Disrupting the Living Wage for Factory Workers

Patagonia is one of the first major outdoor-clothing companies to offer Fair Trade Certified apparel starting in Fall, 2014

In the fall of 2014 Patagonia will begin selling Fair Trade Certified apparel. We’re starting small, with ten women’s sportswear styles sewn in a factory in India owned by Pratibha, but this is a big move for our company and for me personally. Fair Trade USA ensures that workers are fairly paid, work in safe conditions, and protect the environment. Fair Trade Certification of these ten styles is an important step in the long-term effort to gain a living wage for the people who make Patagonia’s products.

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Five Reasons the Fashion Industry is Greening its Act

With the amount of energy and water consumption, pollution and waste that clothing manufacturing creates, is fast-fashion a sustainable cycle?

As more and more businesses are embracing sustainability, we're seeing the fashion industry work to green its act. Leading brands like Patagonia have encouraged sustainability for years, while designer Vivienne Westwood recently urged consumers during London Fashion week to buy less. We're even seeing celebrities making sustainable fashion statements on the red carpet (see: Green Carpet Challenge). When it comes to style, why should we focus on the environment? Here are five good reasons.

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Knitwear Created From Your Brainwaves

Artist-duo Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, and MTG researcher Sebastian Mealla have turned brainwaves into elaborate knitwear patterns.

This is not your grandmother's knitting: artist-duo Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, and MTG researcher Sebastian Mealla have figured out a way to turn brainwaves into elaborate patterns for scarves and sweaters using simple technology. NeuroKnitting—as the collaborators call it—takes activity from a user's brain while listening to Bach's "Goldberg Variations," and translates these movements into a knitted design. To harness this technology, each participant wears a non invasive headset to measure brainwaves in various states: relaxation, excitement, and cognitive load. With music as the catalyst to induce moods, and therefore reactions, these vibrations are then sent to a knitting machine.

"Hence, every stitch of a pattern corresponds to a unique brain state stimulated by the act of listening. It means the user’s affective response to music is captured every second and memorized in the knitted garment pattern," the creators explain on their website.

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Lessons From Bangladesh: It's Time to End Fast Fashion

In Savar, Bangladesh where the collapse happened, there are over 100,000 factories, and only 18 regulators.

We expect bosses to have the common sense to create a safe working environment for their employees, especially when the sky is falling.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened in the most recent tragedy in Bangladesh. When garment workers—who happen to make clothes for some of the largest brands around the world (Wal-Mart included)—alerted their superiors to crumbling walls, they were told to keep working. A few hours later, more than 400 of them were killed. This comes only a year after Aminul Islam, a union organizer, was brutally murdered for his attempts to organize the textile industry workers.

These stitchers and sewers were making little more than $1 a day and some of the world’s largest brands were using their labor. The response from the global brands is to first deny they knew anything, saying, “This factory was a subcontractor,” then to admit guilt, and say, “We will work with regulators to best oversee our subcontractors.” As the world turns its attention to the next tragedy, the big brands hope consumers will lose interest, and stop sharing stories on Facebook and Twitter about Bangladesh. They are probably right. Most people will forget, and continue to buy cheap clothes, but we are missing the point—and the lesson—if the tragedies don’t force us to change our behavior.

In the book, The Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution, author Edward Humes outlined how Wal-Mart realized that their bottom line could be improved by being more green. For example: One slight change in reducing box size for their toy packages could save several million dollars each year. Since Wal-Mart has such tremendous spending power, they have influence over their suppliers, and they laid down the law. In turn, the manufacturers they were working with had to alter their way of doing things to appease Wal-Mart.

But that same fight for the improvement of their environmental footprint has not yet been translated to their economic footprint. Like many other major apparel companies, they are dropping the ball. A key component of being a better partner to the earth is also treating your workers with respect, which starts with better wages. If a place like Wal-Mart (which is incredibly profitable) starts paying their employees a decent wage, other companies will follow suit. If Wal-Mart calls for this to happen, it will. When workers feel empowered and have the dignity to make their own economic decisions because they have more money in their pockets, we have created more consumers, and also a healthier work environment.

While the debate drags on about more regulation, we should heed lessons from William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s new book, The Upcycle. They make the argument that we need to stop creating systems that need regulation. For example: the new toaster with a warning label that says, “This toaster should be turned on a few times and allowed to heat up fully to burn off the coating on the wires.” This label is broadcasting that this thing exists, but it would be best for the health of humans and planet if it did not. The fundamental premise is that instead of creating something that is already broken or can be harmful, we should be creating systems that function well from the beginning.

