Monday, June 22, 2015

As yet untitled... (and "Death By Pastrami")

*Make sure you read the comments on this post, too.  The comments really expand this post, and really give great additional food for thought! (Originally posted in 2013, I have realized that posts have their moments of popularity, and my stats tell me that this is a post that is igniting a spark right now.) Visit this blog post for more recent thoughts on the same topic!

"I find it interesting that you call your blog 'Shop the Garment District', considering..." he said, tapping the glass table deliberately, "that the Garment District no longer exists."

Leonard Bernstein, author of a collection of short stories featured in an earlier post, was ready to school me on the garment district.  And I was an eager student. I initially wanted to meet him because of his fiction writing, and his unique garment district stories. What I didn't know, was that I actually needed to meet him.  His knowledge of the Garment District is vast, valuable, and needs to be shared.

I met him in the office of his family business, Candlesticks Inc., where he has been at the helm since 1953.  Candlesticks is a well-established company, in business since 1928, selling to the biggest retail chain stores whose names we all know. In a glossy, formal, garment center building, his company produces childrens' pajamas and swimwear.  Leonard, a smartly dressed, happy man, ushered me over to the big glass table in the showroom, and promptly offered me a perfect cup of coffee. "This is a real Garment Center business." he announced.  He was right. There was no sign of the dingy, rough places I have seen and imagined.  This place was corporate and clean.  Efficient and quiet.

With a garment district family history that stretches back as far as his great-grandfather who owned a pushcart on Hester Street at the turn of the 20th century, and a grandfather who owned an apparel company with a factory in New York City, Leonard's unique perspective allows him to understand both where the district has been AND where it is going.  Better yet, his warm, open personality allows him to share this information with us.

And now?  His company produces lots and lots and LOTS of garments, overseas of course, and selling in the biggest retail chains we know.  Macy's, just across the street from his office, is among them.  Quickly, the conversation turned to the topic of apparel manufacturing. We're not talking about the hobbyist, or the little guy/gal who just wants to make a few items here.  We're talking about the businesses that help people buy houses , cars, build savings, and put their children through college.


Myth #1: Greedy capitalists won't produce in America, making it impossible for others to compete.

Here's the thing: Can you still buy supplies, manufacture, and sell goods you make in NYC's garment district?  "Yes, you can - if you do boutique-type stuff.  You can find a small shop to make 27 dresses, or some artistic handmade ties, and yes, you can sell them.  But... you wanna sell to Macy's Target, WalMart, Sears? Then, you've gotta go overseas." Leonard tells me.  "Why not produce it here?"  I ask. "Why not, you ask?  Where are the factories?" He elaborated on this point, explaining  that it's fine when you're just starting out, since at most, maybe some loft in Chinatown will produce the small lot you need, but, eventually you have to be competitive.  If you want to sell to the big stores, the factories in China, Bangladesh, and Cambodia can produce the quantities you need quickly, using workers who are paid $1/hr.  And guess what?  That's a living wage in those places!

Mythe #2: The foreign garment factory workers are being abused and exploited.


Bangladesh factory fire - locked exits - read here...

"We love to believe the story of the poor, abused foreign worker.  The children, the enslaved, the hungry and lame. Making pennies an hour."  The fact is, he goes on to explain, if you tell a factory manager near Shanghai that you hear many of these factories hire or enslave children, he will tell you that he has a MILE LONG line of able-bodied, capable ADULTS who would be happy to work for $1 and hour, compared to the $.50/hr the hard physical labor alternatives offer.  Working in state-of-the-art, efficient factories for a good wage. He has a WAITING LIST of eager adult workers. "Why would I hire a child?"

My brain is spinning now.  This is not what I expected to hear. What I'd been led to believe. "So, can't you use a 2nd class factory somewhere, and pay workers far less?" I asked.  "Well, you can..." Leonard explains, "But when you sell to a store like Macy's, they will only buy garments produced at approved factories, and you (the manufacturer) must have a certificate that states they are manufacturing your goods.  Without that certificate, the big stores won't talk to you."  The big stores send inspectors to those factories, both announced, and undercover, to see how things are being produced, and to check that procedures are being followed.  Without the kind of sales a store like Macy's, Target, or Sears can do, how would you sell the goods?

