Fashion Should Never Come at the Cost of a Life

Fashion Should Never Come at the Cost of a Life: Something to think about while getting dressed this morning.


Image: AP

It has been eight weeks since the devastating collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh where 1,127 garment workers died due to negligence and a high demand for cheap clothing. Leading up to the factory collapse at Rana Plaza, workers noticed cracks in the foundation. Management assured them the building was safe and pressure was put on them to finish existing orders in the interest of meeting deadlines. Clothing should never come at the price of lives.

The media has done a relatively good job in continuing its coverage of rebuilding and compensation efforts since the collapse in Dhaka. However, the story has begun to wane in terms of public engagement.  The building collapse in Bangladesh is not the only story of its kind, indicating that this is a serious issue that requires continued coverage. Just four months prior, on November 24, 2012 a fire broke out in the Tazreen Factory on the outskirts of Dhaka killing 117 and injuring 200 more.  We need to take responsibility for the negative impact our respective decisions are having in places like Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is the second largest supplier for the garment industry. With wages so low China has begun to subcontract to Bangladesh in order to continue to keep manufacturing costs low. Workers need the money and there exists an over-anxiety to make ends meet, in other words “any job is better than no job”.  The rhetoric of the garment industry promises its employees upward economic mobilization, however evidence illustrates that garment workers continue to suffer from dire poverty.

Canada is not without fault in contributing to the traumatic experiences within the clothing industry. Beyond Loblaw (Joe Fresh) manufacturing at Rana Plaza, Canadian trade from Bangladesh has doubled over the past 5 years.  The Canadian government cut tariffs on imports 10 years ago and currently imports over 1 billion worth of garments from Bangladesh.  While Loblaw has promised compensation to victims and their families, they have yet to disperse any funds.

So, what can we learn from this tragedy?

Governments, industry, NGOs, workers and consumers alike must invest their policy, business models, programs, efforts, and decisions, respectfully, to shift the garment enterprise away from unethical terms of production and into  he sustainable development of the garment industry to upholds the highest social and environmental standards.

i) It is not acceptable for governments to protect businesses at the cost of lives. It is not tolerable for brands to demand cheaper and cheaper costs resulting in corruption and failure to comply with codes. ii) NGOs need to invest in programs that create “systemic” changes within the industry, exceeding the current “band aid” programs that maintain the cycle of poverty. iii) Garment workers, who experience the trauma of the current horrific condition, must be given the freedom to associate in the interest of improving labour standards.  iv) As an individual we vote with our dollars when we purchase. It is not about boycotting, but rather reallocating our money. Asking questions of brands, putting pressure on our governments to respond to these issues. It must be a unanimous effort of all parties.

Fashion functions as a form of personal and artistic expression, as way to express our inner artist to the outside world. As such, fashion is often celebrated for its creativity and artistic nature. This rings true worldwide. Solutions to these issues are serviceable by ingenious ingenuity. There is an abundance of knowledge available to incubate change.  Make the ethical choice from here out!

we will demand better

Solidarity: Models from FAT in Toronto this April.


Flying to the heart of the Haitian garment industry!


Our trip is scheduled for Haiti! August 7th through the end of the month will be spent in Port-au-Prince making our new garments at INDEPCO and soaking up the opportunities that await us on our fourth trip!

The garment industry in Haiti has not made the kind of progress that anyone interested in fair labour standards and sustainable business development would hope to see. Local Buttons continues to be solution based, engaging with the challenges of the garment industry in Haiti and its relationship to world fashion. It will be informative to return to Port-au-Prince where we gain insight into the inner circles of the industry as it relates to labour and production inHaiti.

Reading the Better Work Haiti review, reported by the International Labour Organization (ILO), with the support of Canadian and American economic and human resource departments, was quite frustrating.

The fourth annual report was released on April 16th, 2012, and analyzed the progress and/or regression of how 20 factories in Haiti comply with National and International labour and industry standards.

