The Ten Dollar T-Shirt Is Not The Problem

6 May

In the wake of the April 24th Bangladesh factory collapse, which is now considered to be the most deadly accident in the history of the garment industry, I’ve been hearing a lot of people sharing some pretty uneducated and uninformed opinions.

I’ve heard stuff like, “Well, where did you think your ten dollar t-shirt came from?”

And, “Major clothing brands should refuse to do business with manufacturers in Bangladesh.”

And, “Why do we even make stuff overseas anyway? It’s all crap.”

There are a lot of problems with these types of statements. For one thing, the price of a piece of clothing is not at all indicative of the working conditions of its manufacturer. For another, implying (or outright saying) that there is something morally wrong with paying ten dollars for a t-shirt is incredibly classist. And finally, saying stuff like this shows a serious lack of understanding about how the garment industry works.

So let’s debunk a few of these myths, shall we?

1. Expensive, high end brands are ethically preferable

This is not at all true. Spending more money on an item of clothing doesn’t guarantee that the factory worker in Bangladesh who made it is earning a higher wage. It doesn’t even mean that the quality of the garment is any “better” than something you could buy for half the price. The truth is that when brand names charge higher prices for their items, that extra cash usually goes to two places: into the pockets of CEOs and other higher-ups, and into the company’s advertising budget.

Even buying clothing with a “Made in Italy” or “Made in the USA” label doesn’t guarantee that that piece of clothing was made by people working in decent conditions. In Italy, for example, labelling laws are extremely lax. A product can be almost totally manufactured elsewhere, but so long as it’s “finalized” in Italy (adding leather trim, for example, or sewing on buttons) it can be labelled as “Made in Italy.” As well, it should be noted that just because something is manufactured in Western Europe or North America doesn’t mean that the factory employees who made the item were paid a fare wage – illegal immigrants are often hired and paid under the table, meaning that employers can pay them whatever they like and the employees believe that they have no recourse for action. In Prato, Italy, Chinese immigrants were found to be working in garment factories for as little as €2 an hour.

But even when companies do pay their workers minimum wage, it’s often not enough. In many countries, minimum wage is not a living wage, especially if you live in a big city.

2. Our society’s desire for cheap clothing is exploitative and unsustainable. People should be willing to pay more money for their clothing.

First of all, let’s talk about how classist this assumption is. I mean, if you’re well off, then sure, you can probably afford to pay more than ten dollars for a t-shirt. But if you’re making minimum wage and living below the poverty line, then cheap clothing is the only type of clothing you can afford.

Take Toronto, for instance. Ontario’s minimum wage is $10.25 an hour, and the average cost to rent a bachelor apartment in Toronto is $840 per month (this figure most likely does not include utilities, phone/internet, or parking). If you’re making minimum wage, then you’re only bringing home $1,640 monthly before taxes. If you’re paying the bare minimum in income taxes (so, no union fees or anything like that), then you’ll be taxed $236.38 a month (according to this calculator on a government website), leaving you with $1,403.62. After paying rent, you’ll have $563.62. That $563.62 has to pay for everything other than rent – your phone, internet, food, transportation, utilities, clothing. And those are just the basics – what about entertainment? Things like going out to see a movie or having a few drinks with friends at a bar?

And all that is assuming that you’re single, childless and living in a bachelor apartment. Imagine how little would be left if you were the only breadwinner in a family with several dependents.

At that point, even a ten dollar t-shirt starts to seem astronomically expensive.

3. Major brands should just stop doing business with manufacturers in Bangladesh

And this would solve what, exactly? It certainly wouldn’t improve working conditions in Bangladesh factories. In fact, it would probably lead to a loss of employment opportunities in Bangladesh, meaning that the few companies that still hiring would be able to pay their employees even lower wages if they chose. People would be scrambling and competing for jobs, and would have to accept whatever came their way, no matter how badly it paid.

The other thing is that no matter what country those companies are manufacturing their goods in, so long as they are trying to keep their wholesale prices as low as they are, the manufacturers will have to cut corners, pay their workers substandard wages and skirt safety regulations in order to satisfy the companies’ demands.

Here’s what major brands actually should do: cut CEO salaries. Seriously. In the US, the average multiple of CEO compensation to rank-and-file employee is 204. Yes, you read that correctly. A CEO earns, on average, two hundred and four times what their retail employees earn. And let’s not even get into how much more a CEO earns when compared to one of the employees in their overseas factories.

How is that even a little bit ok?

Imagine how inexpensive clothing could be if we cut CEO wages. Imagine how much we could improve working conditions in countries like Bangladesh if CEO salaries were cut in half?

Companies also need to institute frequent, surprise inspections of the factories that manufacture their goods. They need to find ways to ensure that their goods are being made by employees who have fair wages and decent work environments. They need to actually take responsibility for how their business is being operated.

