The Better of Two Evils: The Obligated Paradox in Outsourcing Textile Production
The continual outsourcing of textile production has stretched capitalism’s façade so thin that it has become transparent, and leaves the moral majority to pick between the better of two evils. This only benefits the company, rarely the consumer, and furthermore, it is probable that the ownership higher up in the company itself receives the majority of what is gained from outsourcing.
This situation leaves the consumer with three choices. First, the consumer can knowingly opt out of buying any products of the company that outsources production by finding the few companies that do not outsource. The consumer can choose the opposite, continue to knowingly buy outsourced products and look the other way, with a slight possibility of changing buying habits. Then last, of course, the consumer can continue to purchase outsourced products with no knowledge of the ethical context of outsourcing production.
Activism or awareness is not implied. One can acknowledge both of those while still purchasing the products, and this is often the case. I find myself in the second bunch of consumers, because I like the style and the cultural basis of brands with which I grew up. However, awareness is crucial, and it is by refining the second group that we can bring the majority to see through the eyes of the first group. To articulate this, I have chosen a pair of Vans jeans that I own, to follow the jeans’ production from beginning to end, while also examining the ecological and ethical concerns of today’s most popular means of morality in production.
“Elements” of Production
In the beginning of these pants, man created cotton, polyester, and elastane. Today, pure denim is dwindling, and the industry is seeing an incline of fusing cotton weave with synthetic fabrics for flexibility. These new textiles also present marketability.
Take the 1980s for example: spandex, tracksuits, and wild colors were not just a new “style,” but they were new options for manufacturers and designers to explore. So Vans probably marketed these jeans as flexible, moisture resistant, and durable because that is what the new textile and production process provided. These pants in particular are 58 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester, and two percent elastane. All of these materials are recyclable, but not all of them are entirely pure in their production.
Cotton, of course, comes from a plant. The material itself is produced from a boll that surrounds a seed in a protective capsule, and that material is comprised mostly of cellulose. Cotton is, in simple terms, a giant chain of linked glucose units that allow for malleability in the material. Cotton fragments have been found to date back to 5000 B.C.E. (Crawford, R. L. , Lignin biodegradation and transformation). Ironically, America is the number one exporter of cotton. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that America will export 17.1 million bails in 2012 and 2013.
Next is the other half of the jeans, polyester. This is the result of manipulating acid and alcohols to create a large repeating molecule called a polymer. Air, coal, water, and petroleum provide the energy needed for the process. The E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Co. developed the technique in 1926, lead by scientist W.H. Carothers, and their creation is commonly known as nylon. However, manufacturing did not take off until 1940s when Du Pont started making nylon for women’s stockings, and later found use for it in the applications of war commodities. Manufacturing this entails a process called solution dry spinning. Simply explained, a catalyst for the reaction, an acidic compound, reacts in a controlled, heated container and then is extracted. Alcohol is then added to the extraction to create the repeating polymer, which is then strung out from a liquid-like state and dried. After the rapid drying process, it is wound into a spool and ready for production. The invention was widely accepted due to the substance’s strength, elasticity, dye ability, and moisture resistance. This opened the doors to further refine textile technologies for other applications.
One of those further refinements in the technology led to the creation of elastane. Most know it by its street name, Spandex. Elastane constitutes 2 percent of the denim artifact in review, and its role in the function of the jeans is to add further elasticity to the material. W.H. Carothers started early research that British chemists then continued through their own research in Calico Printers Association, Ltd. Laboratories. Their research resulted in Terylene, which DuPont purchased the rights to in 1946. This product requires a few different chemicals for production, but the idea to create a strong, repeating, and malleable textile is the same. Melt extrusion, reaction spinning, solution dry spinning, and solution wet spinning are four different methods to produce this product. Solution dry spinning accounts for over 94 percent the world’s spandex fiber production. Two types of pre-polymers are created to react with one another; in science language “the hydroxyl groups on the magroglycol react with the icosyanates,” which basically means that this reaction is what makes both of the pre-polymers develop a hybrid, so to speak, that connects one molecule to another. The material is very finicky to light and other contaminates, so stabilizers are added, and “all of the stabilizers that are added to the spandex fibers are designed to be resistant to solvent exposure since this could have a damaging effect on the fiber”.
This is the simple process of how the elements of my Vans jeans were made. . . .
Ecological and Ethical Concern for Production
Now, with advancement in textile technology, arises new concern for waste management, production management, and ethical management. Where are these new textiles being made? Who is making them? Can these new materials be recycled into new products, and if so, how much of them is converted after their original use? Most importantly, is this current model of production socially, environmentally, and economically efficient for both the producer and consumer?
Let’s stay positive and look at the upside first. Waste management is reasonably efficient in the textile industry. The good news is that all of these textiles can be recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, textiles accounted for just over 5 percent of the total amount of Municipal Solid Waste, which is equivalent to 13 million tons of waste. Of that 13 million tons, 14 percent was recovered or reprocessed into clothing and footwear, and 17 percent was processed into sheets and pillow cases. The recovery rate for all textiles was 15 percent in 2010, translating into 2 million tons.