"But, I've been to stores like Conway," I protest, "and their prices are sometimes lower than I can even buy the fabric to make it myself.  Where is that stuff from?"  (I've always been SURE it was some sort of near-slavery work in a third-world country.) "The stuff you see in those stores are closeouts." Leonard tells me. "These things need to be sold for anything they can get.  Those are just goods they need to move."

We want to believe that the Asian factories have "grabbed" the apparel manufacturing, but we (USA) are a privileged, advanced, over-comsuming country. We open our drawers and closets to find dozens and dozen of garments - more than we need or even want.

So, it comes to this.  What should we have done differently/ What is our future?

"Well, " he confides, "You know those huge campaigns... Look for the Union Label, Buy America, etc...?  Well, they all failed.  Every one of them."

A decade ago, Leonard ran a factory in Pennsylvania, with 350 workers.  "You know what? Far more foreign cars in the parking lot than American ones.  The employees wore affordable clothes made in other countries - and these were American factory workers! The salesmen had to hide the fact that the clothes were made in America just to get appointments, and avoid getting laughed at!  Our wholesale prices weren't competitive."

He goes on to explain that he can make a sample garment, photograph and email it to the Shanghai factory at 10AM, and by 11AM, the factory can give him delivery and price. AND the fabric is already available there, where the factories are!

So... the future?

This was a much longer conversation, not easily summarized in a blog post... but a rising tide lifts all boats, you know.  In time, workers who make $1/hr now will be wanting to earn $1.25 at the new factory down the road.  Wages will rise, and labor will become more expensive for the manufacturers.  It will be at least 30 years before their wages are competitive with our own, though.  So, we move on to other countries.  Bangladesh, Cambodia... all they need are more factories to be competitive.  After that?  Africa can't be far behind.  There are workers in Africa who will gladly earn $.50/hr - and yes, still a living wage.


Rising labor costs in factories force manufacturers to look elsewhere... follow link


We can impose tariffs, for sure... but don't we want other countries to buy our goods? Due to advances in technology, we are more connected than ever.  This has made the other side of the planet as accessible as the office next door.  No one is to blame for this. We can grow exponentially, or we can change, OR can simply stop consuming.

The fact is, the world is constantly changing.

"Okay, so what should we have done differently?" I ask.

"Nothing." Leonard replies.  I believe him when he says that. This guy is no slouch, I tell ya.  Early in  our conversation, I asked him why he wrote fiction, before I had any idea what other pearls of wisdom he had to offer.  "I love to write, so I wrote." Simple as that.  And, by the way, this is his 6th book!







(note: added 1/3/15) And he has since written a new one!

30 comments:

  1. Extremely interesting interview. In answer to the statement that people abroad are not working for slave wages by the standards of their home countries, the response I've read is that just because we CAN pay little and be within the law doesn't mean we SHOULD.

    I do not, however, pretend that these issues are simple. Good to see a post dealing with the inconvenient economic realities of global garment manufacturing in the 21st Century.

    One last thing: I'm sure he's used to it, but I would hate to be named "Leonard Bernstein." I couldn't get the West Side Story and Candide images out of my head.

    New York Sewer

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just had to double-check his name myself, to make sure I didn't change his name in my own mind! The familiarity of his name did strike me, but I didn't know why, until you mentioned it! But yes, fascinating for me to learn that buying these goods does help someone feed a family - somewhere...

      Delete
  2. This is your best blog post. Recently there has been a thread about a certain brand of jeans and how they don't hang correctly, etc. I have 4 pair of those jeans, paid $16 apiece for them at a big box store and they actually fit and hang nicely. They're jeans, not couture. As long as people are earning what is considered by them to be a living wage I'm happy with that. We do have a lot of clothing in our drawers but remember that if the stuff gets too expensive we buy less and that requires less to be manufactured and so forth.

