"You have to ask yourself what is morally acceptable," Viktorija Ceplike says to A Plus, while pouring herself a cup of tea.
Ceplike, a young woman who co-owns a garment production company called VIKE in Kaunas, Lithuania, is working to make the fashion industry better: an industry that all too often employs practices bordering on modern-day slavery for factory workers mass producing fast-fashion.
By ensuring her factory runs as an ethical business, and speaking out against unfair industry practices, Ceplike is being a "fashion rule breaker."
"Do you know under what working conditions the clothes you're currently wearing were made?" Ceplike asks us matter-of-factly. "Did the cheaper cost come at the expense of garment workers?
"This should not be the case. Ever."
Sadly, hearing a garment factory owner make a statement like this is not always typical. That's because many garment factories, especially in South East Asia, where labor laws protecting the rights of workers are the weakest, often cut production costs at the expense of workers' well-being to secure orders from overseas fashion brands.
In such factories, workers are often paid less than a living wage, endure life-threatening working conditions, work 12 or even 18 hours a day when order deadlines approach, and work alongside exploited child laborers.
"It's lunchtime, so it's a bit empty," Ceplike tells A Plus, while giving us a tour around the factory.
VIKE is a family-owned garment production company started by Ceplike's mother more than 20 years ago. It currently employs a little over 30 garment workers, but manufactures clothes for cult Scandinavian brands such as Wood Wood and Samsøe & Samsøe, local boutique labels such as The Knotty Ones, and ready-to-wear designer brands such as IRAKLI Paris.
All while making sure the textile workers are happy.
Ceplike is on a mission to prove that a garment factory can be run ethically and turn a profit. Her employees work five days a week from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., including an hour break required by Lithuanian labor law. The garment workers are entitled to bonuses, get 28 paid vocation days each year, and even get some employee perks. Sure, the job itself — just like many others — is not all peaches and cream, but a whole lot is done to create safe and dignifying working conditions.
"Many garment factories around the world drastically cut their production costs at the expense of exploiting workers to stay competitive, but they all run into the same risk of losing business in the long run," Ceplike says. "We have to ask what conditions we're willing to accept, what are the industry standards, and whose example are we following. It's the mentality of both the industry and consumers that have to change."
In the majority of cases, Ceplike explains, only the brands themselves know where exactly their clothes are manufactured.
While the information stating a garment's country of origin has to be included on all labels, there is no guarantee labels are always accurate. Labels also do not generally include information about where the actual fabric for the garment was produced.
"I did encounter cases when brands wanted to put not only the standard 'Made in Lithuania,' but also the name of the garment factory on a label," Ceplike says. "These were, however, boutique-like Scandinavian and Nordic labels that are way more conscious about sustainability, and not the big fast-fashion brands."
Ceplike suggests that the best thing we can do is research brands before purchasing their garments: check blogs, interviews with founders, companies' testimonies, and proactively ask brands under what conditions their clothes are manufactured.
"I believe that by being transparent we can change the industry's standards and set a positive example," says local designer Akvile Meskauskaite, who popped by VIKE to check on her collection's production.
"Of course, like any other business, we care about margins, but for me, it's important to be sure that our collection is manufactured by happy people. People who are not slaving to produce our garments, but rather join us to create something we're truly proud of. Extra karma points, you know," Meskauskaite laughs.
"I always say that it's nice to look cool, but it's way cooler to be nice. Especially to people producing your clothes," she adds.
For the industry to change, the push has to come from each and every player in the fashion industry — brands, garment factories, and you, the consumer.
It's about asking brands to be transparent, knowing where your clothes are made and under what conditions. It's about caring about the clothes we wear and the factories and people who make them.
Full disclosure: The author of this article is a co-founder of The Knotty Ones