A few commenters brought up some great points in response to my last post. Choosing to make clothes rather than buy those made outside of the United States is all well and good, and it’s definitely cheaper than buying American-made, but what about fabric that was made outside of the U.S.?
The main difference between supporting foreign fabric production and supporting foreign garment production lies in the methods used. First, fabric manufacture, unlike garment manufacture, is highly mechanized with specialized equipment, and very few workers can produce a huge amount of fabric. So, simply because it employs less people, a fabric production facility outside of the United States has less opportunity to exploit workers. Second, because they are required to use complex, computer-guided machines, employees in fabric-production facilities need to be familiar with the operation of the equipment, which usually requires on the job training. In short, workers must be better trained, which usually means that a) employees make a higher wage, even in third-world countries, and b) employers, who often provide training to their new hires, are motivated to protect that investment by retaining their workers. They spend time and money training their employees, then must keep them satisfied enough that the those workers don’t leave and force the employer to spend more time and more money training another new hire. In addition, workers who are already trained and make the decision to move to another facility are more in demand and can thus expect higher pay.
Contrast this system with garment production, which uses a large number of relatively unskilled laborers who are fairly easily replaced. Owners and managers in this industry have little or no motivation to care for their workers’ health or job satisfaction, and often (usually?) don’t. When a garment production company outside of the United States needs to increase profits and/or lessen costs, the workers are often the first to feel the effects.
Now, all that said, I am not saying that fabric production conducted outside of the United States does not exploit its workers ever or at all. Foreign textile producers are not subject to the same workers’ rights laws and safety regulations to which American producers must conform. Workers can still be underpaid, work longer hours, and be exposed to toxic chemicals. Also, machinery itself can be very dangerous. And because the process of fabric production is so automized, hiring fewer workers is possible, but hiring fewer workers means less jobs are available over all.
Some also maintain that when we boycott non-U.S-made garments and the companies that sell them, we are actually hurting the depressed economies that often breed sweatshops. Sure, workers are paid pennies per pair of jeans, but if you don’t buy those jeans, you are, after all, depriving workers of those pennies. And by buying only fabric, we are supporting an industry that seeks to eliminate as many jobs as possible in order to manage costs. And it’s true that not buying a pair of Old Navy jeans keeps a few cents out of the pockets of sweatshop employees. However, the amount it keeps out of Old Navy’s coffers is much, much higher. We’re telling Old Navy to change the way it does business and we’re supporting companies that do business in a way that doesn’t build profits on the backs of exploited workers.
In the end, we really need to ask ourselves what we hope to achieve by boycotting non-American-made clothing. On a surface level, we are avoiding contributing personally to immoral business practices. On a slightly deeper level, we are trying to force companies to limit production to the U.S. because this is the best way to ensure that workers aren’t exploited somewhere in the process. Ultimately, though, it would be wonderful if Walmart, etc. paid even their international manufacturers a fair price for their garments. Then workers outside of the U.S. could benefit from plenty of jobs and better pay. It would also allow U.S. manufacturers to compete in an international market. This kind of thing, though, would mean higher prices in both our department and discount stores, at least until everyone got on board. However, we are willing to pay a little more to ensure that men, women, and children outside of the United States are not suffering so that we can save a few dollars or own ten pairs of jeans. And that is the real strength of this movement; we need to prove to ourselves and to large corporations that we are willing to change our American, sale-oriented mindset. In short, we must be willing to pay more for U.S.-made products. And we need to be willing to make what we cannot find or simply cannot afford.
As far as buying fabric made outside of the United States, it’s no question that there is likely some exploitation inherent in foreign fabric production as well as foreign garment production. However, the fabric production industry’s transgressions are not nearly as egregious or as commonplace as that of the garment industry. By buying fabric, ideally domestic but often necessarily foreign, we still ensure that we don’t support sweatshop-made clothing and we do this in a way that is personally achievable. If you live in an area where domestic clothing is available or find a reputable company that sells domestic clothing over the internet, and you have the funds to pay for it, by all means, please buy it. Support those companies (but do a little googling first to make sure those companies aren’t exploiting immigrants to the United States). However, if you don’t have access to these kind of items or don’t have the cash to cover their cost, you shouldn’t feel guilty about grabbing some fabric and spending a few hours crafting. Foreign fabric production does have the potential to exploit its employees, but you can feel confident that, because of the way fabric is made, you are not contributing to the sweatshop and child labor inherent in the garment industry.