Ethical and Social Sustainability: Fashion’s Other Ugly Secret (3/4)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about sustainable fashion in regards to the environment and how we as consumers need to take charge in understanding our duty in being mindful of our fashion purchases. The other portion of sustainability deals with ethical and social responsibility. Everyone can probably recall the massive backlash Nike faced when it came out that the brand was using sweatshops in Indonesia and Vietnam to produce their goods, followed by a fire and many deaths at one of their Bangladesh factories, where there were unsafe working conditions and unethical labor practices. Here we see fashion’s other ugly secret: unfair and unsafe labor conditions within garment manufacturing that have been outsourced to developing countries in Asia for cheaper labor and faster to market capabilities.

Not all in China

Many consumers have this notion that anything ‘Made in China’ was made by a child  who was getting roughly $0.01 for a 12 hour day’s work. I have actually seen people scoff at a ‘Made in China’ label as if the garment was toxic poison. The thing is, yes, this scenario of unfair child labor can happen even in today’s modern world, but it’s far less likely that it would happen in China, versus say, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. China has come a long way and is more industrialized than say, 15 years ago. Like the US’s own industrial timeline, there are now labor unions, growing government regulations and workers are starting to demand more from the factory owners, in terms of pay and benefits. Countries like Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, on the other hand, are still in the early stages of their industrial revolution; therefore, their workers are uneducated and don’t necessarily know any better, or they do know better but are desperate for the job and its pay so they can’t do anything. To workers in those countries, having a job that pays any amount of money (sometimes pennies in US dollars) is often worth it in order to provide for families.  Here is where it is more likely for us to see factory owners taking advantage of their workers.


It’s been awhile since Nike was exposed, but brands are still being called out today for utilizing unfair labor practices. But just because something  says ‘Made in USA’ doesn’t mean anything. 20 minutes away from me, in Downtown LA, are our nation’s own sweatshops that employ mostly immigrants and have been found to pay under minimum wage.  Recently, the brand Fashion Nova was revealed to have been utilizing these garment factories to produce their own, ‘Made in America’ clothing line. Syama Meagher of Forbes describes the issue of DTLA garment factories in her article, ‘The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Cost Of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Sweatshops In Our Own Backyard’; here she says,

“In fact, the Department of Labor (DOL) investigated garment factories in Los Angeles and found that 85 percent of them have wage violations. The fact that many of these workers are undocumented may make it easier, subconsciously, to let it slide when its happening on own soil.”

It seems that once again, brands are driven to make unethical decisions, in part because of consumer demand for fast and cheap fashion, but also because most brands have high mark-ups or margins that help them turn profit.

Margin and Profit and Sales, Oh My!

What is a margin? Let’s look at a baseball cap. You might have purchased it for $24, it cost the brand around $4-6 to make and get that cap into your hands. Materials (fabric and threads) were around $2.00, trims and packaging will be around $1.00. Factory profit might be around $0.80 to $1.00 and boat shipment will be around $0.20. Labor will also be around $0.80 to $1.00, give or take. At a $6.00 cost, the brand is making 75% margin on you purchasing that cap at $24.00. Now, brands do this because we live in a sale-heavy capitalist culture where most companies 1. need to make money and 2. hold 25% or 50% off sales which cut down on margin or how much they’re making. Because of this, they gauge what the highest reasonable cost a consumer will pay for an item and ticket it there, knowing the average customer will ultimately end up paying less. It’s kind of horrible and why I cannot purchase anything at full price, but hey, it’s a business that has to make money in our capitalistic culture, right?

I mentioned the brand, Everlane, last week, but on almost every product page they have, they tell consumers exactly how much it cost them to make that item. Per below, they’re still making a 67% margin on this pair of shorts, which is actually pretty high, but labor is about 40% of the item’s cost, which is really great comparatively. I do have to assume though that part of that  $6.28 is going to factory profit and not true labor, but this is a better effort than most brands to be transparent about their cost of goods (COGS).


Almost any retail business will have at least 50% margin; that’s not necessarily an accusation, like I said, it’s a business that needs to generate profit. Stores that do not frequently hold sales, I would bet a lot of money they have lower margins, whereas brand with big sales every weekend? I guarantee you their margins are in the high 70’s, possibly even 80’s.

Find The Culprit

Social and ethical sustainability is something more top of mind for brands as compared to environmental sustainability; if you investigate, many brands have web pages dedicated to how their company is committed to utilizing manufacturers that employ fair labor practices (here is one example, and another). Brands boast factory certifications and metrics as proof that they care, making it easy for consumers to know how a garment is being made. Some companies, like West Elm, are even putting the information directly on the product page itself (see Fair Trade and Sustainably sourced icons at top of page). On this front, it’s harder for consumers to claim ‘out of sight out of mind’ since information on social sustainability is more readily available and more widely known.

As consumers, we need to be doing a bit of research on the companies we shop at. Just start with one, maybe the brand you automatically go to when you need to shop for a new outfit. Dig around their website and try to see what they are committed to doing for social sustainability. If you can’t find anything, I would even encourage you to reach out to customer service. If it turns out that brand isn’t doing anything or has a vague, ‘we’re committed to fair labor practices,’ well, I know I would think twice before shopping there again. Like environmental sustainability, brands who actually have plans will have numbers, certifications, and data to back up the claims.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I would really recommend watching The True Cost, free on Tubi. It’s easy to read about, but it’s a lot more heart wrenching to see footage of people working in factories in such low working conditions. Research the brands you shop at, get to know where you give your money and if you should continue to support those companies. With Google, it’s so easy to find news articles about various brands and how they are or aren’t being sustainable. I do want to warn you; however, even the factories with certifications or fair working conditions, are still, well, factories. They’re dirty, with materials lying about, some even having dirt floors. Good conditions for us in America aren’t always feasible in a third world country, so their best conditions are still equivalent to our poor conditions.

It’s also easy to blame brands for having corporate greed and not caring enough about workers thousands of miles away, but at the end of the day, these brands were driven to the fast fashion model because of consumerism and the customers need for newer, cheaper fashion NOW. Again, we as consumers really need to rethink our values and stop  succumbing to materialistic ideals and shift more into a minimalistic way of thinking. I’m not saying you should shift into only owning 5 pieces of clothing, but I would encourage you to think when you’re out shopping about whether you need a new top, adding to the 25 tops already hanging in your closet. It’s a way of life that we all need to embrace if we want to see change in both social and environmental sustainability.


Sara Ann



personal: 4+ years in apparel and home goods production internationally

The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Cost Of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Sweatshops In Our Own Backyard


One thought on “Ethical and Social Sustainability: Fashion’s Other Ugly Secret (3/4)

  1. Good point about every one (myself included) often defaulting to Made in China being bad and everything else a-okay. I definitely need to do more research before I purchase.

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