I cannot talk about fashion without talking about the end of the world. For a long time I argued that fashion was political; now I argue that fashion is apocalyptic. Today, the industry that produces clothing has, in terms of economic and environmental inequity, more in common with the meatpacking industry than it does with any other cultural product. Much like the catastrophic impact that mass-producing and selling meat has had on our planet, the demands required to keep pace with our modern fast-fashion industry have been devastating. (As just one example, the industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, enough to sustain five million people.) Years ago, a fashion buyer told me that one day people would pay more for avocados than they would for T-shirts; I did not believe her at the time. In the same way that those with access to food consume and dispose of it with all the carelessness afforded by wealth, clothing has masqueraded itself as best when it is cheap and plentiful, obscuring an indiscernible value that comes at an immeasurably high cost.
In Natalie Kitroeff’s recent investigation for The New York Times, she discovered that Fashion Nova’s production chain is under investigation by the Federal Labor Department for wage theft. Across dozens of factories and hundreds of workers, according to the Times, the popular mass-market clothing brand’s subcontracted vendor factories owed $3.8 million in back wages.* Some factories paid their sewers as little as $2.77 per hour; Fashion Nova clothes have been discovered in 50 investigations of factories under scrutiny for paying their workers illegally low salaries or withholding overtime. Officials from the Federal Labor Department have met with Fashion Nova, whose general counsel, Erica Meierhans, told the Times that the company had already had a “highly productive and positive meeting” with the Labor Department and was committed to making sure workers associated with their clothing production were compensated fairly. “Any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone working on our brand is categorically false,” Meierhans said in a statement to the Times.
According to the law, it is not a question of whether Fashion Nova is exploiting its workers. It is a question of whether Fashion Nova can be proven responsible for the exploitation of its workers, a distinction designed to protect fashion companies not from investigations but from consequences. As Kitroeff noted, federal law does not prosecute brands if they can “credibly claim” they were unaware of any labor violations in subcontracted factories, and while “the Labor Department has collected millions in back wages and penalties from Los Angeles garment businesses in recent years,” it has yet to fine a retailer. Fashion Nova’s supply chain, like that of practically every recognizable brand operating today, is fragmented: One company designs the clothes, another ships the materials, and contracted sewers put the pieces together under the Fashion Nova label. Mercedes Cortes, a sewer Kitroeff interviewed, worked seven days a week, with her pay based on piecework—4 cents for a sleeve, 8 cents for a neckline. She earned about $4.66 per hour until 2016, when the company agreed to pay a settlement of $5,000 in back wages. Cortes told Kitroeff that she often noticed the $12 price tags were high in comparison to what she and her co-workers were paid.
Fashion Nova started as a brick-and-mortar store, and the company still has five retail locations, but in 2013, the founder, Richard Saghian, began posting merchandise on Instagram. He provided free clothing to women he identified as influencers with lots of followers, and as they tagged Fashion Nova in their photos and vice versa, the company’s profile exploded. Known as #NovaBabes, his brand ambassadors included Kehlani, Kylie Jenner, and Cardi B, whose personal collaboration with the brand was released in November 2018 and sold out almost immediately. (Cardi has, of this writing, not commented on the story; the brand says none of her merchandise was found in the factories under investigation.) Now the company manufactures about 1,000 new styles per week, many of which are overt imitations of high-end ready-to-wear fashion favored by all kinds of celebrities. Saghian refers to his own clothing as “ultra-fast” fashion, a hyperacceleration of what was already much too quick. This excess is only profitable as long as the cost of materials and wages stays as low as possible.
It’s critical to note that it is not just the well-positioned influencers and ease of social media that has made Fashion Nova a phenomenon. It is among a small number of affordable and mass-distributed clothing lines to offer a full size range to customers. Many mall brands still only go up to size 12, despite the fact that 16 to 18 are the average sizes worn by American women today. This is, along with cost, the reason that Target, Walmart, Old Navy, and other similar brands have become so popular and powerful despite their ethics: Fashion Nova is both affordable and wearable, at a time when many other clothing lines might be neither. “Fashion should never be limited to size,” Saghian told Essence in 2017. “We saw a market that was being neglected and decided to act on it.”