It was unfortunate that no factory complied with all basic international and national standards. Each factory has not complied with several very general standards that should be in place for legal production. This is frustrating because the revitalization of the garment industry was chosen as the main strategy to develop the Haitian economy after the 2010 earthquake.

The standards, as outlined in the report, need to be further developed, implemented, and monitored. This remains to be the greatest challenge of the ILO. The World Trade Organization (WTO) by comparison implements and monitors trade agreements with ease. “People” compared to “goods” have not been protected, it is a situation that has devastated the livelihoods of the working class around the world.

Rather than going into the details of the report, which can be read here

There are a few excerpts I chose from the report to illustrate the awful conditions that Haitian garment workers tolerate. I’ve indicated the page number of each excerpt in case you’d like to read more.

“…workers reporting that they are not able to leave the factory without permission for nearly an hour after normal working hours, as the punch in machine is turned off. In this case, if workers leave the factory without punching out, they do not get paid for the day.” (p.17).


Image: A Woman sleeps at factory DKDR Haiti, scoring very poorly on its compliance points. P.34

“Management confirmed that when a woman is pregnant, she is paid only for maternity leave even if she becomes sick while pregnant. As a result, women are not getting the same sick leave benefits as men, which constitutes gender discrimination” (p.16)

“Promises of promotions, as well as threats to maintain their employment, were made in exchange for dates or sexual favours. It was stated that if workers refuse to go on dates with their supervisors, they are fired.” (p.16).

“The share of workers currently earning 250 Gourdes after 8 hours of regular work time is 22%…All workers earn a minimum of 150 Gourdes per day.” (p.18) [ 250 Gourdes= $6.00 CAD. , 150 Gourdes= $3.70 CAD]…ummm? From what we learned, and anyone could assume, this is a fight for two inadequate levels of income!

“…workers who do not work overtime do not receive the same wage as other workers in the same module who have achieved the production target.” (p.19)

“Ten factories did not yet install or provide washing facilities in the event of exposure to chemicals” (p.20)

It is a very good thing that this reporting is being done, but not if it doesn’t become the interest of the public. Is it a matter of “tagging” garments with the pictures of physically and emotionally injured garment workers in the same way cigarette packages illustrate cancerous lungs?

That was a whimsical suggestion on my behalf, but more seriously, Local Buttons will continue to function as a movement that a) demonstrates the potential to redefine garment industry standards, and b) develops consumer demand for ethical fashion.

Image So can making them work long hours…

The $10.00 Deal or RipOFF?

Fall day in Guelph, ON

Fall is upon us, cool and sweet, a gentle whisper of the harsh cold about to usher our way. Along with this onset of crisp air it’s tempting to revamp our wardrobes with new items and the newest trends. Of course, with the staggering amount of new trends thrown our way we tend to find ourselves searching for a cheap fix. Naturally, we all enjoy a good deal. A little bang for our buck. But where do we draw the line? At what point do we begin to view a deal in a larger scale? Understanding that nothing works in isolation, but rather our ‘deal‘ is connected to many people along the supply chain.

My boredom with my ‘old’ clothing and the chilly air has left me with this desire to revamp my Fall/Winter look and has had me thinking a lot about the ‘$10 Deal’. That cheap t-shirt or sweater promoted as a a STEAL. However, I have shifted my thoughts to see it now as a $10 ripoff.  I seek not to create a doomsday theory here, but rather look to engage more consciously in these so called DEALS that are offered at every turn.

In regards to the production chain, from start to finish, an item-let’s say a t-shirt-passes through many many hands. First a designer puts their creativity into a tangible sense and a t-shirt is born. Materials then had to be both created and purchased for which crops, water and labour are required (in 1999, 81 million tonnes of pesticides were sprayed on cotton alone) . Machines are assembled and sewers hired to create the design. Water is used to wash the garment and packaging created to ship the t-shirt. The t-shirt is then placed in a store by an individual and later sold by yet another individual. Beyond that, tags and labels are created and the store is heated, the walls built, the paint laid. So many small details made it possible for the $1o t-shirt to go from a cotton crop to on your back, yet only $1o was paid.