    ReplyDelete
  3. People who don't mind looking like everyone else will always be the ones buying the cheapest thing available. It's those who are more fashion forward who are the customers of domestic manufacturers. American manufacturers need to change up their designs and make themselves more competitive. Not everyone wants to wear t shirts all the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Don't mind looking like everyone else"... or just have bigger fish to fry, or aren't particularly picky about what they wear. For the young and fit, you could really wear a paper bag and look just fine, for a good few years, anyway. And, funny enough, I do know quite a few people who wear t-shirts ALL the time. But yes, there is a market for higher end goods, too. Just not a big one.

      Delete
  4. Excellent post, Mimi! Of course, some time in the not-so-distant future dramatically higher fuel prices could make it much less economical to have our clothing manufactured on the other side of the planet. What happens then is anybody's guess, since our factories and know-how are already largely a thing of the past.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those fuel price increases would have to be awfully drastic to close the gap, Peter! Thanks for the compliment!

      Delete
  5. Great post. While I was reading it, I was listening to NPR about sourcing in the US. They discussed a website that makes it easier to match designers with US factories: http://makersrow.com/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here is a link to the radio report: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/newtechcity/2013/apr/23/

      Delete
  6. Love this post too Mimi, thanks very much. A "living wage" means a wage that is capable of paying for those things that are called basic human rights for the worker and family: food, shelter, clothing, education, access to medicines in some cases, etc. There is no country in the world where 50 cents an hour would be considered a "living wage". Sure, it might be more than the worker might otherwise get, and therefore a higher wage than country minimums, but let's not call that a living wage. Low wages like this...they rebound on the society in some way or another. Corruption is one of the most common ways when the whole society ends up on the take because they can't find the means to get by in the formal economy. That worker who gets 50 cents an hour might have had to get up at 3 am to walk 5 hours to get to work because he or she can't pay the bus driver or afford a bicycle, and then do a 12 hour shift. I've seen these working conditions directly. This routine can't be sustained over time. A means to phenomenal profits for the west it is. A living wage for the workers...not quite, not yet. I'm not confident that the underlying ethics of under-developed economy labor are yet sorted. Please keep these posts coming Mimi, I think it's a very important narrative.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Liz! As always, a great, informed perspective on the bigger issues. You are right; "Living wage" is probably not the right word choice here. It seems to be about what people are willing to accept as payment for their labor, actually. But, what is the alternative? How much value does the "better than nothing", "rising tide eventually lifts all boats" argument have, in your opinion?

      Delete
  7. It is good to hear another point of view, if for no more than to realize there IS another point of view. We are fed politically correct propaganda day after day and it is refreshing to hear a voice take on a hard discussion in the public arena. Thanks for writing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting! I am so happy to see that people are as interested in this subject as I am!

      Delete
  8. Federal minimum wage average in the US is $7.25/hr. A living wage, according to UMass/Amherst professor Dr. Arindrajit Dube (Senate Committee Hearing) would be near $22.00/hr. In the US, a new sewing factory worker could not hope to command this figure. So, not a living wage here, either.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is the main reason for the massive growth of the class called the "working poor" --- those with jobs, but paid wage levels that keeps them hovering at, or below, the poverty line. Wages have not increased in real terms in some 40 years, yet living expenses (rent, food, utilities) rise in line with inflation every year. Not only a North American problem, but the sheer numbers here in the US are terrifying...some put the "working poor" numbers at around 40 - 50 million now.

      Delete
    2. Wow. I wonder how this problem is silently magnified in the US because of the availability of credit, allowing people to buy things they never actually own, until they hit a wall. It seems in the US, that most people can live "as if" for a good long while, until... they can't anymore. I am amazed at the price of some things people who don't seem to have the means will buy. Fancy sneakers, headphones, electronics.... Having a job at all, no matter what the pay, makes a person eligible to "buy" lots of things they can't afford. So much to think about.

      Delete
  9. Great article. On the rare occasion I buy clothes for myself (I make the huge majority), I refuse to feel guilty for buying from Primark, etc, because I know that somewhere in the world someone is being paid to make that garment. It may not be a good wage, but it surely has to be better than begging. I have no doubts whatsoever that the fabric I buy for my own sewing is probably produced in far worse conditions than the factories that produce the final garments. I also know that there is really nothing I can do about it other than never buying anything - including food (lentils are apparently produced using near-slave labour in many parts of the world)!

