If you care about fashion ethics, now is the time to start paying attention to Amazon warehouses.
Maxine Bédat has long made a difference in the ethics of clothing manufacturing.
She was the co-founder of Zady, a retailer once hailed as the “Whole Foods of fashion,” which laid the groundwork for a host of “ethical fashion” retailers that followed. She later started the New Standard Institute, an organization focused on connecting the fashion industry to better information about its environmental impact.
This week, Bédat released her latest project: the book “Unraveled”, which explores the issues she has spent her entire career focusing on – how fashion impacts people and the planet – by following a pair of jeans from their beginnings on a farm to ending up in a landfill. Along the way, she explores everything from the history of labor law to the economic foundations of the United States in the slave-fueled cotton trade, examining what is broken in our current fashion system and how it could be. repaired.
“Being able to see all of these things together is important in terms of finding solutions,” Bédat told Fashionista. “If we only focus on one part of the supply chain, we can make choices with unintended consequences.”
Part of the journey of a garment that Bédat highlights and that is often overlooked in discussions about the human impact of fashion production is its passage through the warehouse from which our e-commerce orders are shipped. Bedat focuses specifically on Amazon warehouses, pointing out that Amazon is “the largest online clothing retailer” in the United States and describing the giant company as a precedent for the future of retail. If Amazon has succeeded in making its CEO the richest person in the world by relying on the kind of conditions where workers have so little time for bathroom breaks that they end up pissing in bottles, they are intimidated by form unions and face constant surveillance, she argues. , other companies are expected to follow.
“Not just in the fashion industry, but in the US economy, that’s where things are going if we don’t change them,” says Bédat. “Amazon plays a much bigger role in the fashion world than you tend to think.”
We phoned Bedat to talk about the similarities between Amazon workers in the US and textile workers in Bangladesh, the importance of unionization, and the role misogyny has played in protecting the fashion industry. scrutiny. Read on for highlights from our conversation.
You draw a striking parallel between working conditions in factories in Bangladesh and Amazon warehouses in the United States. What connects these two elements?
When I spoke to garment workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, I had this idea that they must be complaining about the system in their minds while they were working. Then I asked this garment worker what she thought when she worked; I understood that she is do not really thinking – his mental process throughout those hours is like, “I just have to keep going, no mistakes. I just have to keep going, no mistakes. When I asked the same question of Amazon employees , I got a similar answer: your brain is not actively working, but you also don’t have time to think.
Their jobs are no different in that they are constantly monitored – except at Amazon, every movement, every second, is monitored by machines. There is a gap in living conditions between here and there, but the actual work and the dehumanizing nature of the work are very similar. There is also a common theme around unions: Amazon’s anti-union efforts in the United States mirror what is happening in Bangladesh.
The book quotes Stuart Appelbaum, saying that when we talk about Amazon, we are talking about “the future of work.” What does it mean?
As retail moves online, you spend less time in stores, so tasks that were previously in stores are now getting products to you through warehouses. Distribution has really taken off and has become an important part of our national economy. Amazon is a huge company, so the CEOs of all the other companies see this success and say, “If I want to stay in business, this is what I have to replicate.
I try to avoid words like “exploitation”, but there is nothing more that can be said about this situation other than that it is exploitation. It’s getting the best out of a person, and all the wealth generated goes to the top of the hierarchy.
You also describe Amazon as “the infrastructure of commerce”. Can you unpack this?
In the old days, the infrastructure of commerce was directed towards stores and advertising that you could see in a magazine. But now you are not driving to a store. You don’t even search on Google, just Amazon. And Amazon is expanding beyond Amazon.com, as other retailers also perform their fulfillment through Amazon warehouses. Then there are other stores, like Shopbop, which are owned by Amazon. Amazon really is the infrastructure that moves retail. If nothing changes, our economy will look more and more like this.
Amazon is such a massive company that it may seem too big to change. What would a move to a less exploitative model look like?
We have to do a lot of things, like redistributive taxation. As a society, we must ask ourselves: what is business for? The purpose of companies when they started was not to maximize profit for shareholders – they were created as a democratic tool for pooling resources.
As our economy has become more complicated, we must tackle corporate tax evasion and create a global corporate tax regime so that corporations cannot dodge taxes. But we also need tougher labor laws, so that things like what we’ve seen Amazon do at its Bessemer factory that was trying to unionize – like changing the speed of traffic lights to prevent organizers from turning up. be able to talk to Amazon employees – be regulated. Trade unions have been shown to help increase workers’ wages. We need to strengthen labor laws so they can fight for themselves.
The other part, which seems boring but has become incredibly clear to me, is industrial policy. China’s growth is due to an active industrial policy. Industrial policy means that the government really thinks – and has a plan and encourages and invests in – the sectors that we plan to grow. We need to be more thoughtful in terms of industrial policy so that we do not have an economy made up of a few extremely rich people and completely exploitative jobs. Right now we have people saying “just shut it down” for environmental reasons, and then the business world says “but wait, we need jobs”. We have to wade through this murky middle zone and really understand the nuts and bolts of these things.
There is quite a bit in the book on the history of work and unionization. Why do you think it’s important for fashion people to understand?
It’s cool that a lot of important national victories in the labor movement started with garment workers, because it shows how important the garment industry is. It is important for both the good and the bad that he does in the world.
We put these protections in place nationally, but then there was an active effort on behalf of the fashion industry to ensure that these protections were not included when we put this globalized system in place. It is often presented as if we are exporting jobs, and whatever country is taking our workers away. But this is an oversimplification. What is happening is that workers are opposed to other workers. This broader dynamic is essential to understand so that we can ensure the success of unions. To do this, we must have a global trade regime that does not encourage bypassing countries that have strong labor protections.
Auditing and certification bodies are often touted as the way to make garment factories fairer, but you describe the audit as a “racket” in the book. Should we therefore totally reject these measures?
First we need to understand the reasons why we have these audits. We have developed this globalized world which looks like the Wild West without laws; then we were surprised in the 90s when Nike and other brands discovered sweatshops. It was in response to these reports that this whole verification regime was put in place.
We need to impose a global trade regime that does not allow brands to regulate themselves when they are strongly discouraged from doing so. We need to think about systemic solutions, namely government policy and government enforcement. But in the absence of that, yes things like audits are important, and we shouldn’t throw them away because we don’t have the other thing we need.
One of the things you point out in the book is how fashion has played a key role in some of these really big changes in history, whether it’s the development of the US economy. or the modernization of China. Why is this so important? And if fashion was more widely understood as the powerful economic engine that it is, what could change?
There have been so many times that I have talked to people about the impact of fashion on the planet and they are like, “My wife would be really, really interested in this; she loves fashion. I think the fact that fashion could have gotten out of hand despite its huge role in our economy and our society has something to do with misogyny. If we really saw the huge role it plays both in our lives and in the global economy, there would be more industry oversight and more progress.
An argument often put forward about poor working conditions is that they help people get out of poverty. How do you respond to that?
In a place like Bangladesh, life expectancy has increased dramatically, although it is difficult to say how much of this can be attributed to the current fashion industry. But you can develop in a country and pay decent wages while making a profit. The CEO of LVMH has just been named the richest person in the world; he was eventually beaten by Jeff Bezos, another person who makes a lot of money with clothes. There is one point of wealth that you don’t need to add – there is no possible way to spend that money. I think that’s something we could do so much better on.
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