From the materials being grown or produced, the people designing them, the workers sewing them together, and the international shipping routes, the clothes we wear often go through a long journey before they end up in our closets. In the past few years, the general public has been opening its eyes to the ways many clothing manufacturers exploit their workers. Many garment manufacturing facilities underpay their employees, are physically unsafe, and even use slave labor. As a result of this raised awareness, there has been a big push towards ethical labor practices from both established as well as emerging brands. However, as a consumer, it can be hard to discern whether these steps are performative, mere marketing strategies, or genuine. A unique alternative to the standard business models for garment manufacturing would be worker cooperatives. A worker co-op structure creates an environment where valuing and supporting the workers is integral to its function. Cooperatives present an equitable solution to the ethics crisis the fashion industry is experiencing today and in many other industries where workers are treated unethically.
When profit is the ultimate goal of clothing companies, fast fashion brands such as Forever21 and Urban Outfitters cut costs when paying their garment workers a living wage. Brands don’t often disclose which factories supply their clothes, making it difficult for others to trace. However, various instances of dangerous and unethical working conditions have made it into news sources more frequently over the last few years. Perhaps the most infamous was the 2013 garment factory building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed over one thousand workers. Disaster struck even after multiple workers had reportedly raised unacted-upon concerns about the safety of the building. Another unethical event that caused minor uproar was when Nike (as well as Coca-Cola and Apple) lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in the US that aimed to stop US companies from using forced labor from Uyghur Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang China. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that Nike was one of the companies that benefited from this forced labor. They had over 7 million Nike shoes made in 2019 at the Qingdao factory, which employed such workers from the internment camps. Unfortunately, these are just two of the many examples of unethical labor practices in the industry. In response to public criticism of unfair and harmful working environments, many companies, including Nike and H&M, have begun to provide more transparency about their supply chain and are moving towards paying their workers living wages. However, this process is slow and big companies with hierarchical business structures have intrinsic incentives to pay their workers less as corporate profit remains the top priority.
New companies are reimagining the values of the garment industry, as shown with worker co-ops. The International Labour Office defined a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” The main benefit of a labor co-op is that everyone who is a member has decision-making power, leading to more transparency, equitable pay, better working conditions, and often extra support services. Even though companies would like you to believe otherwise, with a hierarchical system of employment and profit, the workers are almost always being exploited. This especially matters when it comes to already marginalized groups whose labor is more commonly undervalued. Cooperatives in the garment industry offer a more sustainable and ethical approach, but they also exist in a multitude of different areas of our lives. You may be most familiar with grocery store cooperatives where shoppers own partial shares and have a voice in some decision-making processes. Another common type is housing cooperatives, where the people who live in the homes own shares of the overall building rather than individual units and help with maintenance and upkeep.
Blue Tin Production Co-op began in January of 2019 in Chicago, a city with a quickly developing sustainable fashion community. This cooperative employs refugees and women of color to design, make, and sell clothing. They are providing their members with good wages along with a healthy and supportive work environment. At Blue Tin Production, the people who make the clothes are also the people who profit. The members are all managers and make decisions through a democratic process. Additionally, they are able to provide healthcare, transportation, language learning services, and more to the members. As a result of all this, the members do not simply make above a living wage but are uplifted in other areas by their jobs.
Worker cooperatives in the fashion industry are present and even plentiful worldwide. For instance take Casa Flor Ixcaco in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala. This textile production cooperative controls the whole process, from growing their own organic cotton to sewing the fabrics they have made into bags, shawls, and shirts. Casa Flor Ixcaco was created as a way to provide local women with jobs that paid well in a good work environment and at the same time preserve traditional textile weaving techniques. Casa Flor integrates a positive working model with environmentally sustainable practices of using only natural textiles and dyes, hand dying, and wooden backstrap looms to make the fabrics. Casa Flor Ixcaco showcases how a cooperative structure allows for the fair treatment and payment of workers and how sustainable production and traditional practices can be prioritized within the industry.
Many of us have been led to believe that the only viable option for businesses is the hierarchical structure that we see most companies use (think Jeff Bezos and Amazon). This hierarchy is inherently exploitative and allows for a status quo where billionaire brand owners are at the top while those at the bottom make almost nothing. Cooperatives show that is not the only option for the fashion industry, as they put the people first. They provide a perspective that allows us to reframe how the industry functions. In the fashion industry, cooperatives offer safe and supportive work environments to people whose craft is sewing. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, worker co-ops give me hope for the future of the fashion industry.