However, the production of polyester requires petro-chemicals, which are non-renewable and can create a dangerous work environment. They are heated by non-renewable energy sources for extensive periods of time while giving off vapor compounds from the acidic concoctions, often in an ill-designed work environment that does not properly ventilate these gases. The All India Artisans and Craft workers Welfare Association (AIACA) documented the health of 80 workers at a textile mill in India in a study and reported that “the fact that only five workers had what is considered to be a normal lung function points to the most prevalent and severe hazard in the present industry”.
It is interesting to note that, of the workers studied, sex was not examined. However, organizations are coming forth to fund more specific research such as this to inform the consumer base, and these are the same organizations that are pushing to refine waste management processes and to make production more eco-friendly. Anokhi, a mill town in India, has a system in place to refine the waters used for dye and textile production that separates the chemical “sludge” from the water, then refines it through a series of carbon filters and reverse osmosis, leaving water clean enough to dispose into the environment. The AIACA is also studying water treatment, but there is no precedence to enforce proper water treatment, so the same cannot be said for other plants. It is leading by example though. Now what to do with the sludge? Well, the study even seemed unsure, quoting it as “presumably [going] to a secure landfill”. So one could only imagine what is really done with the sludge in places where mismanagement is abundant. Also, if this is the case for mills that dye, then it is viable that polyester production is congruent to that idea too.
Ethicality of Location
Now for the negative aspects. The large problem with the textile industry does not sit within the means of its production, but rather, in the location of the production. India is the second largest exporter of textiles next to China, and for synthetic textiles India is fifth. This particular study will follow India’s statistics, because the jeans under analysis were made there.
The idea is that, in outsourcing production, producers will drive down production costs, and the company will be able to spread that savings to benefit the company and the consumer. Child labor was the first classic trademark of outsourced production, but over the past few decades it has seen a slight decline, and the employment of women in these subservient jobs in textile factories has taken the spotlight. It is the Third World country’s social structure that allows for unequal pay, and consequently benefits the company that is hiring women for low pay.
Capitalist Ethic in Light of the Consumer
The consumer has been exposed to these social injustices in the textile industry and deals with it in one of three ways. First, people look the other way and forget about it: the blind consumer. Second, people are aware of it and try to change their consumer behavior by supporting second hand stores or ethically-produced textiles: the perceptual consumer. The last group is the small, radical group that continues to spread awareness on the issue while drastically changing their consumer behavior: the active consumer. The companies respond in a distorted, utilitarian sort of way to the social injustices of textile production by claiming that this lower production cost will provide industry in an area where industry did not exist previously. So by extension of that logic, sweatshops are a better economic alternative than war, drugs, and sex trafficking, which assumes these issues have always been prominent in these places before the arrival of westernization. So not only does outsourcing help lower consumer cost and build the company’s stock up, but it also supposedly creates the light at the end of the capitalist tunnel, which is ultimately modernization.
The skeptic would look at this reasoning as a poor excuse for fast economic gain at the expense of the consumer’s clouded perception of the company’s image. It could easily be to escape the EPA or other government regulations such as equal pay, workers’ rights, and other industrial taxation. Additionally, the media is making it known that shipping these outsourced products is becoming expensive and economically illogical. CNN reports that shipping costs are on the rise and global supply chains are showing weak links. According to IHS Global Insight, shipping costs have risen 71 percent in the last four years, meaning it is more expensive for the executives to fly to these remote production sites, create transportation to and from these sites, and then float them across the pond to hit the shelves. The thought that global supply chains are weakening is often overlooked, but natural disasters have proven to hinder shipping enough to make these companies rethink the production approach. These disasters temporarily leave factories without the proper production supplies and the shelves empty for the consumers (Tseng, Nin-Hai, CNN.com)
It has been established thus far that, economically speaking, textile production is outsourced to reduce consumer costs and build up economy abroad. The latter would disagree with the social injustice this brings about and wants change because outsourcing is starting to become economically and socially superfluous. The most positive aspect of this is that textiles are being recycled at an increasing rate every year but these are still exported for reprocessing according to the EPA’s website. Next it is important to fully look at the economic implications of supporting a company that outsources, or in this case, what it means to support Vans by purchasing their jeans.
The ethical management of outsourced production is greatly flawed because it hides under the false identity of modernization. These companies have no regard for following the same moral legislative conduct as their home country. Run-down nations have a direct correlation to warfare, which usually means that the people find themselves in a legislative and cultural limbo. The nation’s condition is the foot-in-the-door technique for a company to take advantage of social distress by appealing to whatever military or political party is in power. Just as in the days of African slavery, the political or social elite in less developed nations sold the rest of their people down the river so to speak. In the case of India, it is the male hierarchy that benefits from a company outsourcing, because they get all of the supervisor positions while women and children get the production jobs at a much lower rate of pay. Not to mention there is no legislation that protects the length of the work day, proper breaks, lunch, or requires on-site medical care. Taking advantage of low production cost and ignoring environmental impacts are not characteristics of modernization, and outsourcing production is not the light at the end of the tunnel for Third World countries to become modernized.
