In this op-ed, Susie Buell calls on Governor Newsom to take notice of an industry-changing bill that would end wage theft for garment workers in California.
I co-founded the clothing brand Esprit in the late 60s because there was a lack of interesting ready-to-wear fashion that provided women a way of expressing their individuality and joy. It wasn’t until I’d been in business for 10 years, after seeing all the waste and pollution involved in the industry, that I started pushing the idea of sustainable and ethical fashion. Esprit’s 1992 Ecollection, made with organic cotton, reclaimed materials, and natural dyes, was decades before its time. We proved you could make a profit selling cool clothing and doing good for the world around you.
Today, fashion is at a crossroads. Incredibly, ethical and sustainable apparel is expected to grow to $8.25 billion by 2023. One of my granddaughters, a Gen Z-er, is part of a generation that overwhelmingly supports brands with sustainable principles. On the other hand, fast fashion is bigger than ever. It’s churning out climate-destroying volumes of clothing using exploited labor, and it’s enabled by outdated policies right here in California.
Governor Gavin Newsom has a key opportunity to side with a better future for the fashion industry when the Garment Worker Protection Act, SB62, comes across his desk in a few weeks. For fashion to thrive in the years to come and for our planet to exist beyond my grandchildren’s lifetime, we need to give the next generation of responsible apparel brands the right environment to succeed. I believe SB62 is the right tool to get us there.
In its early days, Esprit pushed the concepts of buying better and buying less and warned against the perils of overconsumption. What I realize now in hindsight is that good intentions and careful buying practices have to be combined with smart policies if we ever hope to transform the fashion industry. I support the Garment Worker Protection Act because I believe it will help the industry slow down to a sane, sustainable pace and create better, fairer jobs.
The Garment Worker Protection Act works by ending the piece-rate system of pay, under which garment makers earn pennies per garment sewn, instead of the minimum wage. It’s an arcane system that’s been in place since my earliest days in the fashion industry, and it needs to go. The bill also aims to hold brands accountable when factory wages dip below the legal minimum. This would solve the state’s sweatshop problem at its root, as it’s the low prices that brands pay to factories that drive the wage theft, according to the U.S. Department of Labor investigations.
California’s 46,000 garment makers, mostly women of color, are routinely underpaid, receiving as little as $3 and about $5.85 an hour on average for their work, often in cramped, dirty factories, making clothes for big global brands. When Esprit established an Eco desk to monitor factories in other countries, I couldn’t have imagined that California would become a place with such abysmal working conditions.
Fair wages are a matter of racial and economic justice, but they’re a climate issue, too. Underpaying the women who make our clothes not only costs their communities and taxpayers hard-earned resources. It enables the fashion industry to make far more items than consumers need and the planet can endure. Fashion is now responsible for more than 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, about 4% of the global total, according to McKinsey, as a result of this overproduction. It’s tasked with cutting its carbon output by half within a decade, a goal it won’t reach without fundamental changes starting now.
Eliminating sweatshops is also crucial to level the playing field for a new generation of brands that know, as Esprit did, how to balance profits, the planet, and people. There are more than 150 apparel companies and manufacturers that endorse the bill, and most of which are headquartered in California or produce here. They include brands that use sustainable materials like Eileen Fisher and Mara Hoffman as well as California-based Reformation, one of the fastest-growing sustainable brands and that makes clothes beloved by my grandchildren’s age group. All for Ramon, a small business owned by Mexican-American sisters, ethically dyes and manufactures their elevated basics in Los Angeles. Saitex, a newcomer to California known as the world’s “cleanest” denim mills, which has produced for Madewell and other global giants, is also an endorser. I see leadership amongst these companies as they take on increased responsibility for their garment workers. But I also see a massive opportunity for California, as it could take ownership of the booming market in ethical and sustainable fashion.
The Governor of California should take notice of this more responsible fashion industry, the one I first envisioned decades ago, and the one my grandchildren’s generation and this new generation of businesses have grown and nurtured and taken as far as they can on their own. Now, they need the support of the Governor.