Fashion Forward: Looking Beyond The Exploitation Of Workers

I am tired. I am tired of being exploited, of witnessing the exploitation of others around me, and of feeling like I have no voice. I have decided to speak up ― for myself, but more importantly for the farmers, makers, and creators who break their backs for a system that was built to use them. A system that takes their time, their craft, their history, and their voice. The fashion industry, once described by a professor of mine as “the little sister of capitalism”, is broken. It is time for a change. A redistribution of capital and perceived value in the entire supply chain ― from farm to final product.

For the past three years I have worked with local fiber farmers in New York’s Hudson Valley, helping designers in the city access locally sourced materials. We offered custom textile development and small scale production to our clients. At first, many of these seemingly well-intentioned “sustainable” designers happily called the process a collaboration. But once they received the final handspun, hand woven, naturally dyed, and felted pieces, something flipped. The designers took complete credit, erasing me and my partners from the process. At times I have had to chase down clients, flooding their inboxes with unanswered emails before receiving payment. Other times I receive none of the agreed upon compensation at all.

The last straw broke the camel’s back recently, when I spent countless hours consulting, creating samples, and producing yardage for a client who was not compensating us for most of our labor because we were “collaborators”. And yet, when everything was nearly complete, the client decided that because we had been paid, the finished textiles were not truly the product of a collaboration, but hers to claim. I’ve seen this story mirrored in numerous conversations with fellow local artisans. Designers take the fruits of their labor and their intellectual property and run, leaving them uncredited and underpaid. This is also how they treat the farmers who spend over a year lambing, shearing, skirting, and processing the fiber before the crafting process can even begin.

My friends and I have the privilege to speak out about systemic problems. Living in the west, New York City of all places, we are often on the receiving end. It felt awful being ripped off, but my experiences are nothing compared to what artisans with less privilege than myself and my partner face. The situation is even worse for artisans oversees (or natives on American and international soil), who often find their traditional crafts and designs appropriated by high-fashion designers, whose work is then ripped off by fast-fashion designers, and so on until their cultural icons are mutated beyond recognition.

Fashion brands have other people grow the materials, process the fiber, develop the textiles, create the patterns, cut the fabric, sew the garments (which are usually copied from other better established designers, who probably ripped their designs from yet another designer in a huge chain of shameless copying), and then claim ownership over the final product. The multi-billion dollar apparel industry is built on the backs of millions of underpaid and overworked laborers and mistreated animals, plants, and land. Huge profits are generated by constantly driving down the price of labor, from 10 cents an hour, to 5 cents an hour, to 2 cents an hour in sweatshops and fields. Big companies have also been picking up and moving factories from poor country to poorer country in search of cheaper labor, stranding the workers and devastating the economies of those they leave behind.

The final product that the consumer sees hanging on the rack at a store is an amalgamation of countless hands that worked to produce a garment, workers who received pennies compared to the profits. The hands that feed us are struggling to feed themselves, and it is time to do something about it.

When small brands and designers try to break this cycle, they often struggle to produce ethically created garments and still turn a profit. Because they need customers to buy their clothes they can’t price them too high above the market value set by mega-corporations and high-end brands which use sweatshop labor. Somebody has to take a cut to make up for this, and it’s usually the people lower down on the supply chain: the manufacturers, craftspeople, mills, miners, weavers, technicians, dyers, and (at the very bottom of the chain), the ailing cotton and wool farmers.

But you can do something. You can break the cycle. Capitalism is all about supply and demand. As a consumer, you can demand transparency and refuse to buy clothes from companies that have not explicitly shared the details of their supply chain. You can demand better products: products made by workers who are fairly compensated and artisans who are given credit, with materials that come from well treated animals, produced without pesticides and herbicides and without toxic dyes and treatments, made without plastics like polyester and acrylic that poison our oceans.

Production and consumption are consistently being divided to blind consumers from the travesties being committed on a global scale. What can you do to counteract years of government and corporate greed and uncontrolled “growth”, at the cost of your life and your communities lives?

You can support collaboration, in its truest form. Work together with members of your community to redefine what growth means in an economic context. Localize your purchases, so everyone in every community benefits. Vote with your dollar, but also vote for representatives who have the whole community’s interest in mind. Run in local elections yourself. Start a community garden or farm. Educate yourself and find products that align with your new values standards. If you can’t find any you can afford, make your own. Repurpose your well-loved garments and reclaim power over your wardrobe. Educate your friends and family about where their clothing comes from. Join the movement.

If you work in the fashion industry and are reading this ― you are not just a cog in the wheel. You can do something. Start a company for good, or find one that already exists and lend a hand. We cannot change an industry on our own, but together we are powerful. Together our voices can be heard.

 

Nica Rabinowitz Founder and Creative Director at Artifact Textiles

As an educator and designer Nica Rabinowitz aims to break down the gap between production and consumption and introduce the notion of caring into the workplace and classroom. Rooted in supply chain research and a desire to revitalize local fiber farming communities, she sees fashion as a system, and therefore views her process as a study in system design with textile as the foundation. Nica is the Founder and Creative Director at Artifact Textiles as well as the Director of Programming and Education at Manufacture New York. Her goal is to provide access to anyone and everyone interested in redefining the future of fashion and the way we make, source, consume, and manufacture.

Chris Marta