Sporting a line of popular “sweat shop” fashions and ethical alternatives, models in Assembly’s sweat shop and fair trade fashion show, “Moda and Migration,” April 30 sought to inspire women to be ethical consumers of fashion.
The runway fashion show rocked to pulsating music and featured some of the hottest fashions from clothing stores, such as GAP, H&M, Forever 21 and Old Navy, to creatively illustrate and raise awareness about unjust labor practices and appalling working conditions in garment factories.
“Our models will be displaying outfits that have been specially chosen to get us all thinking about responsible consumerism and ‘couture with a conscience,’” said Nicole Bell, producer and emcee of the fashion show, and a United Methodist Women Yim Intern.
The fashion show highlighted migration issues. Many women are forced to leave their home countries in search of jobs that pay a decent, livable wage and often face harsh realities in garment factories in U.S. cities like Los Angeles and New York.
The fashion show opened with symbolic figures of models dressed as an all-star track star and grapes. The model dressed in track sport gear illustrated that immigrants in the United States make a significant contribution to the U.S. economy, yet must jump over many hurdles in their journey toward citizenship.
“The pathway to citizenship is also more expensive than many immigrants can afford,” Ms. Bell said.
The model dressed in a purple grape costume symbolized the thousands of farm workers – mostly immigrants – required to pick ripe grapes for wineries and supermarkets. “This fashion show is a fun way of getting people to take notice of the exploitation of immigrant workers,” said Deaconess Cindy Johnson, also a United Methodist Women Yim Intern, who was the model outfitted as a grape.
“People are now more interested in migration issues and are waking up to the issue,” added Ms. Johnson, who is a member of El Buen Pastor United Methodist Church in Brownsville, Texas.
A model was outfitted in clothing by NIKE, which has a monopoly in the sportswear industry. Despite generating $1.5 billion in profits in 2008, NIKE with factories in the United States, Mexico and Asia, has an extensive history of using sweat-shop labor and exploitative labor practices. Fair trade alternative clothes, manufactured by creative and responsible companies, were on full display during the fashion show.
American Apparel was highlighted as a leader in socially responsible clothing companies. The company has been a vocal proponent of immigration reform and pays its workers a decent wage of $12 an hour and offers good working conditions. Additionally, the company runs a national campaign for the legalization of immigrant workers.
Models from Nebraska Conference United Methodist Women wore “Sweat Free Ts,” which featured on the back: “This shirt was not made by a 12-year-old working 12-hour days in a sweat shop.” The models — three generations of United Methodist Women members from one Nebraska family — wore the 100-percent cotton T-shirts, which were created by the conference in response to United Methodist Women’s mission study on globalization.
Nonprofit organizations like Team Sweat are actively pursuing clothing company investors to help end sweat shop abuses. Instead of calling for a boycott of companies, the advocacy group is urging consumers to put pressure on companies to create grassroots change in the global apparel and footwear industry.
“We want to make clear that we’re not saying to have a boycott,” said Carol Barton, United Methodist Women’s national executive for community action. “We want to follow the lead of workers in their efforts to push for fair wages.”
Trading for Development, a British-based company created by Judith Condor-Vidal, shows that ethical business practices and high-quality fashion products can coexist to bolster development in impoverished countries. The company builds links with leading fashion houses in Europe and markets fair trade products worldwide to give women producers a market and higher return on their labor.
“Companies should have a responsibility to ensure that all the workers making their products are paid a living wage with benefits and work in safe conditions,” Ms. Bell said. Ms. Bell acknowledged that consumers will likely pay more for their clothing, but they will know that the workers were paid a decent, living wage.
“It’s important to learn more about what we wear and that the products are produced in a sustainable way or else it’s hard to feel good,” said Pat Stewart of St. John United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.
Terri Woodbury of Topeka, Kan., brought her 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, to the fashion show so she’ll learn that “all [clothing] brands aren’t all that good.” When asked about her favorite part of the show, Rachel replied: “The dresses.”
What United Methodist Women members can do:
- Ask salespeople in the clothing store where garments are manufactured.
- Find out from salespeople whether the workers are paid minimum wage and have decent working conditions.
- Challenge U.S. trade and finance deals that undermine the rights of workers in poor nations and give greater rights to transnational corporations, particularly in free trade zones.
- Watch the documentary “Made in L.A,” which portrays the use and abuse of migrant women’s labor in the United States through the story of three Latina immigrants who worked for a sub-contractor who sold garments to the Forever 21 company. The film is available at www.madeinla.com.
*Shanta Bryant Gyan is a freelance writer and communications specialist in New York City. She is a frequent contributor to Response magazine, the official magazine of United Methodist Women.