Fast Fashion and the Prison Crisis

Grass sun connor -5478 copy.jpg

When a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh in the spring of 2013, I was at Princeton finishing my thesis on potential resolutions to the American prison crisis. I thought the two — labor exploitation in the fashion industry and a disastrous incarceration rate — were unrelated. I was wrong.

Over the second half of the 20th century, the United States outsourced many of the manufacturing jobs that sustained the middle class in pursuit of cheap labor to deliver lower prices on consumer goods. Today only two to three percent of the apparel worn in the U.S. is manufactured here, down from 50 percent in 1990.

This “race to the bottom” has come with repercussions. Escalating unemployment and poverty rates led to an increase in crime at the same time as the U.S. was introducing “tough on crime” policies. With a 700 percent increase in incarceration from 1970 to 2005, the U.S. now has about five percent of the world’s population, but almost 25 percent of its known prisoners — the highest incarceration rate in the world.

State and federal governments spend over $80 billion on incarceration annually. The indirect costs may be far greater as individuals and communities suffer the psychological and economic burden of incarceration. Poor, undereducated and minority urban men shoulder that weight disproportionately. This population faced an uphill battle finding living wage jobs before incarceration; finding one after may seem impossible. After years of incarceration, returning citizens often lack basic job skills. While stable employment is an important step towards reducing recidivism, over 50 percent of returning citizens are unemployed eight months after release. Not surprisingly, one in two end up back behind bars within three years of release.

Meanwhile, the wildly profitable fast fashion industry is fueled by cheap prices and ever-increasing consumption; overseas factories churn out poor quality garments designed to be worn only a few times. As explored in Livia Firth’s recent documentary The True Cost, in order to maintain low prices, the industry relies on exploitative working conditions. Since 2012, three of the worst tragedies in the garment industry have taken place; the factory collapse in Bangladesh killed over a thousand workers, bringing industry practices under public scrutiny. A May 2014 article in The Guardian linked genetically modified cotton to the suicides of more than 270,000 cotton farmers in India.

So where do we go from here? Addressing these challenges means thinking at a systemic level, which can be overwhelming. It’s also exciting; this is an opportunity for a radical shift in our approach to consumption. The shift to a meaningful connection with the material goods in our lives is not new (Patagonia® is just one of many examples). However, from Matthew Burnett at Maker’s Row to the great women at Rebel Nell, it is quietly building momentum.

If fast fashion is at one end of the spectrum, Lazlo is pushing to see how far we can possibly go in the other direction. We’re taking the most familiar items in a man’s wardrobe and approaching them with an entirely new set of expectations. We began with the iconic white crewneck t-shirt, and with each step in the manufacturing process considered the impact on local economies and the environment. The Heirloom Tee is made of the highest quality organic American cotton and backed with a lifetime guarantee.

Lazlo is setting up shop in Detroit, the heart of American manufacturing. When we found out that the Michigan Department of Corrections has set up a program to train and employ men in a prison garment factory, we recognized a mutually beneficial opportunity; Lazlo will be providing living-wage jobs for a marginalized population, and in return will be drawing on an experienced workforce to bring garment manufacturing back to the United States.

We see this as an opportunity to cement the role of sustainability and local production in our economic identity; it is the vital next step in the American legacy of innovation and quality manufacturing.

[First published on Huffington Post]

Christian Birky