Weeks ago, jesse.anne.o mentioned a call to action for garment workers that involved wearing a t-shirt into stores that sell fast fashion. The call to action, with its four pointed questions, was designed to highlight the lessons that Americans first learned with the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Shortly afterwards, @ProfRagsdale brought this excellent documentary to my attention and in the middle of an evening of reading blogs, I was sidetracked and mesmerized for an hour by what I learned about this bit of labor history.
With the best of intentions, I dug out one of my two thrifted white tees, read up on Reva's instructions for making tees with transfers (a first for me) and planned to wear the result when I visited the H&M store in KC. Unlike garment workers, some of whom labor 7 days a week and work as much overtime as possible, I had the luxury of an entire Saturday to fuss and fume over my t-shirt.
In your factory, are the doors locked?
In your factory, are the windows barred?
In your factory, are the elevators locked?
In your factory, do you have access to fire escapes?
These questions are important to ask. A 2010 report to determine the state of the fashion industry found that fast fashion was getting faster. Since 2006, Forever21's sales grew by 25% and H&M's grew by 13%, while sales at department stores with middle price points had fallen by 4% (source). Much of H&Ms clothing is manufactured in Cambodia, where garment work is the third-largest income generating industry.
This AlterNet article details the stories of 3,000 workers losing consciousness in 17 separate "mass fainting" incidents at 12 of Cambodia's 300 registered garment factories. H&M rushed to investigate those cases where garments were being produced for them and discovered no plausible causes for the faintings. But, mix tolulene--the chemical at work in "huffing" and certain factory conditions like heat levels, ventilation, lack of dust masks, chairs, lighting and medical staff and we have a possible correlation.
"Perhaps the real question is: how did Cambodian garment exports increase by 24 percent last year--with double-digit percentage increases the year before that and another double-digit jump expected this year, too-with only 3,000 workers, with inadequate food, health care or safety facilities, falling to the ground from exhaustion." (source)
H&M has ramped up its corporate social responsibility efforts in recent years. You can read about its concern about water usage, promoting women, and workers' rights here. But the fact remains that the outfit you buy at H&M will cost you less than a Bangladeshi worker is paid in a month.
I like the way that Vivienne of the Vivienne Files put it in a recent post: "If I don't want to work in a sweatshop, I should never buy things made in a sweatshop."
I almost never wear t-shirts with a message across my chest. Do you think I followed through on wearing this to shop at H&M? I'll reveal the truth on Friday.