Ethical Fashion & Southeast Asia’s Garment Industry

I’m guilty. From the comfort of my over-priced apartment in San Francisco, I didn’t put much thought in where the clothes I bought were produced, much less how or by whom. Shopping just served as a stress relief for a busy city life. But living in Thailand these past two years has given me new perspectives into the fashion industry that opened my eyes, and encouraged me to start an ethical clothing brand.

In Thailand, the garment industry accounts for 12.3% of GDP, employing over 1 million workers (mostly women). It remains one of the cheapest countries in the world to produce clothing, and attracts a lot of foreign business. With so many seamstress jobs available, it is very common for girls in rural villages to attend sewing trade schools and leave their homes for factory or contract work  in cities like Chiang Mai.

Beyond the many factories, there are a plethora of smaller sewing shops set up by foreign entrepreneurs. I’ve seen first hand that some of these are very ethical, offering good working conditions and benefits, while others take complete advantage of workers.

Women with little education in Thailand have few employment choices, and are often attracted to sewing because it allows them to work from home in many cases and tend to their families. The problem with this is they have little or no negotiating power, and often no job security. From my own observations, I know that employers sometimes pay women as low as $167/ month for working 9 hours a day/ 6 days a week (The average monthly wage in Thailand is $385 USD). As a result, many of them will take on double hours or evening jobs for increased income.

This is my small little window to the garment world here in Thailand. I am certain that in Cambodia, Bangladesh and other SE Asian countries circumstances are far worse. Thousands of illegal immigrants from Cambodia come to Bangkok each year in search of work and end up grossly underpaid in factories.

Many of you probably remember in 2013, when the Rana Plaza – an unsafe building that was being used as a factory in Bangladesh – collapsed, killing over 1,100 people. Walmart, Mango, and Benetton were among the many brands that produced clothing there, creating an international demand for corporations to take responsibility and change their supply chain management.

The challenge for big corporations attempting to oversee ethical practices, is the level of “removal” from the top of the chain to the individual worker. Prices are tightly negotiated by big brands that control the market, orders are made on computers with simple clicks, and a long line of contractors beneath contractors carry out the actual work, each taking what margins they can away from their subordinate.

As we now live in an era of e-commerce, we face new challenges. An even greater number of suppliers are able to enter foreign markets, offering little or no information at all on how the clothes they sell are produced. Please be cautious when you shop online stores, especially when you find prices to be “shockingly cheap.” There is a reason for that, and the cost you don’t see is often a human suffering cost.

My business is currently very small. I created it more for the experience and my love of fashion than for profit. After many months of searching, I found a small team of talented seamstresses here in Chiang Mai to work with and I look forward to growing my seedling of a business with the help of their talent and support. Tropic Bliss clothing will always be handmade and ethically sourced.

One other important thing I’ve learned living in Thailand is that less is more. Take a look at your closet… you probably have more than you ever wear hanging around in there ;). Consider spending a little more on ethically sourced clothing and buying less. This small change goes a long way.

Want to learn more about fair-trade clothing companies? Here is a recent article I found that lists 35 ethical fashion brands you can shop online.

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