Even as some higher-end retailers such as American Apparel have made “Made in America” a signal of cool, the narrative that no clothing is produced in the U.S. anymore is still mostly right.
But even though an estimated 97 percent of the clothing sold in America is imported, its residents pay little attention to how that clothing is produced. The occasional front-page news about abysmal factory conditions, such as the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, can cause brief spikes in awareness, but for the most part Americans don’t pay garment workers abroad much thought. Today, the consumers who have concerns about their clothing often wonder how to act on them.
That apathy goes a long way in explaining why garment work remains so unsafe, but even if companies wanted to clean up their supply chains, could they? A study from NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights last year found that the sheer size of the clothing industry and its dependence on off-the-books workers make it difficult to reduce health violations and dangerous practices at factories overseas. Beyond garment workers, the same concerns apply to millions of workers assembling electronics abroad.
“The dominant paradigm that companies use to check on working conditions is the social audit. And that paradigm is broken,” says Heather Franzese, the executive director of Good World Solutions, an Oakland-based non-profit that’s aiming to change the way brands in the U.S. can assess working conditions abroad. A “social audit” is one conducted in person, which sounds rigorous. But in practice, managers are often present during audits, making factory workers hesitant to complain for fear of retaliation, and, on top of that, some workers have reported being coached by managers on the “correct” responses to inspectors’ questions. “We’ve seen, from factory fires and factory collapses, thousands of workers dying because brands and retailers don’t have proper visibility into the true conditions of the factory floor,” says Franzese.