Opinion | The True Cost of a $12 T-Shirt

Fashion, it turns out, is the true opiate of the masses. Across the country, while inflation has siphoned middle-class wealth, American consumers have enjoyed a consolation prize: Apparel is dirt cheap. In 1993, you could buy a T-shirt for $13 — and get a midsize tank full of gas for about the same. Today, the full tank would cost more than three times as much. That T-shirt? $12.74.

We know the human cost of this benefit. One sweltering day in Bangladesh 10 years ago, workers at the Rana Plaza garment factory complex raised alarms about cracks in the building. They were threatened with loss of a month’s pay if they stayed home. The building collapsed the next day, killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,500.

A subsequent, legally binding accord between trade unions and (still too few) brands improved building safety in Bangladesh. And yet, while that one problem was addressed, today even less attention is being paid to the welfare of the people who work across the industry. Over the last decade, the voices of the over 75 million vulnerable workers in the global garment and textile industry have been, like the products they made, steadily devalued.

It wasn’t always this way. From the Industrial Revolution until the end of the Cold War, the apparel industry was the world’s most important engine of human development. In mid-19th century Manchester, the textile trade fostered technological leaps that led to higher wages and lower prices for consumer goods.

By the turn of the century, Eastern European Jews and other immigrants built the Lower East Side’s garment district into not only a wealth generator, but the vanguard of a national workers’ rights movement. In the 1960s, the Korean apparel industry anchored the postwar recovery and then expanded to other Asian countries. Following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, China’s apparel industry helped spark economic growth that contributed to one of the largest exoduses of humanity from absolute poverty. Apparel has served as an escape from subsistence farm work for billions of people.

Today, that engine has stalled in first gear. The average garment worker earns barely half the pay they need to reach a decent standard of living. The monthly minimum wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is equivalent to $75, meaning a worker can make less than $3 a day. Many are unable to afford staples like meat.

The easy scapegoat for the miserable working conditions many apparel workers labor in is fast fashion, a business model popularized by the likes of Zara founder Amancio Ortega (No. 14 on Forbes’s billionaires list) that chases hit runway trends with rapid production. But such companies — like Shein, with its staggeringly low prices and opaque supply chains — are symptoms, not the cause.

One aggravator is the current purchasing habits of millennials. The first modern American generation to hit their 30s in worse economic shape than their parents, millennials came of age during the Great Recession slammed by student debt. Inflation has pushed housing, energy, food — all the essentials of life — further beyond the grasp of many. As a result, many younger Americans aren’t yet putting their wallets where their values are.

That downward pressure, combined with diminished labor power, means that the $1.5 trillion apparel industry has fallen to a place of widespread abuse that would not have looked out of place in the early years of industrialization. In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, enforcing a legislative mandate to prevent goods made with forced labor from entering U.S. markets, stopped $816.5 million worth of products — up from $55 million in 2020 — including garments. Transparentem, the nonprofit investigative group that I founded, has exposed numerous abuses in the supply chains of dozens of companies — including forced labor, child labor and highly polluted working environments.

Across Malaysia and other garment-producing countries we investigated, workers described being held hostage in the same trap: debt bondage after paying exorbitant recruitment fees to unscrupulous recruiters.

The apparel industry suffers from what economists call an “agency problem.” Brands rely on auditors to uncover violations in factories — then often require the factories to pay for their own audits. Unsurprisingly, the typical audit is short, untrustworthy and, as Transparentem found at most audited factories we investigated, easily gamed. Suppliers, already operating on razor-thin margins, cannot afford to lose customers. Nor can the auditors, who often show little interest in scrutinizing their clients to the point of discomfort.

Younger consumers, who tend to be progressive and skeptical of received wisdom, offer the world’s best hope for change. They are concerned about moral consumption, seeing it as a question of self-identity. In 2015, 73 percent of global millennials said they would pay more for sustainable products. That figure may grow even larger as millennial incomes continue to rise. Millions of users of sites like Poshmark and Depop — websites that specialize in helping users buy and sell used clothing — are millennials and Gen Zers, many of whom are looking for a way to avoid primary fast fashion consumption entirely.

Many young consumers are also obsessed with truth, and they aren’t buying some brands’ superficial “greenwashing” or flimsy claims of ethical production. Nor should they. To date, precious few companies — Patagonia is a rare exception— even attempt to be sufficiently transparent about true working conditions in their supply chains. Although young consumers would pay more for sustainable products, brands lack the transparency needed to close the deal.

This presents an opportunity. We know young consumers are willing to pay more for clothing made by workers whose voices can be heard. And we all need to know that those workers are OK. A first, urgent step: Apparel companies should publish full, detailed social compliance audits, which purport to evaluate working conditions, at all upstream factories. Such disclosure would allow investors, other brands, consumers, activists, unions and, critically, the workers themselves, to audit the auditors and, progressively, be a part of more inclusive monitoring.

A second step: All apparel and footwear companies should sign the Commitment to Responsible Recruitment. Its signatories vow to ensure that no workers at their suppliers should pay a broker for their jobs (a setup that often leads to forced labor), and to ensure that all workers are allowed to hold on to their travel documents and to retain their freedom of movement. It also says that migrant workers should be informed, in their own languages, of the true terms of employment before they leave their home country.

True transparency may mean that companies need to invest more to listen, and respond, to the people who make their clothes. For consumers, that T-shirt might cost them more than $12.74. But for millions of workers whose freedom and safety are every day held hostage, the cost of laboring in darkness is already too high.

E. Benjamin Skinner is president of Transparentem and author of “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.”

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