In the United States, annual sales of apparel and footwear average £227 billion, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. The U.S. is the largest importer of garments -- a whopping 97 per cent of clothing is not manufactured domestically, but in developing countries like India, China and the Philippines, which raises ethical concerns about the treatment of garment workers in these countries. Other manufacturing issues include the negative environmental effects of producing certain types of fabrics. Add to this mix the possibility of gimmicks and concerns over consumer privacy violations, and clothing stores have quite a few ethical issues to contend with.
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In a study conducted by Market Research World, 70 per cent of consumers stated that their primary ethical concern when purchasing clothing was ensuring that the item was not the product of a sweatshop or child labour. However, except for a few high profile cases, consumers usually don't know who is responsible for the clothes they wear or what type of conditions these workers endure. According to Oxfam, "Sportswear workers in Asia endure long hours in sweatshop-like conditions for on average less than US £1.90 a day and still struggle to feed and clothe themselves and their families."
If you consider carbon dioxide to be a harmful substance, the method to manufacture nylon produces nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Rayon is made from wood pulp that is treated with hazardous substances. Although cotton is a natural fibre, it uses more insecticides (which are harmful to more than just insects) than any other crop in the world. The Pesticide Action Network reports that cotton producers use 25 per cent of the world's insecticides and 10 per cent of the world's pesticides -- some of which were developed during World War II as nerve gases.
Some clothing stores claim that a portion of their sales are donated to various charitable organisations, but according to an article in the "New York Times," details are sketchy regarding the validity of these assertions. For example, children's clothing store Hanna Andersson stated that a portion of the profits from its Day for a Sleigh long johns would be given to charitable organisations for kids. However, when contacted by the "Times," the company's rep could not share details regarding the amount donated or the charities that received these funds.
Surveillance and Privacy
Many large apparel stores are developing "smart tags" which are embedded in the store's clothing and are scanned at checkout. In a best-case scenario, the smart tags are used to help stores control their inventory by quickly identifying which styles and sizes are out of stock. The smart tags can be removed from clothing, but the sensors cannot be turned off. In a worst-case scenario, passersby can scan a consumer's trash to determine what was purchased. Also, retailers can scan personal information like new forms of driver's licenses (already in the states of Washington and Michigan) and use this data to track the spending habits of consumers without getting their consent.
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- Reuters; Some Facts on the U.S. Apparel Industry; Aug 9, 2010
- Market Research World; Consumers Don't Believe Fashion Industry's Ethical Claims; August 2007
- Oxfam.org: Worker's Rights
- Green Choices: Environmental Impacts
- Pesticide Action Network: Problems with Conventional Cotton Production
- "New York Times"; Charity's Share From Shopping Raises Concern; Stephanie Strom; December 2007