Why create working environments that need to be regulated? Since the early '90s, when Nike was chastised for the awful conditions their shoes were made in, they have made serious efforts to regulate and hold their suppliers accountable.

Unfortunately, there are huge flaws in this model for retroactive change. In Savar, Bangladesh, where the collapse happened, there are more than 100,000 factories, and only 18 regulators. While the brands preach accountability and set new standards after disasters, they can instead identify production partners from the beginning, like Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic.

We can apply the same principles of the "upcycle" to building textile manufacturing environments that empower workers. There are places with these practices already in place, like Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC and 99 Degrees Custom Manufacturing in Lawrence, MA, where workers are not just treated like cogs in the machine, but as active members of society that deserve both fair wages and the opportunity for upward mobility.

Just over 100 years ago in New York City, managers locked doors and prevented garment workers from escaping from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed more than 100 people. The result was a healthier working environment in the USA, with more regulations to prevent catastrophe. Maybe now is finally the time to address the root cause of the problem: let’s stop building bad textile manufacturing working environments. We have started to ask where our food comes from, and now we should know how the people making our clothes are treated.

Nathan Rothstein is president of Project Repat, which upcycles excess t-shirts into fashionable clothing accessories while creating fair wage employment opportunities in the U.S.

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How to Change the Fashion Industry? Ditch the 'One for One' Model

If companies want to make an impact in fashion, they should think twice about the one-for-one model.

"Can I tell you a secret?” Jake Bronstein says in the opening seconds of his 10 year hoodie Kickstarter video. “The clothes you wear were designed to fall apart.” He goes on to explain the definition of ‘planned obsolescence’—the concept used by clothing manufacturers to build a product that will break so you have to buy another. In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline writes about how 50 years ago, the clothes we bought accounted for a much higher percentage of our income, yet we had less stuff. Today, our clothing purchases add up to a smaller percentage, but we own a lot more. Yes, certain technologies have improved, but there are still real costs to making a great garment. What is the honest truth? The stuff we buy is not made well, and the people making it overseas are barely making enough to survive.

We are addicted to cheap fashion. We want stuff for budget prices, and we don’t want to think about the conditions that our clothes are made in. Instead of solving the systemic problems of an industry that doesn't pay its workers enough, we have twisted the problem into a half-baked solution of the ‘one for one model.’

It is admirable to use the power of consumer culture to also benefit the poor, but it misses the point. Social entrepreneurship has been white-washed by the simplicity of a one for one model that continues to create cheap products which end up adding more waste to the textile stream. There are a lot of definitions for social entrepreneurship, but at its core, it’s about solving problems while also creating a sustainable market solution. Its important to distinguish marketing from social impact.

Companies like Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes have created powerful, and sticky brands. When a consumer buys one of their products, they feel good sharing the brand with others, because they say, “They donate a pair for every one bought.” While Warby Parker has a more sophisticated model than simply one for one, they still manufacture in China, where the average manufacturing hourly wage is $1.36. But what about where that shoe or pair of glasses is made? How much are manufacturers in the Far East getting paid if a company can grow, and also give a product away for free? Would they still give away or donate if they had to pay U.S. wages?

What if, instead of giving stuff away for free, we talked more about who makes it? Rather than use it as a marketing tactic, let’s ask companies to actually incorporate the social side of their business into the actual business.

In Why Nations Fail Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the wealthiest countires create “incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.” In other words, if you work hard, you should have opportunities to make more money.

Business has great influence in our communities, with the purchasing power to make a huge economic and social impact here at home. It’s time that we talk more about the costs of goods sold—meaning how much money something actually costs—versus what we are giving away. There is no doubt that outside the U.S. there are many problems that need to be solved, but for many entrepreneurs here, we feel our greatest impact is to find opportunities to create fair wage jobs, and make a product responsibly that American consumers can feel good about purchasing.

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In a Fashion-First, H&M Offers Clothing Recycling for Customers

While praised for retailing well designed, affordable apparel, H&M doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to sustainable...

While praised for retailing well designed, affordable apparel, H&M doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to sustainable business practices. In 2010, the clothing giant was accused of throwing away garments en masse that were never sold, and earlier this year they were accused of operating sweat-shop like conditions at one of their sub contractor's factories in Cambodia.

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