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Cheap Clothes Degrade the Environment and Workers

Companies that offer cheap clothes made in faraway countries usually don’t promote green principles and often treat workers badly. Today, much of the clothing sold in the United States is imported from countries like Bangladesh, China, Fiji, India, Pakistan, Madagascar, Mexico, and Turkey. (Your clothes may be better traveled than you are!) These countries often offer low labor costs, which in turn keep the manufacturing prices down and make it possible to sell the clothes for less in U.S. stores.

The problem is that these countries often don’t enforce the same labor standards required in the United States. So, much of the clothing sold is made by people who are poorly paid and who work in poor conditions; some may even be made with the child labor.

Workers in sweatshops make cheap clothes under sometimes unsafe and unsanitary conditions. [Credit:
Credit: Corbis Digital Stock
Workers in sweatshops make cheap clothes under sometimes unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Even in U.S. clothing factories, the situation isn’t always ideal. Despite the Fair Labor Standards Act, some clothing factories operate outside the law, providing poor working conditions and not paying workers even the minimum wage. Many workers don’t complain because they fear that they’ll lose their jobs or because they don’t have the right paperwork to allow them to stay and work legally in the United States.

Using lower-paid labor is attractive to some manufacturers because it’s a way to stay competitive. As a result, it’s difficult for more-responsible manufacturers to compete in the industry, with the result that some have shut down completely or have moved their manufacturing processes overseas.

Organizations working with suppliers and producers overseas to make sure that workers get as fair a deal as possible include provisions that

  • Producers and workers are allowed to join unions and other organizations that can protect their rights and ensure that they have fair working conditions.

  • Workers have fair wages and conditions that allow them to afford to feed their families.

  • Child labor isn’t used.

  • Production methods are environmentally friendly and pesticide-free.

You can start choosing a greener lifestyle for yourself by researching where your clothing is coming from and choosing manufacturers or retailers with policies that ensure fair treatment for workers — whether they’re overseas or domestic. By doing so, you support positive social and ethical behavior rather than negative. You can also write letters to manufacturers whose policies aren’t what you feel they should be, explaining why you’re not buying their products.

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