The $10 Shirt

09 May


Terrible things have been happening in the garment industry. No, that is not a reference to the return of shoulder pads and high-waist pants. Factories have been collapsing and burning, trapping and killing workers. The most recent of these have been in Bangladesh; a manufacturing hub of preference for many mass-market retailers. The elements which render a locale to be a hub of preference are not surprising; lax regulations, lower wages equaling cheaper costs. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known this. It’s why garment production moved overseas in recent decades.

Yet each time something dreadful comes to light we (momentarily) consider our $10 shirts. When it’s discovered that our chain store products are sewn/assembled by children, we shake our fists at the celebrity whose name is on the label. When a factory crumbles or erupts in flames, we are as intrigued by the labels left in the ruins as we are the rescue efforts. Perhaps we even sigh in relief upon learning that we don’t wear that particular $10 shirt. But who among us really knows the source of his/her inexpensive goods? Our linen closets, medicine cabinets and pantries are filled with products and packaging from around the globe. One would need to live the most self-sufficient and currency-free existence to never be in contact with something made under inhumane or dangerous circumstances.

There’s a faint buzz beginning about garment labeling. The comparison is being made to the ‘origin of food’ movement. The theory is that people care as deeply about the origin of their food as they do their clothes (and not in a ‘it’s from Paris’ kind of way.) Perhaps there is a similarity between concerns over food as there is clothing. There’s no doubt that there will always be people who care about the origin of their food and the friends the chicken had (before they stick their hand up its rear and remove its giblets.) But we’re talking about a rather privileged segment of the population. They either have the money or psychic bandwidth to perseverate over the ancestry of their produce. They may or may not also be people who purchase a $10 shirt.

Considering that every single garment sold in this country already has a label identifying its country of origin, it’s more likely that manufacturers/chain stores/brands will use a “cruelty free” label as a marketing device. Unless the brand shifts the cost of production (and the manufacturing of these new labels) the price of the goods will rise. It’s not guaranteed. A brand could lower, say employee benefits and maintain the $10 retail price. No matter how you slice it a $10 shirt in 2013 is a mirage. There is no way to manufacture, ship, and sell a shirt for $10, while paying a decent wage. Do any of us need a $10 shirt? Well, the truth of the matter is that yes, many people in this country need a $10 shirt. Could we buy fewer goods at a higher price? Probably, but the more we buy and the frequency of which we buy translates into jobs.

If (insert brand/shop/designer) wants to roll out a splashy marketing campaign about their cruelty-free manufacturing, that’s just fine. But in the end it’s a rather small segment of the population who has the luxury of money or shopping consciousness to respond. We’ve already seen this with designers who eschew fur or other animal products. Their line didn’t really transcend the niche market until they partnered with rock bottom priced chain stores. The animal-free garments might be manufactured with as much respect to human workers as the spared animals, but chances are that most of everything else in the mega-store might not be.

Cheap goods, food, and cars cost. They cost someone somewhere, sometimes with loss of jobs and towns and sometimes with loss of lives. This has been the case since the advent of the industrial age. A $1.00 hamburger and a $10.00 shirt have enormous job, health and economic consequences. They always have and they always will.

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Posted by on May 9, 2013 in Cultural Critique


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