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The dark side of fashion

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 24, 2011

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Q. Your talk is called “100 Years After the Infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, What Has Changed?’’ In a nutshell, what has changed for garment industry workers in the past hundred years?

A. Some things have and some things haven’t. If we talk about the United States, it’s changed dramatically. But on the other hand, there’s such a job loss in the industry here that fewer workers are involved. What has happened in a certain sense is that we’ve exported our factory fires.

Q. So we’ve exported our sweatshops?

A. Exactly. The global apparel industry is a global sweatshop, and that has to do with cutthroat competition.

Q. Are clothing manufacturers arguing that this is necessary to keep costs down?

A. I think that’s what’s being said. But clothing, as a proportion of household expenditures, has shrunk over the last 20 or 30 years. The fact of the matter is that clothing is cheaper than it ever was. In part it has to do with changes in taste and fashion. One hundred years ago, most men were wearing suits and ties and hats. Fifty years ago, people were in collared shirts and pants. There would be parallel differences among women. So now you’re substituting cheap and easily made T-shirts, sweatshirts, and shorts for more arduously and skillfully assembled tailored clothing.

Q. And the way we dress coincides with the move of clothing manufacturers out of the US?

A. Exactly, and a move to places with some dangerous conditions. In the global north, factory safety inspections are often more rigorous, and the inspectors are much more competent. I’ve been studying Bangladeshi garment factory fires. There’s a horrific crescendo, years after year, of garment factory fires there, and they resemble the Triangle fire of 100 years ago in terrible ways.

Q. And this is something that happens regularly?

A. There are dozens of these a year, hundreds of fires and deaths over the last few years.

Q. Why don’t we hear a lot about them in the US?

A. They are reported, but they’re one-day stories. I don’t know exactly why we don’t hear more about them. It’s distant, it’s far away, and it’s 45 deaths at a time, not thousands like the Japanese tsunami. It also seems like there is a general acceptance that this is a low-wage, labor-intensive business. The sentiment is, “It’s a lousy business, what do you expect?’’

Q. So despite the fact that the Triangle fire took place 100 years ago, this is something that’s clearly not in the past.

A. That the Triangle fire is in the past is comforting because that was then, this is now. I wish that were true. More than 90 percent of our clothing is imported from a market that’s mostly unregulated. What happens in each country is that the employers and the governments are worried that if they increase their standards and conditions, another country will beat them to the market.

Q. Is there anything consumers can do to tell where their clothes are being made and how the employees who make them are being treated?

A. This is much harder than you might imagine. You can’t tell from a country of origin about labor conditions, unless it’s Italy. They have the best conditions for garment workers in the world. The only way you can truly tell is if something is union made. Even in the US, union-made garments have a tiny fraction of the market, and they’re often not labeled. The retail consumer plucking items from the shelf can’t tell. What you can do is go online and find the ethical suppliers. There are a few sites that list them: www.ethixmerch.com, www.unionlabel.com, and if you go to www.sweatfree.org, they have a page of different vendors.

CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

Interview was edited and condensed. Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

WHO
Robert J.S. Ross
WHAT
One hundred years ago this week, 146 workers were killed in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The garment workers were trapped behind locked exits or jumped to their deaths. The fire became a rallying cry for safer conditions for workers of all kinds. But Robert J.S. Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University and author of “Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops,’’ says poor conditions still exist for garment workers around the globe.
WHERE
Ross will be speaking as part of Northeastern University’s Global Chains and Human Rights panel discussion March 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. The talk takes place at 40 Leon St., 20 West Village F, and is free and open to the public. For more information, go to www.justicewithpeace.org.