So who loses in this ‘deal’? A big company like Levi’s who is currently arguing over a $2.oo raise for their workers in Haiti (a raise from $3.05-$5)? I think not. It’s more likely the garment producer or farmer who is losing the most. But I would like to make the argument that almost everyone in this supply chain is losing. The designer, as their design is not produced to it’s full extent, the farmer, the sewer and yes even the consumer. If you purchase a cheap garment that was made poorly, you are not going to feel good wearing it and chances are it will fall apart fairly quickly.

We definitely understand the need for affordable clothing, but affordability must encompass all involved. Canadians spend an average of 21.5 billion on apparel each year (2009 Stats Canada Report). It’s evident that money is being spent and garments consumed. I am not advocating that consumers stop spending these funds, but rather relocate them. Continue to purchase clothing, just look at it like an investment in quality over quantity. You may buy fewer garments, but you will purchase ones that are well made, ethically produced and environmentally conscious. Less would be consumed, less waste created and clothing would last longer. It’s a win win.

Bullying our Planet

Picking up trash for WWF's Shoreline Cleanup

Almost all of our experiences link together to further inform and engage us. We can choose to pull from the experiences and create links or we can simply react to each situation. I found myself drawing correlations between the following two separate experiences earlier this month:

The first weekend of October I took part in WWF’s Shoreline Cleanup initiative. Early one Saturday afternoon I, along with a few friends, made my to Ward’s Island to pick up trash. Along the way we were able to witness not one, but two, bridal brigades usher themselves onto the ferry and over to the island for photo ops.  Not exactly a regular Saturday  morning (the trash pickup), but it sure did provide for a weekend of retrospect. While picking up the scraps of other’s past experiences carelessly left behind, or those that washed up from the lake, left me wondering about the lingering effects of our polluting ways. An overwhelming amount of what we retrieved from the sand was cigarette butts and straws. Tossed aside with little thought, these seemingly inconsequential acts of dropping a butt in the sand have long lasting effects.

Birds, fish and other wildlife may ingest the tossed remnants. They get washed into street drains making their way to our water sources and de-beautify our parks where dogs roam, children play and hipsters lounge.

Earlier this month I also learned that a former highschool classmate remains hurt from the bullying he faced on a daily basis through his 6 years of middle and high school life. Hearing the negative lingering effect of the taunting, made me realize that what we are doing to our planet is bullying. Just as a bruise may heal and tears may dry, the emotional rigours of verbal and physical assault remain with a person indefinitely. It is hard to shake. When we pollute and pillage the earth the scars remain. The oil may stop spilling, the cyanide may become diluted in the lake, or the trash removed from the shoreline, but the lingering, hidden and often most detrimental problems prevail.

We may attempt to sweep up the mess, but what is desperately needed in both planet and human bullying is to engage in preemptive initiatives-Work on dealing with root causes, rather than the bandaid solutions.

Of course there are initiatives, and many working tirelessly advocating for safer and more welcoming environments. Here are a few links to name a few….

Environmental Justice Foundation-check out their campaigns to end the use of toxic pesticides in agriculture-and their links to helping make the fashion industry more ethically and environmentally sustainable.

It Gets Better-Of course we all heard about this org set up by Dan Savage-Speaking out against hate and intolerance and providing a community for LGBT youth

TEA-Toronto Environmental Alliance-a great way to get involved at a local level. In fact, this week is actually Waste Reduction Week. They also just released the report: Don’t Trash my Environment: Why Companies Need to Part of Ontario’s Waste Solution

The Evergreen Brickworks-beyond the fantastic farmer’s market and little oasis within the city, they are a great community resource and play host to a lovely bunch of local environmental organizations.

