Fashion is what humans decide to wear on their bodies to enhance attractiveness and communicate identity and message to others. As a psychology professor and a person who is attracted to style, I think about and discuss our fashion industry and habits quite often. There are so many angles to discuss, but one of the most overlooked issues is what we pay people who make our clothes - and why.
Fashion in the Western world is certainly not a labor focused industry. In fact, most people forget it is even an industry. It is a set of concepts and practices that tends to be very strongly focused on the superficial and celebrity. We hear about these megastar fashion designers like Vera Wang, and Michael Kors. We see celebrities like Anya Ayoung Chee created by reality shows. Certainly, these people are talented. But once we see them, and more importantly their clothes in stores, they are not the people making what you wear.
Who are the people making what you wear? Do you want to know? Are you sure? What you will find upon investigating is that the "cheap" t-shirt you bought was not cheap at all. It is often paid for by oppression. Even the young model you saw wearing it is often in debt to exploitative managers. See, when we say we are consumers we often don't realize what that really means in practice. We don't just consume products. We consume other bodies.
Our desire for increasingly fast consumption of "fashion" has created a phenomenon called "fast fashion". Know this: If you want to grow something fast with a high profit margin for a select few, you are exploiting workers. There is no other way. Now, I did not say there is no other way to grow, or make a lot of money. If you are truly treating people who labor and help funnel all that money to the top, your growth rate is by necessity slower. You don't have as much to "reinvest". So, when I see something spread quickly and make billions, I am not initially impressed. I am initially suspicious.
All the while we use fashion to demonstrate our superior status, we continue to denigrate and exploit the labor that makes it. One of the reasons I hate wearing suits is the reason they were created in the first place - as a signal that one did not have to do physical labor. I received an award a few weeks ago, and people were so surprised that afterward I took off my jacket and helped them break down all the tables. This should be expected, not surprising or exalted. So many are indoctrinated subtly to view labor as something "beneath". It is not "beneath" or "above" anyone. It is just what needs to be done. We internally justify impossibly low wages for "laborers" so we can sell ourselves a narrative that they are "less". Less important, less valuable. Let's test that theory. Let's have all physical laborers strike at once. See if the entire world doesn't grind to a halt.
We even justify paying prisoners $1.05 - $1.80 a day to make clothes for a private company, padding their profit margin, because "these people are criminals". Stop and think about that. Someone commits a crime, therefore we the people give a private company license to use them as slave labor. Yes, $1.05 or $1.80 a day is slavery in America. But good for us, right? We get cheap shirts AND a feeling of self righteousness. BOGO! If we think this is appropriate, I need us to take a look in the mirror.
I can tell you that whether Symbiotic Swag succeeds or not our end game is to control our means of production with a more cooperative model. We don't need to be billionaires. Truly, we don't need to be millionaires. What if we made $250K a year as owners of an international fashion co-op? That is not a failure. But we have been conditioned to think of that as "lackluster".
We know that by making a commitment to quality, and to helping our community, we are compromising our profits. We could sell cheap t-shirts, and help no one, and make a "killing". But just look at that turn of phrase. A "killing". I remember talking to a hedge fund manager a while back about a project I wanted to get funded. He told me I would have trouble because I had no skin in the game. That phrase stuck with me. I looked down at my skin. I thought about the fact that my skin and others' skin would be doing the labor, while he gave money. He didn't mean that skin. That skin was called "human capital". He called money "skin".
That is how we have come to view things. Labor is a nuisance that you have to begrudgingly pay. They keep wanting a decent place to live, and a method of transportation, and a way to subsist after their bodies are so broken they can't work anymore. Entitled people, we say. We pity these poor job creators, and worship superstar designers. We obsess over super models. In the final analysis, we don't really have a super model, do we? The way this whole thing is set up needs to change. We have to build the way we treat others into our costs, and the way we do business. We have to end the zero sum philosophy of commerce.
We are not talking about pure communism, or socialism. This is not about control. This is about cooperation and mutualism. Truly, we are not the only company trying to do that. We are joining, in every way we can at every step of the way, a movement of many seeking to achieve this transformation.
Kwame M. Brown