What happens a lot of the time, as you explain in your book, is that a big brand might have a contract with a factory, but that factory outsources some of the labor to a semi-legal factory or sweatshop, and the brand is totally unaware that their apparel is being made so unethically. We saw that in the recent New York Times exposé on Fashion Nova, for example, where the brand said they had no idea their clothes were being made [in Los Angeles] by underpaid workers.
I went to see those factories in LA with someone who said, ‘I come in here and I see Forever 21 [on a label],’ and then [the company will] say, ‘Well, we had no idea.’ It’s like, wait a minute. You lose track on the other side of the planet—I get that. You have your contractor, you trust your contractor, but he does things behind your back. But you are not in Dhaka—you’re an LA-based company, producing in LA. You can’t keep track of your supply chain, and they’re making things just around the corner from your headquarters.
It’s a shady thing that goes on because [brands] are trying to get the cheapest prices possible. Fast fashion is ridiculously, wrongly cheap. [If you look at] the price of eggs, ground beef, gasoline, a house, the price of a car, the price of gasoline during the Depression, it’s all gone up since that. But the price of clothes is the same. And that’s because [these brands] keep paying less and less and less. ‘Can you do this for 10 cents? We want it for eight.” And then the only way they can do it is to find somebody who’s off the books, who’s got illegal workers, who can do it for five cents a piece. So then the middleman makes three cents, and he’s delivering it at eight cents.
The pyramid that I was talking about is a very fragile pyramid: if Forever 21 stops calling the first guy, the rest of it falls apart.
So because of this very interdependent pyramid structure, this house of cards, that you’re talking about, what does reform of this system or radical change look like? Who could lead that?
I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this since the book came out. I’ve been thinking about it since I went to Bangladesh and I was like, This is just so wrong.
First, it takes integrity, and courage, and conviction, and there isn’t a lot of that—not just in fashion, but in general, these days. Those things went to the wayside in the age of globalization. And that’s why we’re all being squeezed, and yet other people are getting really rich. We need a dash of Marxism, to be sure. I don’t think you need a complete Marxist revolution, but sort of like Tabasco—we could use a dash of it, right?
[Fast fashion] just needs to be regulated, seriously regulated. And then you go, well, who would regulate it? Would we have the equivalent of WHO [the World Health Organization], or the East European Commission in Brussels, or the FAA?
Maybe we need something that’s non-political, like the Federal Communications Commission, that establishes some basics in garment and apparel production, and also sets standards for imports, and then you have to meet the standards. And if you don’t meet the standards, your clothes can’t come in. But, I mean, there are always people who are going to find ways around it.
One can only hope for a huge Democratic sweep, but then everything’s going to be such a mess. The last thing you’re going to think about is the clothing industry, even though it’s so important to the economy.