4. Why do we even make stuff overseas? Why not manufacture more stuff in North America/Europe/etc.?

The truth is that manufacturing clothing in North America and Europe is becoming more and more difficult. It’s less expensive to manufacture in Asia for a variety of reasons, and not just because labour is cheaper there. Another important cost factor is that many of the raw materials are now more readily available overseas than they are here. For example, China is the leading grower of cotton in the world, meaning that even if an item of clothing was sewn in Canada, the used would most likely come from overseas. Is there really a difference in how “ethical” your clothing is if the finished product is made here but the raw materials are harvested and processed by underpaid workers overseas? How ethical is it if the water used to grow those raw materials (cotton, for example, is a notoriously water-intensive crop) is partly responsible major water shortage in China? How can we ever make sure that every person who has somehow contributed to making our clothing is treated fairly?

Look. The garment industry is fucked up and major changes need to happen. Factories need to be unionized, workers need better conditions, and CEO pay needs to be cut. Here at home we need to increase minimum wage to a livable wage. We need to figure out a way to make sure that everyone who participates in the garment industry, whether they’re an employee in a retail store, a worker in a factory or a small child whose water supply is being used to water cotton crops, is getting a fair deal.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure how we can make any of this happen, or what the world would look like if these changes were to take place. But what I do know is that the way that we live now is not sustainable, not by a long shot. I know that we need more accountability from the companies that make our clothing, and more tools like Good Guide to hep us figure out where to spend out money. We need to make more of an effort to educate ourselves about how and where our goods are made.

Most of all, though, I know that the ten dollar t-shirt is not the problem. It’s just a symptom of the problem.


14 Responses to “The Ten Dollar T-Shirt Is Not The Problem”

  1. broadsideblog May 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    There is another solution, socially responsible investing — i.e. making sure none of our hard-earned dough is being invested in exploitative companies through our mutual fund holdings. It’s not easy as most funds only list the top 10 holdings but if it means that much to you, you can figure it out. And/or buy stock in a few of these companies, attend a shareholders’ meeting and grill the C-suite boys publicly.

    But all good points.

    • allshrink May 7, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      In the land which holds the greatest graveyard amongst the ship yards, where cheap laborers shouts for even more of the cheaper works. Much crowded and with harsher landscapes these deltas offer no more to a common life than a two time meal.
      “Socially responsible investing” may eventually lead to responsible corporation where employees may than be able to enjoy a respectable behavior. But this realization may be infinitely far away.
      Yet the globalization as opposed to localization, and this is when we refer to the new opportunities coming down the western highway disguised mostly as cheap labor, are sought after with open arms.

  2. Ashley Austrew May 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

    Thank you for this. It’s so important–if we’re going to have a conversation about this issue–to have an informed one.

  3. E May 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    AMEN! 24/7 news and “reality” tv has added to the “quick fix” solution for everything – and in this case, there isn’t one.

  4. Writer / Mummy May 6, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    This is a great, balanced and informative post, thank you. I wish the answers were more obvious.

  5. Daile May 7, 2013 at 2:19 am #

    Agree with this post, you make some really good points especially about CEO wages. It is actually quite disgusting when you think about it.
    I think people also tend to forget that these workers in Bangladesh and other similar countries would have even WORSE jobs with WORSE pay and WORSE conditions if it weren’t for these factories. We would be creating more of a problem by refusing to do business in these countries. But something has to change.

    • Elle May 7, 2013 at 9:24 am #

      True true true….same discussion with same outcome always….
      Energy misplaced ….Change conditions not buying patterns
      Well said…:-)

  6. Honore May 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    It’s so overwhelming when one personally investigates the impact their purchases have on resources/ other people/ etc. I wrestle with the fact that I often have to choose between buying organic produce that was picked by exploited workers or buying a much smaller amount of locally grown veggies. When it comes to clothing I try to remove myself from the issue by buying all my clothes from thrift stores. It doesn’t do anything to solve the problem of exploited workers beyond not giving the company my dollars, but at this point it’s the only thing I have been able to come up with.

  7. Leopard [Crates and Ribbons] May 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    Hi! Haven’t been over here for a while, but I see you’ve been doing amazingly!! So pleased 🙂 🙂 x

  8. Rosie May 8, 2013 at 3:47 am #

    Reblogged this on FEMBORG.

  9. Kristyn May 9, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if companies in the US (or even much of Europe) treated workers in foreign countries, like Bangladesh, the way they treat workers in the US or Europe? I can’t see why it’s so hard to make sure that working conditions for these human beings are acceptable for human beings. It’s bad enough that these industries are exploitative and often don’t even pay a living wage, but to put people’s lives in danger this way is beyond unacceptable.

    If the same thing happened in the US, these people wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the fact that this is a human tragedy. People died. Lots of them.

    And to your point about garments not being better because they have a brand name. My mother and grandmother both worked in the Hang Ten factory in the mid to late 1970s. All of the garments would be made of the same material, by the same hands, and some of them would be labeled with a Hang Ten tag, while others would get generic tags. Same exact product, but the tee’s labeled Hang Ten would sell for at least twice, if not three times, as much.

  10. gita4elamats June 2, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on ELANA – The Voice of the Future.


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