The educated Western consumer stands in front of a tempting red sign: “Sale.” He's so eager to buy that shirt for half-price or those pants on a "buy one, get one free" special that he doesn’t perceive the philosophical dilemma facing him: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
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The tree in this allegory is Miat, a girl working in a factory in Myanmar producing apparel for the H&M clothing chain. International law allows employment from the age of 14, but as Miat recounts, she has been working at the plant since she was 11. She and many like her in developing countries work long hours in exploitative conditions — starting when they're below the age of employment and working more than the number of hours allowed — to produce clothes for big fashion companies. But Miat’s suffering is not heard in front of the cash register in the air-conditioned store with attractive products and good prices. So did the tree make a sound?
Yes, it did. Miat told of her hardships in a book released a month ago about the Swedish retail chain H&M that gave a glimpse at the high human cost of cheap apparel. The book, entitled “Modeslavar” ("Fashion Slaves" in English), features interviews with Miat and other girls and claims that the two Myanmar plants used by the chain to produce its clothes employ 14- and 15-year-olds for over 12 hours a day for less than $3 while apparently breaking the country's laws and international labor conventions.
H&M is maybe taking a lot of fire, but it isn’t the only chain manufacturing its clothes in countries like Myanmar. Many apparel companies produce their goods in countries where expenses — especially labor costs — are significantly lower than in their home countries. For instance, 97.5% of clothes sold in the United States are produced outside the country. The reasons are patently obvious: It allows chains to lower prices for the consumer, improve competition and grow profitability.
Only in recent years have reports and testimonies about the difficult work conditions in countries in the Far East and Eastern Europe begun to appear. From these accounts emerges a picture of an exploitative industry that tramples on weak populations, with many cases of child labor and disgraceful conditions.
Miat, who has been employed at the H&M plant since she was 11, even though the country’s laws prohibit employment under the age of 14. She is supposed to earn about $2.80 a day for eight hours’ work — this minimum wage in Myanmar, set in August last year, adds up to $67 a month. In practice, the work days are longer. The girls interviewed in the book say they were hired based on falsified ID cards and work until 10 P.M.
In this game, all the players close their eyes. The international companies walk a tightrope between legal and illegal, and the countries themselves pass laws that they do not always enforce. The foreign companies and manufacturing countries link arms: According to reports, H&M and other companies applied pressure during protracted discussions of the minimum wage in Myanmar and even threatened to move its factories out of the country if the wage was set too high. Thus, Myanmar's minimum wage, set according to the wishes of the foreign manufacturers, ended up being lower than in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, where the minimum monthly wage is between $90 and $128, according to the International Labor Organization.
H&M reacted to the reports: “It is of utmost importance to us that our products are made under good working conditions and with consideration to safety, health and the environment. We have therefore taken action regarding two suppliers in Myanmar which have had problems with ID cards and overtime... When 14– to 18-year-olds are working it is therefore not a case of child labor, according to international labor laws. ILO instead stresses the importance of not excluding this age group from work in Myanmar. H&M does of course not tolerate child labor in any form.”
Consumers close their eyes
The third player in this game, also closing his eyes, is the Western consumer, who has become used to buying new clothes at cheap prices. Can one be an follower of this season's fashions and an ethical consumer at the same time? Will this book cause customers in the West to hear the tree fall in the forest and listen to the suffering of the girls in Myanmar? Will it change their reality?
Before we attempt to answer this question, it’s worthwhile to know the numbers: In 2013, the average American bought 68 articles of clothing, compared with 40 in 1991, claims Elizabeth Cline in her book "Overdressed." In Britain, women buy four times as many clothing items than they did in 1980, and the average British woman has 22 articles of clothing in her wardrobe that she has never worn. The Wall Street Journal published similar findings: American women wear only 20% of their clothes 80% of the time.
“They tell us ‘buy more clothes because there’s a sale, because it’s cheap and a shame to miss it,” says Sybil Goldfainer, owner of the Israeli fashion chain Comme Il Faut, “and that’s why we have so many clothes in our wardrobes that we never wear."
“The message ‘buy more because what you have is no longer in fashion’ challenges our self-confidence and causes us to spend more money,” says Goldfainer. “We are persuaded that our value is lower if we don’t.”
