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The Clothes You Wear Everyday Have a Global Political Economy

The Clothes You Wear Everyday Have a Global Political Economy

We have all seen movies or read stories set in the days of slavery in the US, where one of the original slave industries was cotton-picking for the mid west farmers. The fact remains to this day that the textile industry is a highly political one, relying heavily on laborers who work tedious and often dangerous handling jobs, while ownership of the raw and technological resources lie with global corporations. Their global context means that production of textiles and their natural resources occur in areas of the world where hard manual labor is cheapest, while their trade by the meter is marketed to the highest bidders in the west, or the urban centers where design and fashion have become an expensive and critical aspect of the local culture.

The Journey Your Clothes Take Before Reaching Your Home.

Fabric has to travel back and forth between these extremes of cheap labor and high-end design and retail, a number of times before you get to take it home to your place to wear as a clothing product. Between resource manufacture and retail there are any number of product development processes, beginning with the sampling of a new garment, which is done at the fashion house or design studios of a clothing brand. Ten lucky meters of cotton might come straight from the textile warehouse to New York, Paris, London, Wellington or Sydney, for example, and be handled by designers themselves.

Once product development is handed off for production, thousands of meters might be scheduled for major detours before reaching those urban centers again. There is marking, cutting, sewing of the product, laundering and labeling, hanging and packaging for shipment. This might all be done in one factory, but depending on a production factory’s specialties and delivery promises, fashion houses might have relationships with a series of factories for different processes, different garments or varying lines of clothing in their range.

The Politics of Processing and Handling.

Textile and garment construction factories are often clustered in special zones of a country with cheap labor, called export processing zones. If all the production within an export processing zone is being made for destinations outside the country of origin, indeed if all exchange and trade between the owners of the plants and owners of the end products is conducted in a stronger currency than the local country’s, the stability of the local workers in these zones is notoriously shaky, and the questions arise: Who do they really work for? Can their local employers evade local taxes, local employment laws? Ultimately, the price of their labor in the local currency is the profit margin for the plant owners, selling hundreds of garments at a time in a stronger western currency by the single unit.

Zones can be so large – and the nature of their production so global – that it becomes cheaper and more efficient to house and service their worker populations there, very much like a country unto itself. There is a chance for them then to pay even less to their workers because deductions can be made for accommodation and food. This situation gives the processing zone owners more political clout when dealing with their workers’ local governments, who may endeavor to fight on the side of their people, but have no real say in the zone up against the business demands of the more wealthy global corporates that the zone transacts with. 

But My Country Has No Export Processing Zone, What Does it Have to Do with Me?

It might seem remote to consider this from a ‘western’ nation such as New Zea land, for example, where the vast majority of textile resource, handling and production of the nation’s clothing is catered to from offshore. But New Zea land’s textile and clothing manufacture industries have dwindled and struggle to stay operating thanks to this vast and competitive operation in areas where the labor is so much cheaper, relatively. Western nations around the globe have governments that resign to letting these important industries go, ceasing to support them with business grants or tax breaks, because the investment seems hardly worth it in the global competitive stakes.

When you consider how vital clothing is to every individual on an everyday basis, it is sad to think that many nations cannot even realistically cater to their own populations anymore, thanks to the political economy of the global industry. Every nation that forgoes its own independent textile and garment construction industry is a non-sustainable nation.

Individuals in nations such as New Zea land come to take for granted that virtually all their clothing goes through customs and has a vast carbon footprint thanks to all that travel time around the globe. Sadly, this becomes even more the case when the clothing has been designed by local designers. The irony of clocking a higher carbon footprint for supporting the local brands of your own country is a political burden of most individuals in the west who have begun to think ethically about their consumption.

OK, So What Can I Do to Make a Difference?

It is important to appreciate the journey of our clothing from its raw materials to our closets, in terms of the political power of fashion’s big businesses. Every garment on our backs has been through labor processes of the most menial and banal, yet somehow on its journey to the clothing racks has accumulated a glamor or a brand power, the strength of which relies completely on the making invisible of this political economy of its production.

This is why it feels good to purchase clothing made in your own local economy. These pieces may cost more, because the labor within your own local economy might be given a fair rate compared to the harsh rates applied in the export processing zones. It is a good idea to try to comprehend the pricing methods by asking questions to your retailer when shopping for clothes. If your retailer cannot give you the answers to your questions as a routine part of their customer service, perhaps it is time to shop somewhere else that can.

It feels even better to purchase clothing where the retail outlet and/or the manufacturing plant is owned and operated locally by the designer, as part of his/her fashion house. These operations are rare but one or two might exist closer to you than you realize, if you only go searching for them. The sense of style and taste might stop you from purchasing their clothing at first, but the fact that the designer is close by to the retail outlet means that your customer feedback does not have far to go to reach them. Ethical fashion designers are usually the most accessible to their customers, and value these creative relations with their consumer, because it assures their long-term establishment in the community they have chosen to produce clothing for.

The Recession is a Good Time to Change Your Purchase Practices.

If you live in a nation where the government has decided to ‘let go’ of this important industry within their local economy, there are ways your consumer choices can influence your government to change. Look at the production labels of the clothes you are shopping for, and practise paying only for goods made in your own country. Get into conversations with your retailers, and if they don’t seem interested in talking to you, take your money to a retailer that will. Tell them what clothes are missing in their range, that are not made where you are. Tell yourself at the same time that you deserve a garment you can wear proudly, made by workers much the same as you from your own community.

These actions may not appear to have any influence upon your government, but collectively, they will. Businesses that do not cater to this important political will of their customers will go bankrupt once customers collectively diminish paying for such inferior service. This will happen sooner than you think, given the current economic crisis. In a recession, consumers have an invigorated political voice in the marketplace, and local economies are up for some fresh changes based on our dollar spent wiser. And if there’s one thing governments listen out for, even when it seems they never keep their promises to their electorates, it’s the winds of change in the economic climate.