Your Ten-Dollar T-Shirt Is Not The Problem
In the wake of the April 24th Bangladesh factory collapse, which is now considered to be the most deadly accident in the history of the garment industry, I’ve been hearing a lot of people sharing some pretty uneducated and uninformed opinions.
I’ve heard stuff like, “Well, where did you think your ten-dollar T-shirt came from?”
And, “Major clothing brands should refuse to do business with manufacturers in Bangladesh.”
And, “Why do we even make stuff overseas anyway? It’s all crap.”
There are a lot of problems with these types of statements. For one thing, the price of a piece of clothing is not at all indicative of the working conditions of its manufacturer. For another, implying (or outright saying) that there is something morally wrong with paying $10 for a t-shirt is incredibly classist. And finally, saying stuff like this shows a serious lack of understanding about how the garment industry works.
So let’s debunk a few of these myths, shall we?
1. Expensive, high-end brands are ethically preferable.
This is not at all true. Spending more money on an item of clothing doesn’t guarantee that the factory worker in Bangladesh who made it is earning a higher wage. It doesn’t even mean that the quality of the garment is any “better” than something you could buy for half the price. The truth is that when brand names charge higher prices for their items, that extra cash usually goes to two places: into the pockets of CEOs and other higher-ups, and into the company’s advertising budget.
Even buying clothing with a “Made in Italy” or “Made in the USA” label doesn’t guarantee that that piece of clothing was made by people working in decent conditions. In Italy, for example, labelling laws are extremely lax. A product can be almost totally manufactured elsewhere, but so long as it’s “finalized” in Italy (adding leather trim, for example, or sewing on buttons) it can be labelled as “Made in Italy.” As well, it should be noted that just because something is manufactured in Western Europe or North America doesn’t mean that the factory employees who made the item were paid a fare wage –- illegal immigrants are often hired and paid under the table, meaning that employers can pay them whatever they like and the employees believe that they have no recourse for action. In Prato, Italy, Chinese immigrants were found to be working in garment factories for as little as €2 an hour.
But even when companies do pay their workers minimum wage, it’s often not enough. In many countries, minimum wage is not a living wage, especially if you live in a big city.
2. Our society’s desire for cheap clothing is exploitative and unsustainable. People should be willing to pay more money for their clothing.
First of all, let’s talk about how classist this assumption is. I mean, if you’re well off, then sure, you can probably afford to pay more than $10 for a T-shirt. But if you’re making minimum wage and living below the poverty line, then cheap clothing is the only type of clothing you can afford.
Take Toronto, for instance. Ontario’s minimum wage is $10.25 an hour, and the average cost to rent a bachelor apartment in Toronto is $840 per month (this figure most likely does not include utilities, phone/internet, or parking). If you’re making minimum wage, then you’re only bringing home $1640 monthly before taxes. If you’re paying the bare minimum in income taxes (so, no union fees or anything like that), then you’ll be taxed $236.38 a month (according to this tax calculator on a government website), leaving you with $1403.62. After paying rent, you’ll have $563.62. That $563.62 has to pay for everything other than rent –- your phone, internet, food, transportation, utilities, clothing. And those are just the basics. What about entertainment? Things like going out to see a movie or having a few drinks with friends at a bar?
And all that is assuming that you’re single, childless, and living in a bachelor apartment. Imagine how little would be left if you were the only breadwinner in a family with several dependents.
At that point, even a $10 T-shirt starts to seem astronomically expensive.
3. Major brands should just stop doing business with manufacturers in Bangladesh.
And this would solve what, exactly? It certainly wouldn’t improve working conditions in Bangladesh factories. In fact, I imagine it would probably lead to a loss of employment opportunities in Bangladesh, meaning that the few companies that still hiring would be able to pay their employees even lower wages if they chose. People would be scrambling and competing for jobs, and would have to accept whatever came their way, no matter how badly it paid.