Maxine Bédat has long been a mover and shaker when it comes to the ethics of making clothing.
She was the co-founder of Zady, a retailer once hailed as the "Whole Foods of fashion," which laid the groundwork for a host of "ethical fashion" retailers that came after. Later, she started the New Standard Institute, an organization focused on connecting the fashion industry to better information about its environmental impact.
This week, Bédat released her latest endeavor: the book "Unraveled," which digs into the issues she's spent her entire career focusing on – how fashion impacts people and the planet – by following a pair of jeans from their beginnings on a farm to their end at a landfill. Along the way, she explores everything from the history of labor law to the United States's economic foundations in the slavery-fueled cotton trade, examining what's broken in our current fashion system and how it might be repaired.
"Being able to see all of these things together is important in terms of looking at solutions," Bédat tells Fashionista. "If we only zero in on one part of the supply chain, we can make choices with unintended consequences."
One part of a garment's journey that Bédat highlights and is often overlooked in discussions about the human impact of fashion production is its time in the warehouse where our e-commerce orders ship from. Bédat focuses specifically on Amazon warehouses, pointing out that Amazon is "the largest online clothing retailer" in the United States and describing the behemoth corporation as a precedent-setter for the future of retail. If Amazon managed to make its CEO the richest person in the world by relying on the kind of conditions where workers have so little time for bathroom breaks that they end up peeing in bottles, are intimidated out of forming unions and face constant surveillance, she argues, other companies are likely to follow suit.
"Not just in terms of the fashion industry, but in terms of the U.S. economy, that's where things are headed if we don't change them," says Bédat. "Amazon plays a much larger role in the world of fashion than we tend to think."
We hopped on the phone with Bédat to talk about the similarities between Amazon workers in the U.S. and garment workers in Bangladesh, why unionization matters and the role misogyny has played in shielding the fashion industry from proper scrutiny. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
You draw a striking parallel between working conditions in factories in Bangladesh and Amazon warehouses in the U.S. What ties those two together?
When I spoke to garment workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, I had this idea that they must be railing against the system in their minds as they work. Then I asked this garment worker what she thinks about when she's working; I came to understand that she's not really thinking — her mental process throughout all those hours is like, 'I just have to keep going, no mistakes. I just have to keep going, no mistakes.' When I asked Amazon workers the same question, I got a similar response: Your brain is not actively working, but you also don't have time to think.
Their jobs are not dissimilar in that they're being monitored all the time — except at Amazon, every movement, every second, it's monitored through machines. There's a discrepancy in living conditions between here and there, but the actual job and the dehumanizing nature of the job are very similar. There's also a common theme around unions: Amazon's anti-union efforts in the U.S. mirror what's happening in Bangladesh.
The book quotes Stuart Appelbaum, saying that when we talk about Amazon, we're talking about 'the future of work.' What does that mean?
As retail shifts online, you spend less time in stores, so the jobs that used to be in stores are now in getting the products to you via warehouses. Distribution has really taken off and become a significant part of our national economy. Amazon is an enormous company, so the CEOs of all the other companies are seeing that success and saying 'If I want to stay in business, this is what I have to replicate.'
I try to avoid words like 'exploitation,' but there's nothing else that one can say about that situation except that it is exploitative. It's getting the absolute most out of a person, and all of the wealth generated goes to the very top of the hierarchy.
You also describe Amazon as 'the infrastructure of commerce.' Can you unpack that?
It used to be that the infrastructure of commerce was driving to the stores and the advertising you might see in a magazine. But now you're not driving to a store. You're not even searching on Google — just searching within Amazon. And Amazon extends beyond Amazon.com, because other retailers also do their fulfillment through Amazon warehouses. Then there are other stores, like Shopbop, which are owned by Amazon. Amazon is really the infrastructure that moves retail. If nothing changes, our economy is going to look more and more like this.
Amazon is such a massive company that it can feel too big to change. What would it look like to move towards a less exploitative model?
We need to do a whole host of things, like redistributive taxation. As a society we need to ask: What is business for? The point of corporations when they started wasn't to maximize profit for shareholders — they were created as a democratic tool to pool resources.
As our economy has become more complicated, we need to go after corporate tax fraud and create a global corporate tax regime so corporations can't dodge taxes. But we also need stronger labor laws, so that things like what we saw Amazon do at their facility in Bessemer that was trying to unionize — like changing the traffic light speeds to stop organizers from being able to speak to Amazon employees — are regulated. Unions have been demonstrated to help increase wages for working-class people. We need to strengthen labor laws so they can fight for themselves.
The other part, which sounds boring but became incredibly clear to me, is industrial policy. China's growth has been because of active industrial policy. Industrial policy means that the government is actually thinking about — and has a plan and is incentivizing and investing in — sectors that we expect to grow. We need to be more thoughtful around industrial policy so we don't have an economy that's just a few extremely rich people and then otherwise completely exploitative jobs. Right now, we have people who are saying 'just shut it down' for environmental reasons and then the business community is like, 'but wait, we need jobs.' We need to wade into that murky middle area and really figure out the nuts and bolts of these things.
There's a fair bit in the book on the history of labor and unionization. Why do you think that's important for fashion people to understand?
It's cool that a lot of significant wins domestically in the labor movement started from garment workers, because it demonstrates how important the garment industry is. It's important both for the good and bad that it does in the world.
We built up these protections domestically, but then there were active efforts on behalf of the fashion industry to not have these protections included when we built up this globalized system. It's often framed like we're exporting jobs, and whatever country is taking from our workers. But that's an oversimplification. What's happening is workers are being pitted against other workers. That broader dynamic is critical to understand so that we can make organized labor successful. In order to do that, we need to have a global trade regime that doesn't incentivize bypassing countries that have strong labor protections.
Auditing and certification bodies are often held up as the way to make garment factories more fair, but you describe auditing as a "racket" in the book. So should these measures be totally thrown out?
First we have to understand the roots of why we have these audits. We developed this globalized world that's like the Wild West with no laws; then we were surprised in the '90s when Nike and other brands were found to have sweatshops. It was in response to those reports that this whole auditing regime got started.
We need to enforce a global trade regime that doesn't make it so the brands do the regulating themselves, when they're highly disincentivized to do that. We need to think of what the systemic solutions are, which would be government policy and enforcement. But in the absence of that, yes, things like audits are important, and we shouldn't throw them out, because we don't have the other thing that we need.
One of the things that you highlight in the book is how key fashion has been in some of these really big shifts in history, whether that's the development of the U.S. economy or the modernization of China. Why is that so significant? And if fashion was more widely understood as the powerful economic engine it is, what might change?
There have been so many times where I've spoken to people about fashion's impact on the planet and they're like, 'My wife really would be really interested in this; she loves fashion.' I think the fact that fashion's been able to go unchecked despite its enormous role in our economy and our society has something to do with misogyny. If we actually saw the enormous role it plays both in our lives and the global economy, there would be more scrutiny of the industry and more progress.
One argument that's often made about poor working conditions is that they provide a pathway out of poverty. How do you respond to that?
In a place like Bangladesh, life expectancy has increased tremendously, though how much of that can be attributed to the current fashion industry is hard to tell. But you can have development in a country and pay decent wages and still make a profit. LVMH's CEO was just named the richest person in the world; he eventually was beat by Jeff Bezos, another person who makes a bunch of his money from clothing. There's a point of wealth to which you do not need to add — there's no possible way to spend that money. I think that's one thing we could do so much better on.