Fashion Rule Breakers

Fashion Rule Breakers: Meet Corban Addison, The Man Fighting For The People Who Make Your Favorite Clothes

Time to get woke.

Fashion Rule Breakers is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Each month, we profile a fashion designer, model, organization, or icon who is a fashion rule breaker — someone who acts outside mainstream industry standards to make a positive difference.

Being the frugal fashionista that I am, I've always prided myself in my ability to find the best deals. If I wasn't thrifting, Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Gap were my go-tos. There, I could find knock-off styles of anything out of my price range for $20 or less. The urge to Buy! Buy! Buy! was irresistible as dopamine surged with every comparably cheap purchase made. And while I never identified as a shopping addict, the fast fashion options made it all too easy to justify the excess. 

It seemed too good to be true. 

For much of my young adult life, these were the sentiments I lived by when it came to my decisions as a consumer. But it only took one question to shake me. While shopping with a friend at a store called Reformation, I started to feel that creeping sense of superiority, knowing I cheat a system that fools "vain people" into overpaying for pretty much anything. I'd rather put my money toward traveling, a concert, a gift for a friend, cleaning supplies — anything but an expensive garment I could find at a discounted price elsewhere. No. I wasn't one of those "vain people." I had my priorities straight. "Let's go to Forever 21 instead," I suggested. "It's way cheaper." Then, the question was asked. 

“Why do you think those clothes are so cheap?”

Sarah Barness
Sarah Barness

It was a question I subconsciously never wanted answered because it'd likely confirm my suspicion that what seemed too good to be true probably was. But, I could avoid it no more, so I started to read, ask questions, and research. The information staring me in the face wasn't pretty. I had considered myself a decent person who cared about human rights and the environment, but had never considered how my choices were directly supporting a system that fails people and our Earth every day. Now, I am the editor of A Plus Fashion & Beauty, and have the responsibility and privilege of sparking conversation about ethical fashion for readers who are in the dark like I was. 

To help further provide insight into what human rights violations occur in this industry, and what we can do to prevent them, I enlisted the help of a Fashion Rule Breaker — Corban Addison, attorney, activist, and international bestselling author of four novels, including his latest book, A Harvest of Thorns, which reveals some of the darker realities of the textile industry.

Addison pictured with Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia.
Addison pictured with Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia.

Addison — who has spent time with people at all levels of the supply chain, including garment workers in sweatshops all over the world — began by explaining that so many Americans don't know about the process of production because much of the work is exported to faraway places, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Malaysia, making it easy to stay disconnected. "We never see the workers toiling for 80 to 100 hours a week at sewing machines, their fingers moving as fast as cotton pickers in the Old South," he told me. "We never see the migrant laborers sold a bill of goods by unscrupulous manpower agents and lured into forced labor in apparel factories. We never see the child laborers or the female textile workers sexually abused by their managers …  All of this and much more is conveniently omitted from the picture by many of the brands and their advertisers who are driving $3 trillion in annual global sales." 

There are about 700,000 garment workers in Cambodia alone, employed by such brands as H&M and the Gap, and these workers can make salaries as low as $128 a month, which is about 30 percent less than a living wage — $177. If the 2014 garment workers' protest in Phnom Penh was any indication, asking for change is often fruitless. "The government violently cracked down on us, and as a result, five workers were killed, 23 were arrested, and more than 40 were injured," laments a Cambodian factory worker in the 2015 documentary The True Cost. "And we are not actually asking for that much money. We just want a proper salary to make a decent living with dignity." 

These same workers may also be subject to unsafe working conditions. This, in large part, is the result of globalized production where multinational retailers drive factory prices down to unconscionable levels as countries compete for their business. For production to be that cheap, something's gotta give, such as cutting corners when it comes to factory safety conditions. One of the most staggering consequence of this came when fires broke out in factories outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Addison recounted a particularly harrowing story from those he interviewed who survived the 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory fire. Many had jumped out of the top levels of the building, "choosing gravity [or permanent disabilities] over the flames." 

"One young mother told me what ran through her head when she stood on the ledge and looked out at the night: a verse from the Quran — 'every soul shall taste death.' She decided to jump because she wanted her family to have a body to bury."

"Staying behind would have left them nothing.”

Despite the fact that workers who fight for change are often met with job termination, risks of violence, and blackballing in many countries, Addison insists that "bringing workers to the bargaining table is crucial to making the apparel industry more humane." In Penang, Malaysia, a group of trade union leaders are working to change industry standards despite not having support from their corrupt government. "One of them told me: 'All we want is for the companies to understand that these workers are human beings.' " 

While you may expect such grassroots battles to occur in developing countries, you might be surprised to find them happening on American soil, too. Addison says there is "rampant abuse in domestic apparel production," as many workers in the United States are not being paid, or are forced to work in substandard safety conditions. Of course, there are select great factories at home and abroad, but even a "Made in the USA" label does not guarantee the garments were made ethically. 

"The challenge we face as consumers is telling the difference between clothes that are clean and those that are tarnished by abuse. Our labels, which do nothing more than identify the country of origin, don't tell us a thing."

Who is to blame?

It's easy to point fingers at executives at the top, but core issues exist at more systemic levels. No apparel brand intentionally employs unethical methods, and all are required to have entire departments dedicated to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Yet, Addison says there is still a "fundamental contradiction built into the system," as executives are at the mercy of investors demanding increasing profits, and consumers demanding better quality at diminishing prices. "It costs money to pay workers more, to improve factory safety, to remediate environmental degradation, to root out worker abuse in factories." 

