My Failed Search for Ethically-Made Jeans

My son just turned 13 and the next day, it seemed to me, his jeans were too short. “Floods,” said my fashionista daughter with disdain. “He looks ridiculous.” I bought him a couple pairs of jeans in the summer, but clearly Ian is going through a growth spurt for none are long enough now. Usually, when any of my three kids need clothes, I head to Winners (the Canadian version of Marshalls). But today, with my resolution to buy only things made fairly and ethically, I have to do a bit of research to see what brands comply with these stringent requirements.

First, I check out the International Labor Forum and find a list of sweatshop offenders published yearly, “The Sweatshop Hall of Fame”—Nike, Burberry, American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, L.L. Bean, Gymboree, Hanes, Adidas and Kohls. I’m disappointed to see Nike on this list as I’ve worn this brand for running for at least 20 years. The shoes fit my narrow feet well and offer lots of support for long runs. If Nike is still on this list when the time comes for new shoes, I’m going to have to find a new brand or stop running. Tempting.

None of the jean brands I buy are on this list, but this doesn’t mean they’re not sweatshop offenders. I often buy H&M jeans for Ian, but I know from reading “Deadly Secrets,” a 2012 report by the International Labor Rights Forum, that H&M is the largest buyer of apparel from Bangladesh, where 1.3 million children work in hazardous conditions, where workers are underpaid, where safety and health codes of conduct are broken routinely. Research by the Forum shows that at least 1,000 garment workers have been killed and 3,000 injured in more than 275 factory incidents in Bangladesh since 1990.

H&M does have an explicit subsection on fire safety in its Code of Conduct, stating that emergency exits must be marked and unblocked, and evacuation must always be possible during working hours. In November, 2009, H&M inspected the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Bangladesh and reported nothing about inadequate firefighting equipment or lack of emergency exits. Four months later, a fire broke out and 21 workers died. The third floor emergency exit was padlocked. Was this padlock removed for the inspection by H&M or did the company look the other way?

H&M was, however, the only brand at Garib & Garib that compensated the injured workers and the families of deceased workers. In addition, on June 21, 2012, H&M, along with 14 other brands including Tesco, Gap and Levi Strauss sent a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urging an annual review of minimum wage taking into account inflation and the consumer price index.

But if wages rise than so do prices, a situation the Bangladesh garment industry is trying desperately to avoid by underpricing its nearest competitors. T-shirts from Bangladesh are often half the price of its nearest competitor, China, and sweaters are 17 percent cheaper than those from Vietnam, its biggest competitor.

I’m more confused than ever. While H&M does inspect factories, safety violations persist. And though H&M compensated victims of the Garib & Garib fire, and is pushing for higher wages, they still offer cheap clothing from Bangladesh where the lowest prices rule.

I could research other brands, but honestly, I’m frustrated by all the negative information I’m uncovering. Instead, I take a look at a sweatshop-free shopping site: . Hopefully, this will give me some good insight on how and where to shop with a conscience.

The first site I check out is where I’m dismayed to find that this business, which features clothing made in the U.S. and Canada by unionized workers, is in trouble. “The rough economy and a year and a half of illness has left Justice in a state of stasis…” Still, they are offering in-stock items for sale. Eager to help, I search for jeans but discover there is no kids’ clothing at all.

Next, I go to which again, sells only men and women’s clothing. A long-time fan of recycled garments, I click on the recycled line and am smitten with a sweatshirt jacket and Tesa sweater. Ooops! I’m supposed to be looking for Ian. I add the site to my favorites and continue my quest.

On, my eyes light up when I see a colorful scarf and handbag. I really want to explore this site but manage to peel myself away, after adding it to my favorites.

Finally, a site that may have jeans for Ian… But this site is devoted to babies and toddlers.

My eyes are burning and I’m frustrated. I am starting to wonder if ethically-made jeans for kids exist. I give up, for now, and head to Value Village for a second-hand pair of jeans for Ian. Since my kids were born, when money was tight, I’ve been buying used clothes in good condition for them. It’s not a perfect solution; it doesn’t support fair trade, but it doesn’t support sweatshops either. And it will make my daughter happy to see Ian in jeans that cover his socks.






About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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