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The True Cost of Cheap Clothing

ISSUE:  Spring 2014

As cotton has evolved into one crop among many for Mississippi Delta farmers, it remains a central force in the vast, tangled, global textiles market—​a market that includes producer/retailers like the United States, pure retail markets like the European Union, and the ligament between them: garment manufacturers like China and India, both of which also grow significant portions of the global cotton supply. This international supply chain is comparatively new. Through the mid-​twentieth century, more than half of American cotton was used in domestic mills and factories, where workers carded, combed, spun, and sewed the raw fiber into yarn, cloth, and garments. The next chapter of the US textile industry is familiar by now: The prospect of lower labor costs abroad and an efficient global transportation system encouraged companies to manufacture textiles and clothing elsewhere. In 1948, there were 1.3 million workers in the US textile-mill industry; by 2012, that number had fallen to 233,000.

Yet even as the creation of the finished product disappeared from the US economy, demand for American cotton in the global textile sector has only grown: Exports’ share of domestic cotton production has expanded from 32 percent in 1948 to 74 percent in 2012. About half of all American cotton goes to China, where massive, automated machinery spins and weaves it into bolts of cloth that are then sent to factories that assemble clothing. But wages in China have steadily risen over the past decade, and manufacturers, in the pursuit of lower costs and wider margins, have found cheaper labor elsewhere in South Asia.

Enter Bangladesh, a country whose garment exports have skyrocketed from a mere $6.4 million in 1983 to $21.5 billion in 2012. Bangladesh’s ready-​made garment (RMG) industry has been the sole force behind the country’s rapid industrialization, shifting its economy away from agriculture and toward manufacturing and drawing a rural population into the churning city of Dhaka. Most garment workers there face working conditions comparable to those of American sweatshops in the 1910s and have struggled to gain a minimum wage of $68 per month. After two weeks of saving every cent, a worker could afford the retail price of a Gap T-​shirt.

Demand for low prices on the consumer side leads retailers to seek low production costs, but the human cost only rises: In 2013, more than 1,100 garment workers died in Bangladeshi factories.

The Bangladesh RMG industry gets most of its cotton from India and Uzbekistan, countries that trail the US in terms of sheer cotton exports but whose proximity makes for cheaper and easier trade. But while the likelihood of an American farmer’s cotton ending up in Bangladesh is low, a piece of clothing made in a Bangladeshi factory has a one in four chance of ending up in the US and a 50 percent chance of ending up in the European Union. In other words, on the supply side, American cotton and Dhaka factories are cousins several steps removed. In terms of demand, the relationship between Western retailers—​and consumers—​and the RMG industry is more directly causal. Including the Pacific Ocean, 8,500 miles lie between Yazoo City and Dhaka—​but that distance vanishes between here and any local mall.

—Matthew MacFarland


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