Avek patyans nap jwen lombric foumi

Those moments where your fears become the reality are not easy. The pay scale at INDEPCO was a reality long before we arrived however we had been led to believe that it had an ethical structure in so far as it served the needs of the tailors. This is not the case. We are now delving into a complex challenge. We draw strength from a number of communities here and abroad that are engaging in the realm of ethical fashion.

It was a much needed wakeup call and one that we think we sub-consciously sensed before it was presented to us a in a very real way. We were misinformed on the pay scale of those who work at the INDEPCO factory. What we had believed was $40 US a day turns out to be $40 Haitian dollars or 200 Gourdes i.e. $5.00 US a day. A very drastic difference and one that is unacceptable in our eyes. That is the entry level pay. Those who have more experience can earn up to $8 US a day. Those in managerial positions are paid a salary, which is competitive in the Haitian market.

The good news is INDEPCO remains to be a favoured working environment for the tailors. One senior tailor has worked there 11 years and plans to remain. There is a sense of contentment leaving only the pay scale as the outstanding problem. We’ve observed the liberal expression of the employees as they talk, listen to music, eat and drink refreshments and work with fans, etc. There are a number of good things we could discuss. Forever the optimists yes!

Back to the hard bad truth.  INDPECO is a minor increase in pay over other factories which pay 100-150 Gourdes a day, it is still however, not a wage that allows for sewers and tailors to gain purchasing power or to create a middle class. We have spoken immensely with those working in the factory as well as others living and working inHaiti. We have been informed that it is above minimum wage, but it is still not enough. From what we have gathered one needs to be paid $9 US a day. It is crazy to imagine that a sum so low as $9 is a wage worth discussing. We struggle with what to do. We want to pay at LEAST $9 a day. So, do we demand that those who work on our project get paid our bare minimum? We think yes, but will that create power dynamics within the factory- i.e. those working with us and those who are not on our contract?

The garment industry is not servingHaiti’s economy as it should. CurrentlyHaitiis the choice location for the manufacturing of garments because it is the cheapest, cheaper thanChinafor example. We’ve been told that buyers are doing their best to work out ofHaitidespite the difficulties of getting orders done on time. It is a new location for the race to the bottom, the same race that has been run in so many countries. What would it cost companies to actually pay decent, livable wages? Would perhaps their issues of orders being completed on time not be resolved if the employees had incentive, through respect and pay? A company like Levi’s is arguing against a pay wage in their factories to up pay from $3 to $5 a day. Why is it that these are the discussions being had at a large scale, and not discussions centering around creating an industry that fosters the growth of a country and helps a company grow?

We believe these discussions need to be had. Like the Haitian proverb, ‘With patience you will see the bellybutton of an ant’, we believe that with patience we will begin to make incremental change. We could walk away, but we have decided we need to stay, to have discussions with both Hans, the tailors and those working with INDEPCO. We want to create an avenue that demonstrates that change happens in increments. Small nudges move big pillars. Inequality in the fashion industry remains a large pillar. But as the eternal optimists that we are, we believe that change will come.

Political and Scenic Impressions

An example of upcycling: art made from old tires

Clean energy should be huge here. There is so much potential in Haiti, yet it is thwarted by many factors both within the country and abroad. Disposal of waste remains relatively non-existent. With the importation of virtually all products there is a plethora of packaging disposed on the side of the road. There seems to be no recycling plant as of the moment, but on a positive note, as we zipped along in our ride we saw recycling plant in the making.

Lets brainstorm what may be the obvious, but yet what remains the kind of conversations we’d like to be part of in Port-au-Prince. Up-cycling waste into new goods is becoming more common in Toronto. Why couldn’t the same be seen in Port-au-Prince where there is a skilled workforce that given the production resources could be very innovative. Clean energy is another area that could be developed here. Port-au-Prince is under reconstruction and arguably in the best position to lead in some of the most innovative urban re- structuring, it is a matter of the foreign community working with the elected government and plentiful NGOs to make it happen.

