of 30 brands. There were only four brands that earned a single “$” rating on the website, and they only had “cheap” designations because they sold less expensive items such as underwear and accessories. People with less disposable income are excluded from whatever “socially conscious corporate economy” exists.
Financial critics of American Apparel are taking its bankruptcy as evidence that young people “don’t care where their clothes are made,” but I do not think this is true. Anyone who has ever had to meet a budget knows that sometimes you do not get to spend your money on what you want — the choice is made for you. By connecting cheap clothes to human rights abuses, the fast fashion industry is implicating all of us in the gross mistreatment of thousands of people around the globe. Not enough people would or could pay the price they set on human rights, and American Apparel’s case proves that even an approximation of human rights is not possible or profitable. Within the corporate garment industry, there is no such thing as a socially conscious consumer.