Los Angeles Business Journal

Refashioning Apparel Business

COMMENTARY: Industry leaders must address poor, dangerous working conditions that arise from pressure to cut costs. By Bruce Dobb and Frances Harder Monday, June 3, 2013

Household expense

A 2010 study found that the average American household spends about 3.8 percent of its income on clothing – down considerably from the 10 percent to 15 percent of previous generations. Few other areas of consumer spending have witnessed such price drops.

Just as fair-trade coffee and organic vegetables have become commonplace for the grocery business to interject considerations other than price, so must working conditions, environmental issues and wage fairness become part of the retail clothing landscape. Price alone cannot remain our sole purchase consideration.

Ethical Fashion is a concerted effort to raise consumer awareness of working conditions and substandard wages paid to garment workers worldwide, and not just in Bangladesh, but here as well. Los Angeles is the low-wage capital of the nation – 28 percent of its labor force earns less than $25,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. The largest first-time employer for the working poor in Los Angeles County is still the garment industry.

On April 13, CBS news reported that a handful of some of the world’s largest retailers signed binding commitments pledging to conduct safety inspections, be more transparent about work conditions and pay for factory upgrades. It was decided that this is far cheaper than the cost of negative press and public outrage that would result from yet another disaster.

All of this is good news for L.A.’s Garment District. Many of our local young designers and manufacturers are too small to outsource their production. Much of their production still occurs here in downtown Los Angeles, up and down Central Avenue, where hundreds of independent cut-and-sew shops, cutters and finishing contractors service this vital industry. They can only hope to compete if there’s a level playing field.

Los Angeles is where fashion trends that sweep the world begin. It’s time we also became the mecca for a new call for accountability in the fashion world. It’s about more than which new trendy top is cheaper – it’s about karma as well.

Bruce Dobb is chief executive of Concerned Capital, a boutique investment house in downtown Los Angeles that helps businesses find government incentives. (American Apparel is among the firm’s clients.) Frances Harder is founder and president of Fashion Business Inc., a non-profit business assistance provider, and she is author of “Fashion for Profit,” a guide for fashion industry startups.

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