Tsafra Perlmutter, a former fashion designer for the Castro label and one of the founders of the sustainable social fashion enterprise co.co, agrees. Perlmutter presents an analogy between irresponsible purchasing of fashion and the world of dating: “I used to go out with lots of men who weren’t built for a relationship. As customers, we relate to clothes like those men treat women: We aren’t built for a relationship, we want to keep our freedom, so that we’ll have a choice that will also be cheap.”
According to Goldfainer, young designers also suffer from exploitation. “Many of them work for free so that they’ll have something to write in their resume. Even in the industry of big designers, the designers have become slaves of the shareholders and they are constantly forced to produce new collections. There’s no time left to make fashion. They used to produce two to four collections a year. Now they have to constantly churn out items.”
Alongside the human exploitation, hyperconsumerism also has environmental consequences. Assessments find that in Britain, 350,000 tons of clothes worth some 140 million pounds are thrown away every year. This ravenous consumerism allows the low prices. Many consumers do recycle their used clothes, but the American charity Goodwill reports that it can use only about half the clothes it receives.
“Fashion changes in short pulses," Michal Levy-Arbel, a former fashion writer with an MA in environmental studies from Tel Aviv University, told TheMarker in the past. "Academics call this ‘perishable fashion,’ fashion that is cheap and quick. Within three or four weeks 70% of the clothes in a chain store will change. This cheap fashion also dealt with the guilt feeling: I don’t feel guilty, because the dress only cost me 99.99 shekels, so it’s no disaster if I don’t wear it. The consumer has zero responsibility, doesn’t remember that someone is paying for that cheap article full of chemicals,” said Levy-Arbel, who now lectures against mall culture.
Will the growing environmental damage and testimonies from developing countries open Western eyes and make them consume less? Goldfainer is not optimistic. “Already in the 1990s when Naomi Klein’s book 'No Logo' came out, they talked about Nike, that paid less than minimum wage and didn't take care of its workers — yet nothing happened. Nike suffered slightly and then returned to being a leading company. Klein wrote in her book about the production in China, but today production in China is more expensive than in other countries, because they passed a minimum wage law there. So they took it to Vietnam and Cambodia and other places with frightening child employment,” she says.
Some Israeli designers have decided to use only ethical and environmentally safe manufacturers, passing the higher cost on to their customers. Co.co, for example, was formed following the 2011 social protest. “Everyone realized that something has to be done,” says Perlmutter. “People took it in different directions. We wanted to turn the protest into practical steps with real results in the fashion world. It took us over a year to reach the model, and in 2013 we opened the initiative as a combination of startup and collective. Those who join as partner-investors buy goods worth 1,000 to 10,000 shekels in advance. In return, they will receive clothes according to their choice for three years, and after that, a set discount. And if the company becomes profitable, they’ll get part of the profits. It’s a union of people who like the clothes and the idea.”
While the apparel is made in Israel, the raw material has to be imported. “Not a meter of cloth is produced here any more,” says Perlmutter. She pays a price because the retailer produces only small quantities. “I’m persona non grata in many places, because I’m a small producer. The factories beyond the mountains of darkness won’t bother if there are fewer than 10,000 pieces,” she says.
But co.co and other small designers like them are the exception to the rule. According to Dr. Karni Lotan, who lectures in sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, such small producers are in danger of extinction. “Most of the fashion in Israel isn’t produced here. And even the small seamstresses use cloth produced in developing countries. Israeli fashion is not about cloths and seamstresses, but design and marketing.”
While the textile industry played a major role in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, the local workforce has since shriveled as production moved to the Far East. Israeli companies are not obliged to report on the work conditions at their overseas production factories. When Haaretz questioned them regarding their approach to issues such as child labor, it received largely laconic replies to questions such as which countries they manufacture in, the names of their suppliers, the work conditions at their factories, the minimum age of their workers, their daily wage, the minimum and average wage in each country and whether the employees have paid vacations, rest periods and social benefits.
Companies such as Golf, Renuar, Hoodies, Castro, Fox, Delta pointed out their declared policy of not employing children, fair wages and adherence to international conventions and local laws. Honigman declined to reply.