Fast Fashion and the Prison Crisis: What Comes Next?

The Huffington Post, August 20, 2015, By Christian Birky

"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. ..."

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"Truly eye-opening."
Julie Kosin, Harpers Bazaar