For a long time, Saghian avoided interviews. In 2018 he was profiled by Aria Hughes at Women’s Wear Daily, telling her he agreed to it only because it could act as “recruitment”—he thought, perhaps correctly, that the readers of what is still largely a trade publication might be dismissing the privately owned and rapidly growing Fashion Nova as merely an Instagram brand and not a significant force within the fashion industry. Once, Saghian boasted that 80 percent of Fashion Nova’s clothes were made domestically; now the company claims less than half of its clothes are made in Los Angeles and would not disclose to the Times what percentage of its merchandise is made in the U.S. at all. This remains an ugly truth that—with the notable exception of labor activists and advocates working against exactly this assumption—is an unexamined expectation among shoppers: that clothing manufactured in the U.S. is made under fair conditions, and clothing manufactured overseas is made under exploitative conditions.
At The Fashion Law, writer Julie Zerbo isolated the California law that protects companies like Fashion Nova. In 1999, the state passed what was considered a piece of “landmark” anti-sweatshop legislation, AB633, which specified protection for “persons damaged by failure of a garment manufacturer, jobber, contractor, or subcontractor to pay wages or benefits.” As Zerbo pointed out, retailers are a glaring omission from the list of those liable. The president of the California Fashion Association, Ilse Metchek, later revealed to LA Weekly that the group had fought the bill “like crazy” because “in essence, a manufacturer became responsible for workers he or she did not hire, and is not in contact with.”
The distinction between retailer and manufacturer has been invoked in other similar cases, most recently with Forever 21, thus successfully off-loading the debts accrued by wage theft onto the contractors themselves. It has become typical for business models that rely on franchises and outsourced accountability to claim innocence by way of ignorance—we’ve seen the same at McDonald’s, which this month was handed a victory by the National Labor Relations Board in a ruling that concluded the fast-food giant is not liable for the labor violations of its franchisees. It’s a model that allows giant companies to keep their hands clean while leaving their middlemen with blame.
David Weil, who briefly worked in the U.S. Labor Department’s wage and hour division, told Kitroeff that consumers are quick to believe sweatshops exist in Bangladesh or Vietnam but don’t want to think “it’s true in their own backyard.” In this way, the conversation about human and labor rights in fashion has carefully eluded global culpability, convincing Western consumers that abuse is something that happens far away. In her excellent book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, reporter Dana Thomas visits a factory in Los Angeles with Mariela Martinez, an organizer with the worker-rights nonprofit Garment Worker Center, who estimated at the time of writing there are about 45,000 people in total working in Californian factories. Perhaps half, she guessed, were employed on their employer’s official payroll and received minimum wage; the other half were undocumented workers, often making $4 per hour in inhuman conditions.
The fashion industry has expanded to an astronomical scale. Among Thomas’s incredibly detailed and existentially horrifying reports about its current state, here are a few key numbers to keep in mind:
The World Bank estimates that clothing manufacturing is responsible for about 20 percent of all industrial water pollution and releases 10 percent of all carbon emissions in our air. Of the more than 100 billion articles of clothing produced in the year 2018, 20 percent became trash—buried, burned, left in landfills. In terms of individuals, the average shopper purchases five times more clothes than they did in 1980, buying about 68 items a year. If our consumer patterns remain the same, experts expect that by 2030, the number will increase by about 63 percent, from 62 million tons to 102 million tons per year, or roughly 500 billion T-shirts. In the last 30 years alone, fashion went from being a $500 billion industry produced domestically to being a $2.4 trillion global catastrophe. It employs one in six people in the world and has always been, Thomas writes,
a dirty, unscrupulous business that has exploited humans and Earth alike to harvest bountiful profits. Slavery, child labor, and prison labor have all been integral parts of the supply chain.… On occasion, society righted the wrongs, through legislation or labor union pressure. But trade deals, globalization, and greed have undercut those good works.
