Joel Krupa and Sali El-Sadig, Alliance Against Modern Slavery
High fashion is an integral part of everyday life in the great cities of the industrialized world. Often clustered on prestigious roads, we find the high fashion boutiques in places like Bond Street in London, Fifth Avenue in New York, and Bloor Street in Toronto regularly topping the lists of the most expensive retail spaces in the world. Of course, items like the stitched $15,000 (USD) Hermes bag or the $1,700 Louis Vuitton scarf may raise a few eyebrows among even the deepest of pockets and will remain the strict purview of oligarchs and business moguls for years to come. However, fashion has recognized its influential position and has aggressively moved into the mainstream by targeting more budget-conscious consumers and, in the process, it has become truly international and cosmopolitan. Every year, millions of people around the world casually hand over thousands of dollars for name brands like Hugo Boss, Gucci, and Prada, and hand over many times more for less prestigious names like GAP and Nike. With the emergence of luxury-hungry markets like China and India, these trends show no signs of abating in the near future.
Few can dispute the careful cultivation of exclusivity that is implied in fashionable garments. Unsurprisingly, many of us would like to attain the prestige attached to these power brands, but, also unsurprisingly, few of us would like to bear the financial burden. This poses a problem long acknowledged in the fashion industry, as even the most ardent fashionista remains hard-pressed to refute the reasonable assertion that many of these clothiers produce, well, prohibitively over-priced goods.
Enter the counterfeit fashion market. The International Chamber of Commerce estimates that the practice of counterfeiting things like watches, perfumes, and pharmaceuticals is worth more than $350 billion dollars per year to the global economy. Of course, only a fraction of this vast sum (approximately 20%) is for luxury items, but it doesn’t take much for a fraction of $350 billion to become very large indeed. Some of the fault for this lies in the nature of copyright laws; for example, in the US functionality is often protected, whereas style or design are not – opening the door to a host of forgeries and gimmicky impersonations. But the more central reason is far more sinister. Organized crime is mounting a systematic campaign to push as many fake designed brands into consumer’s hands as possible – and it is working.
How does this link to slavery? Unfortunately, many of these counterfeits are created with cheapness as the central goal. Established fashion houses often make their goods in first world settings, creating employment under fair, equitable conditions – with, of course, some notable exceptions (the scandal surrounding the employment of Chinese workers in Ferragamo’s Italian manufacturing subcontractor plants comes readily to mind). Counterfeit goods do not benefit from the stricter social and environmental standards of Hugo Boss in Poland or Canali in Italy; instead, they are outsourced to cheaper labour markets like Vietnam and Bangladesh, where such standards are non-existent and companies can act with impunity. As we all know, the conditions in some of these places are abhorrent, dehumanizing, and wholly unconscionable.
Equally perniciously, the ostensibly innocent purveyors of the goods – be they in Florence, New York, or London – are more and more often trafficked persons, stuck in indentured servitude to crime bosses. They are forced to work in developed markets for low wages, creating a spiral of poverty and despair, and slave owners reap the ill-gotten rewards from buyers in the developed world that are looking for a cheap deal. So what should you do? Think twice when purchasing cheap goods being sold out of a blanket or a dodgy market. It is certainly a controversial idea, but perhaps we need to reframe high fashion and the like as an ethical issue, rather than solely a soulless pursuit of status and prestige.