    There was an interesting documentary shown in the UK a few years ago where the narrator visited a factory in China and was shown loads of boxes of sunglasses parts - the same workers, on the same wage, could be assembling for Primark in the morning and Louis Vuitton in the afternoon. I would rather buy from Primark, who perhaps make a few pennies profit on each item, than from luxury brands that use the same labour and make huge profits on each item.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You've hit on one aspect that really niggles away at my sense of equity...the multiplier relevant to the difference between the cost of production and the final market price. I am much more uncomfortable with the massive profits of the luxury brands. When this much money is made out of the very, very cheap labour of the workers (I know, I know, there are other expenses all up and down the value chain from idea to final product) it doesn't bear reflecting on for too long; it's an uncomfortable thought.

      Delete
    2. Tough one here. I have personally worked for a company here in the US who would sell a shirt for more than I could earn in a week. Fair? I don't know. I just thought of it as wildly expensive.

      Delete
    3. But were you working for them for 50 cents an hour?

      Delete
    4. Oh, of course not! Heh, heh... I do see your point, since I could have bought 20 similar shirts elsewhere. I'm only expressing the wild gap between my pay rate and the price of the goods. What I was earning wouldn't have been enough to rent an apartment, though - and certainly not food, too.

      Delete
    5. It's just occurred to me that the staff who work in the Primark shops can probably easily afford to buy the clothing their employer sells. I very much doubt that is true for the staff who work in designer stores, even with a substantial discount. I feel even less guilty about buying from Primark now :)

      Delete
  10. I've been thinking a lot about this, since your fantastic post "On fur, sweatshops, prison and unfair labor practices", and especially in light of the awful collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh. It seems patently obvious that those workers had no choice, despite voicing their concerns over the unsafe building they were forced to go back or be dismissed, and for many of them that would be their only income. I don't see how Leonard can say that stores only buy from approved factories when so many of the stores whose labels were found in the rubble don't even know if they had clothes produced there or not. And these are big labels (Bennetton, Next, Primark, Bonmarche are just a few). On the other hand, I know people who have safety clothing made in China and the factories they have visited appear to be clean, safe and well run with an adequate wage paid to employees. Are they just fronts? Is it related to the size of the business and the demands they make of their suppliers? Is there just such a tortuous web of different suppliers and sub-suppliers that no one knows were it all really comes from (and don't really want to know either)? It all seems so complicated, I can't see how to avoid it
    I've never commented on your blog before (too shy!) but I love reading your thoughtful posts. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My last quarter I was in a fashion class where we discussed, dissected and delved into the labor practices of overseas factories. It was during this quarter that the factory in Bangladesh collapsed so our focus was even more poignant. One of the videos we watched was called "China Blue". For those who want a different perspective than Mr. Bernstein gives in his interview, Google it and watch.

    The one thing I always remember, there are three sides to any argument...his, hers and the middle. I think the same can be said for this subject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh - you wrote this comment a long time ago! I have since watched "china Blue", and read more... I've learned so much since then! Still an amazing puzzle of issues...

      Delete
  12. Did you just give space on your blog for someone to justify paying $1 an hour saying that's enough in a foreign country? You KNOW that's not true. Anyone with a lick of intelligence and access to a television knows that isn't true. As someone who majored in American history, let me assure you that there is an abundance of evidence to prove that factories here closed because manufacturers went elsewhere always looking for cheaper labor. They certainly did not just disappear forcing companies to go overseas looking for factories. You didn't get schooled. You were deceived, beguiled, misled which is precisely what you are doing when you pass this along to your readers. I am so disappointed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Baye, this is exactly why I shared it. As I mentioned in the additional intro to this post, there was a great deal of discussion that followed in the comments. Please read them, and explore what I have shared since, especially posts like this one: http://www.shopthegarmentdistrict.com/2015/02/when-fashion-bloggers-go-to-cambodia.html Read on, if you are so inclined!

      Delete

I welcome and encourage your comments. Please note that I do reserve the right to delete any comment I deem inappropriate for any reason whatsoever without consent.