Since the 1990s, when Los Angeles replaced New York as the center of the domestic apparel manufacturing industry, the city’s local revenue has reached $42 billion annually. In a 2016 report that Martinez and the UCLA Labor Center co-authored, they found a majority of respondents reported that their workplaces in the Los Angeles Fashion District, just blocks from City Hall, kept them in conditions with excessive dust and poor ventilation. Martinez told Thomas that she often accompanied federal agents on factory inspections or raids, and would see the labels of brands who positioned themselves as “sweatshop-free.” Martinez also explained the maddening reality of recuperating lost wages: For every wage claim of $50,000, not including penalties, the worker will see maybe $5,000 to $10,000 recovered—and that’s only if the worker can afford a representative to help them. “Without a representative, the contractor will offer one hundred dollars,” she said, “and a lot of people take it because it’s from nothing to something.” Brands essentially blackmail their contractors in the ensuing dispute, threatening to take away their business if the contractor does not pay the lost wages. But without the brand’s business, the contractor can’t pay the wages. “I’m not super sympathetic to contractors,” Martinez said, “but they are pawns in this system.”
The fashion industry as we know it rewards willful avoidance: Companies have gotten in the habit of outsourcing or contracting third-party factories and insisting that they produce enormous quantities of clothing under impossible deadlines, then washing their hands of what those subcontractors do in order to meet such expectations. If fast fashion does have anything in common with cultural artifacts like film or literature, it is that so much of its business is about obscuring the truth in favor of what looks real—fashion becomes a lens through which easy stories can be told. If something is made in Los Angeles, it must be ethical; if something is made in Bangladesh, it must be exploitative. (Companies themselves have capitalized on these assumptions: “Made in Los Angeles” and “Made in the USA” have come to function as stand-ins for verification about labor practices.) These assumptions are, at their base, the result of 40 years of choices made by businesses and billionaires whose financial interests were, and are, served by propagating racist, sexist, and anti-labor beliefs.
Most people familiar with labor history are aware of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which Thomas notes was, until September 11, 2001, the worst workplace disaster in New York City. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, 146 workers died, many young women, because management had locked the factory doors, worried their underpaid workers would steal from them. The resulting organizing, advocacy, and protests have done so much to shape modern labor law, yet corporations still get away with murder. On April 23, 2013, the people working at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, reported that the second-floor wall had been torn apart. An engineer tried to condemn the building, but the owner, Sohel Rana, told his employees to return to work the next morning. When the building collapsed the next day, 1,134 people were killed and 2,500 were injured. It is the worst garment-factory disaster in recorded history. Since then, brands have been slow to sign even the voluntary and self-regulated codes of conduct proposed for their factory labor, let alone cooperate with efforts to legislate protections for workers all over the world. The facts of geography are not what matters—the conditions workers are entitled to are borderless.
Consumers are often given too much power—think of the common refrain to vote with your dollars—in a marketplace that denies everyone the ability to choose freely and fairly. We must change our shopping patterns in parallel with demanding that corporations change their business practices. As our governments get more and more useless and our labor laws get weaker and weaker, businesses are incentivized to perpetuate abuse. Watching it from a distance, our hopelessness becomes a fact rather than a feeling. There are still artists and artisans who make beautiful clothing priced in a way that honors both their craft and their labor; there are case studies of businesses that have managed to restore dignity and respect to their factories and ateliers, many of which appear in Thomas’s writing and can be found just as easily by shoppers on web browsers and in local neighborhoods. These are the choices we have to make for ourselves because they are right. But our organizing must remain trained toward the very top, where this all begins—we cannot ignore the parts of the fashion industry that would prefer to remain invisible. As CEO of Fashion Nova, Saghian may have gone a long time without having to answer to the public. That time is over now. The future is uncertain, and every moment remaining is too precious to waste.
* This article has been updated to clarify that the factories that produce clothing for Fashion Nova, not the company itself, are under federal investigation and owe $3.8 million in back wages. But as The New York Times reported, “This year, Fashion Nova’s labels were the ones found the most frequently by federal investigators looking into garment factories that pay egregiously low wages, according to a person familiar with the investigations.”