The Real Light at the End of the Tunnel
But yet the company will say that these negative aspects is part of the process. These people had nothing before, but now they have jobs and their country is bringing in money to build its infrastructure. That sounds great, but from a historical standpoint, this is the second time that “westernization” has ravaged India, except this time it’s not the British. Perhaps the same state companies are trying to bail them out now. A real sign of modern “progress” that the Indians are making comes from unionizing. They are banding together to establish common workers’ rights in the workplace using pamphlets, rallies, protests, and petitions as forms of activism. It is not irony that it is mostly women initiating the activism either. The consumer’s fogged perception has led them to support sexism and loss of rights in the workplace while the nation is robbed of industry and a middle class.
A second sign of positive modernization comes from foundations that are conducting studies on textile production, like Switchasia and the India Brand and Equity Foundation. Switchasia has provided significant sources for the research in this paper, and it is exactly that which accomplishes their goal. They “seek to promote the production and consumption of eco-friendly textiles and improve employment and working conditions of artisans”. Their role is to encourage policy research on environmental and health issues, establish models of eco-friendly textile mills, and create models of low cost technology for effluent treatment. The India Brand and Equity Foundation (IBEF) is a trust established by the Ministry of Commerce in association with the Confederation of India Industry. Its “primary objective is to promote and create international awareness of the made in India label and markets overseas and to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge of Indian products and services”.
Then there are the less professional groups, such as Adbusters and the Yes Men, participating in social activism. Their efficiency in exposing the corporate cover-ups is uncanny. Yes Men posed as a public representative for Dow Chemicals after the Bhopal gas catastrophe in India on BBC. The undercover individual gave a very apologetic and sincere statement about the people and the environment that had been ruined, stating that Dow was going to do something out of the ordinary in the corporate world and take full responsibility, reimbursing the employees fully for the incident and providing for their well being after the incident.
One doesn’t have to be a teenager or a hippy to find the humor in this, and it is that knowledge that is a driving force for awareness. Adbusters have a similar function but have evolved over time to go even as far as promoting environmentally friendly products on their website, like Blackspot shoes, which are made from 100 percent recycled material and made in America. With catchy tag lines such as, “It’s all about open source. Corporate Capitalism gets the boot one pair at a time,” it is evident that capitalist tactics used in advertising to a pure consumer basis can also be utilized to attract an active consumer basis. So not only does the site connect the consumer with an immediate alternative that is wholesome but it also gives insight into activist activities and other events going on in the progressive world. These are the types of steps that can quickly connect the consumer to an environmentally-based ideology and create a way to attribute consumer action to social and environmental consequences, which will reverse the blind, detached, and product-minded consumer.
Revising the Consumer Detachment Ideology
Capitalism and consumerism have produced a model that disregards the environment and ethics entirely. The drive to make money drowns out the evaluation of a product’s necessity, leading to a gross overproduction in many different industries. When the industry does not consider a product’s efficiency, safety, and reliability, the consumer also tends to detach him/herself from considering such things. Monkey see monkey do, especially when that monkey is handing you the bananas. Mass production has run its non-regulated course, and it may now have to take a detour. The people are in an age of enlightenment so to speak; they are now waking up out of the consuming slumber because their own consuming created the annoying sounds that woke them up in the first place: consequence. The environmental impact is that consequence, and it has been because of the eco-friendly ideology that people have awoken from their detachment. With this eco-movement piggybacks other issues such as the socio-ethical consequences of consumerism and capitalism. This exposure to only one facet of the issue creates a web of understanding. The environmental change is more necessary to start from because understanding one’s affiliation with the environment will cultivate the understanding of other issues that are at stake as a consequence. People are beginning to understand that they too attribute to the problem, thus erasing their detachment. As aforementioned, sites like Adbusters give the consumer a starting point that spider-webs into an entire understanding.
What the next ideological age is calling for is connection with the environment. Civil Rights and equality have been established in the last century, and now the people are connecting that abroad. This connection which is why manufacturing and economics will provide a revolutionary context for the people to reorganize their perception. Proper production, efficiency, and ethicality will be the new standard for capitalist intent, because this is the first time in history where the people are realizing their impact on their environment both socially and ecologically. This will come about through personal cultivation: does the individual consider himself or herself a blind, perceptual, or active consumer?
On the other end of the stick, those suffering from the downside of production politics are organizing amongst themselves for social and workers’ rights reform. This unionization is a platform for reform, granted the opportunity might not have presented itself without western capitalist endeavors. Regardless of origin, it is happening and that alone is positive progression. Hopefully the next phase will be to accomplish this progression without a company first taking advantage of the given country. Americans are losing a middle class, and they are beginning to notice that it is because the middle class opportunity is currently out for lunch. With shipping costs and labor wages on the rise in light of a threatened global supply chain, the working class is beginning to see that even milking economic outsourcing is becoming an expired dairy product, and for all parties involved, it stinks.