At one point Haiti not only produced for themselves but also exported large quantities of cotton, rice, cocoa and coffee. They farmed with their own pigs. In the past few decades foreign interference from the agriculture sector right to the clothing sector has all but thwarted Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient. Countries such as the US began exporting rice to Haiti at a cost lower than local rice, wiping out local farmers. Haitian pigs were killed to be replaced by American pigs. And the export business of second-hand clothing was not regulated by the Haitian government which has resulted in a decrease in the tailoring sector. It’s all Pepe all the time, as they say here in Port-au-Prince.

Should Port-au-Prince begin to diversify its economy to export some of the items it used to, or to reassess what new items it could supply for export it would not be “catching up” with foreign economies described as modern, but would be joining all the large cities that have suffered from the resent troubled world market. Large American cities like Detroit are currently re-inventing their economies since the downturn of the automotive industry.  Yes, the legacy in Port-au-Prince has left drastic disadvantages in Port-au-Prince, however growing a healthy economy could be done in a mutually beneficial partnerships between cities.

There are a number of key reasons why Haiti’s re-construction has been slow. For one, the efficiency of complex import and export regulations (Local Buttons is learning all about these!). It is difficult too, to establish  mutually beneficial partnerships when staying in Haiti is very expensive. So many of the NGO’s resources are allocated to lodging its representatives. We visited an NGO villa that was charging residents over $2000 a month. We fear too that the lodgings are foreign-owned. Every service requires payment from lodging to necessary rentals of drivers and vehicles. Again, very little of what is made from foreign residents is reinvested into the local economy. The expense of staying puts an artificial timeline on social and economic projects implemented in the reconstruction process which means many initiatives are left incomplete ( aside from the problem of the project model in the first place too often being unsustainable!)

As you might be able to tell, we could go on-and-on, but we won’t for fear of going on too many tangents! Or rather, we’ll just build up another entry…

The Great $2.00 Debate?

Anne and I feel it is important to remain current on the activities taking place in Haiti’s garment industry right now. In addition we want to explore the rich and inspiring history as well. As the Local Buttons line develops it can be informed by the creative process with our research and reflection. Gathering information of all types will develop a rich glossary of sources to support the relevancy of our work on the comprehensive design of the LB line and vision.

Below are my thoughts/summary of an article that was brought to my attention, written by Ryan Chittum and titled “A Pulled Scoop Shows U.S Fought to Keep Haitian Wages Down (UPDATED).

It is June 13th, 2011 and we are still discussing whether or not to pay garment sewers $3.00 or $5.00s a day? Really?

Richard Noll, CEO of Hanesbrands made 10 million in salary and bonus last year, just one-sixth of that $10 million could pay for a $2 raise for his companies 3,200 t-shirt makers. Noll would not even be required to “sacrifice” as much as one-sixth of his earning as there’s no doubt consumers would absorb some of the higher production costs through the higher pricing of finished clothing. I’m appalled.

The furry from contractors of large companies like Hanes brands and Levi Strauss regarding a proposed minimum wage raise to $5.00 a day drove the US ambassador to persuade Haiti’s president to establish a minimum wage of a meager $3.00 a day. Garment makers have been reduced to economic transactions governed by the bottom line of profit. This is disappointingly connected to the Obama administration.

REALLY we are discussing $3-$5 a day when $5 a day wasn’t even %50 of what was required to sustain a small family in Haiti3 years ago?? According to the article $12.50 a day was the minimum required to sustain a family of three (two kids) in Haiti in 2008.

It never fails to baffle me how absorbed people in the industry are in profit. Their bottom line focus blocks up their capacity to be human and just do the right thing. Engaging in their humanity and willfully changing company input-output strategy would drive the company reps to reevaluate the methods of production and distribution of sales.

COME ON! Blood clothing was never cool.

Sometimes facilities look ok, might even pass code standards, but the pay is not advertised and of course you show up to work clean and proper. What are the conditions outside of the work place? (this is a Levi Strauss factory, ( )