"At the heart of the conflict between business and human rights is the business model of extractive profit."

You (yes, YOU) have the power to stop this destructive cycle and make positive changes in the industry.

1. Value quality over quantity.

The first step toward being a conscientious consumer is to view every garment as an investment meant to last multiple years, not just one season. "I get the instinct, the temptation, to keep our closets stocked with the latest fads," Addison says. "But we as a society need to relearn the value of shopping for quality over quantity. No one needs a dozen handbags, 50 pairs of shoes, or a new dress for every occasion." Clothes from brands that guarantee ethical and sustainable production may be more expensive than those from fast fashion brands, but they will last significantly longer, giving the consumer their money's worth even though the tag may initially seem excessive. 

Rebecca Ballard, founder of the socially conscious women's workwear line Maven Women, agrees. "The numbers, in fact, show us that buying timeless, high-quality pieces that fit and flatter actually saves us money," Ballard told me in an interview last year.  "It's not the cost of clothing that matters, but cost per wear. Don't believe me? Do the math on your favorite pieces yourself and see how they compare to your cheapest ones." 

2. Be selective about brands you patronize.

While Addison says there are no obvious red flags for a tainted product, he recommends being wary of prices that seem too good to be true, and to research brands using resources that rate companies on their commitment to ethics and sustainability, such as the Fashion Transparency Index provided by U.K. charity Fashion Revolution. 

"The customer has to know that they are in charge," emphatically states famed designer Stella McCartney in The True Cost documentary. "Without them, we [fashion designers and the like] wouldn't have jobs. And that is really important. So you don't have to buy into it." 

While you can boycott those brands whose practices you don't agree with, support those working to create clean clothes, such as People Tree, Apolis, Everlane, Zady, Red Earth, Raven + Lily, Popinjay, the aforementioned brands Maven Women and Reformation, plus so many more. 

3. Talk about the issues.

Simply bringing these issues to light in everyday conversation is another way to help. "We need to talk about clean clothes with our friends and family, and over the water cooler at work," says Addison. Doing this helps people feel more connected to their clothes' production, and gives a voice to those suffering behind-the-scenes who might otherwise not be heard. 

4. Demand transparency.

Many of the bigger brands have complex global supply chains and don't even know where some of their own clothes are made. "They know the top-tier suppliers, but they don't know the subcontractors on the second and third tiers or the home workers sewing the sequins on a blouse," says Addison. 

And because they do not directly employ some of those workers or own the factories, they can more easily skirt responsibility for the travesties that occur there. On this topic, The True Cost director Andrew Morgan says, " … They are able to profit hugely, all while remaining free of responsibility for the effects of poverty wages, factory disasters, and the ongoing violent treatment of workers. The whole system begins to feel like a perfectly engineered nightmare for the workers trapped inside of it."

Mapping global supply chains is a costly process that Addison says many brands will not do without outside influence, such as government, businesses, or investors. However, most entities that care about greater transparency are still a minority, so Addison reiterates Stella McCartney's sentiment that it is you, the consumer, who has the most influence over these brands.  Simply ask "Who made my clothes?" 

5. Support organizations and campaigns meant to create positive change.

January 2017 has been proclaimed National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. For more resources on how to directly help garment workers affected, support the National Human Trafficking Prevention Hotline. To help improve working conditions in the global garment industry, get involved with Clean Clothes Campaign. Become a part of the Fashion Revolution by taking part in social media campaigns, such as #WhoMadeMyClothes? and check out other such websites as Fashion Compassion and Ethical Consumer. Also, note this article focuses specifically on the human rights violations that occur in the garment industry, but barely touches on the massive environmental impact of the fashion industry — the largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. Check out Greenpeace to find out more information on eco-friendly brands, and don't miss Green Fashion Week in March, a nonprofit that showcases sustainable fashion on the runway. A Plus also provides plenty of roundups of our own favorite green looks that come at no cost to our Earth.

6. Recognize the major (and minor) improvements made in the industry.

More and more Americans are becoming conscientious consumers, and big brands are taking notice. Addison calls attention to Patagonia, whose business model is founded on responsibility and ethics. Adidas, Nike, Levi's, and H&M are others working toward sustainability, but Addison says among the big chains, Target gets the highest marks for recently launching a Fair Trade USA certified clothing line in a partnership with PACT.  

There is also successful legislation being passed, such as in Bangladesh, where the  Accord on Fire and Building Safety was enacted as a response to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory fire. The accord brings together global brands, factories, and union workers in agreement to provide safer working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.

"It has its limits," Addison says of the accord. "Especially the fact that it covers only registered factories (the top-tier suppliers), not unregistered factories (typically subcontracting factories), of which there are thousands in Bangladesh. But the annual worker death rate in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry has plummeted in the past couple of years, thanks, in part, to the efforts of the accord." 

There is still so much work to be done, and while it is important to celebrate those victories, big and small, in favor or workers' rights, and the positive steps some brands are taking to further the cause, we still must recognize the inherent shortcomings of the fast fashion business model that fail so many every day. As consumers, we must do our part to protect those who create our clothes by making responsible choices, with people and the environment in mind every time we get dressed in the morning. Now, with all this in mind, go forth and be part of a revolution for positivity and change! 

Cover image via Sarah Barness

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