by Kevin Cook
Published on September 12, 2016
In today’s global marketplace, most manual labour has been outsourced to overseas production. Globalization promised cheaper products at home while offering an opportunity for 3rd world citizens to climb out of poverty. But this certainly isn’t the case. While the price of our products plummet, we acclimatize to these cheap goods, which only results in a positive feedback loops driving prices lower and lower. Furthermore, the price toggle is the easiest to turn. As a result, companies naturally resort to making their products cheaper to gain a competitive advantage. At a certain point, the consumer stops paying for the product and The True Cost is transferred to the labourers.
So why is this important? We tend to forget that the products we consume come from somewhere and most likely, someone, who’s putting hard hours into making them. A mother with children at home. A teenaged girl saving up money to help support her family. As makers, it’s possible to identify with these workers, understanding the drudgery of manual labour, but to most employers and business owners, the health and well being of labourers is an afterthought.
In the United States, labour rights are defined as wage minimums, discrimination laws, compensation for overtime, safe work environment and family leave. However, overseas, these rights are undermined at best. Take the Factory Collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh as an example for non existent human rights in factories. As designers, we have play a role in sourcing our materials and choosing to work with ethical factories. As consumers, we are a part of this process just by buying clothes and we have a choice to decide where we buy.
This post will briefly explore the dirty secrets of the textile and garment industry and the ways in which design is affecting these impacts. The infographic above shows how the textile and garment industry negatively impacts the environment at large, but when we take a closer look, these impacts are most directly felt by the workers who are handling the materials. Apart from the poor labour conditions, separation from families and minimal pay, exposure to toxins is arguably the most severe human rights infringement there is.
Industry of All Nations is a company that is considering overseas employment and labour rights into their business model; in fact, they’ve made it their main value proposition. The company’s array of products hits off every checkmark. Working in 7 developing countries, they create jobs, foster an environment of trust and worker safety, and they operate in local communities so labourers are able to preserve their culture and stay close to their families. But it doesn’t stop there. IOAN’s Clean Clothes Project is an initiative they started in Southern India in response to environmental degradation and labour mistreatment. Workers build products the cleanest way possible incorporating organic materials, natural dyes and biodegradable soaps and vinegar for cleaning purposes. These products are timeless, versatile and long lasting; a direct response to the fast fashion strategies we see from Zara and H&M.
IOAN is not the first company to put up a fight for workers rights, and they won’t be the last. In a world of mass consumption and fierce competition, it’s good to know that there are several companies that are starting to consider the health of workers and the lives of the humans that make our products. Design can take us so far, but it is ultimately up to us as consumers to choose what kind of future we want.