Ever since the building collapse in Bangladesh a couple of months ago that killed over 1,100 garment workers, the New York Times has run almost weekly front-page articles covering the story. Each piece names retailers and brands, US and European, who make substantial garment purchases in Bangladesh. The WSJ has also had their share of B’desh articles recently. These periodicals are bringing garment sourcing front and center.
The articles point to Bangladesh as one of the cheapest places on earth to make apparel. The writers of these articles seem to point a finger at the brands and retailers for exploiting a cheap source. But what they don’t point to is why. The answer is simple. We, the mass market in the US and Europe, demand cheap clothes.
How many times have we complemented someone on what they were wearing only to have that person proudly quote how cheap they bought the item? We love bargains, the cheaper the better. When we find deals, we share our find with whoever will listen. We can’t get enough of them. We are mass market in constant search of bargains. And an endless number of retailers are fighting for our attention by scouring the earth to bring us the cheapest garments possible.
We are affected by huge volumes of media showing us what it means to be fashionable. The cheaper the garments are, the more we can buy. Many mass market retailers have done creative work making garments available to the masses for incredibly inexpensive prices. Principally, because we are a good audience. We consume, throw away, recycle, and consume some more.
It used to be that people had a few key clothing items in their closets. We didn’t used to collect clothes just to have more clothes. That was then. Today is a different story.
Part of the time I lived in San Francisco it was with a girlfriend who had relatively few clothes (in comparison to most). She could afford more, but chose not to. She always looked elegantly fashionable yet her closet was small. She was in the fashion business. She invested in quality pieces that were fashionably classic, mostly black or white, and combined them in ways that made it appear she had more outfits they she did. Her philosophy was to have fewer higher quality pieces rather than many cheaper ones. She was not mass market. Most of us are.
Years ago, I worked for a large speciality retailer. When I started with them, 60-70% of their clothes were made in the USA. Today that number is somewhere under 2%. That transition took place for main two reasons: 1) people got better jobs and 2) competition demanded we find cheaper labor.
Sewing garments is a low skill job. One doesn’t think “one day I’m going to grow up to be a sewing machine operator.” Unless you order a custom, fully-constructed blazer or a couture piece, you likely don’t need a craftsperson stitching your garments. In all likelihood, your clothes were stitched by a production line of sewing operators each performing a single operation over-and-over, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, making minimum wage in a foreign country. The larger the buyer’s order, the more efficient the sewers become at that one operation, and the cheaper the clothes become. It’s simple economies-of-scale.
About two months ago, there was an article in the WSJ: The Economics of a $6.75 shirt.
The article talked specifically to Bangladesh. The author broke down the costs of a $6.75 button-down woven shirt (several x’s that price by the time we buy it). Using a fine 50s thread count cotton yarn, the fabric cost for the shirt is $4.75. Accessories like labels, buttons and other items the retailer requires cost another $1. The remaining $1 gets allocated to cut fabric, sew the garment, light washing, factory & office overhead, marketing, and bank interest. The Bangladeshi wage of about $80/month comes out of a small portion of that last dollar. There is not much room to give that worker a raise. It’s not that the factory would not want to pay the workers more. If they do, the buyers will go to another low cost country.
Savvy retailers know down to the fraction of a yard or gram of fabric used in each garment. They measure the efficiency of each sewing operation, called SAM’s (standard allowed minutes), and pay the factory accordingly. Others less detailed will simply not pay more than that last dollar to cut & sew a woven shirt. The result? Corners get cut. They are not always evident, but they get cut.
Garments made in cheap labor countries is not a bad thing. Transiting to low wage countries has helped provide jobs, pulling millions out of lower levels of poverty. It’s provided fuel for part of that country’s economic engine. As the engine gains speed, more people are lifted out of poverty. Those people eventually, after years of production line sewing, want better jobs. It’s why large garment production factories left the U.S. It’s now why buyers are leaving China and flooding into countries like Bangladesh.
For designers and buyers in the mass market, price is their guide. They think fashion, but are hamstrung and limited by price. The further you get off the bottom of the barrel, the garment quality starts usurping price as the ultimate guide. But the audience starts to thin the further off the bottom you swim.
Looking at the “made in” label of the garment we purchase is more likely an afterthought, if a thought at all. Who cares where it was made, it was a deal. We are a consumption society.
I’d expound in more detail, but right now I’ve got to run to the corner as there is a sale on tee shirts, five for $20. One can never have enough tee shirts in the closet. I’m not sure where they are made. It won’t matter because it’s a bargain to hard to pass up.