Knowing where your clothes come from isn’t as easy as glancing at its tag. Sure, it might read “made in China” or “tumble dry low” but what does that really mean? I still can’t tell you how to properly “tumble dry low”, but I decided to look into the ethical story of my clothes. Why don’t brands tell you where your clothing is exactly produced, which factory, by whom? Why is there no tag that explains how far your clothing has travelled to be a part of your wardrobe, what is its own environmental footprint? If answers to these questions are so hard to find, do fashion corporations have something to hide?
Armed with these questions, a cellphone, and a laptop I set out to investigate the history of my outfit. This particular featured item is a staple to any wardrobe. On the West Coast of Canada, jeans are cool enough to last through the peak sunny moments of the day, but warm enough for evening beach fires. Definitely casual and genuinely worn out, my blue jeans have had a long life which began much before reaching my closet.
These pants came into my possession during English class a few years ago. A friend of mine was giving away some of her old clothes so I grabbed them (free jeans!). They don’t quiet fit right but I’ve persevered and found ways to keep them functional. The fact that I acquired these jeans using one of the golden environmental R’s (reduce, re-use, and recycle) always made me feel like I didn’t really need to look into the ethnical background of American Eagle. The company is a massive corporation and that led me to assume their production and distribution was probably whatever came cheapest – which is often extremely unethical. They operate more than 1,000 stores in the US, Canada, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, and the UK and also ship (from online) to 81 countries worldwide. I basically didn’t want to know how such a large corporation sourced, produced, and distributed their products and made such massive profits. Instead, I found comfort in the fact that I was saving the world one free re-used pair of jeans at a time. I was basically a real-life Re-Using Goddess.
When I did finally look into American Eagle’s ethical, social, and environmental standards I was actually pleasantly surprised. On their website it was extremely easy to find information. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the amount of information about their standards that I could find with one click. The section with all this information even had its own name: ‘AEO Better World’. They boldly state, “So you want to change the world? Good. So do we.” Looks like they were ready for this.
Their most interesting project under the AEO Better World model was their Supply Chain. This is how they source their products. It’s way more economically appealing (AKA cheaper) to have your products produced overseas if you are a large corporation. You can pay workers much less than what you would need to pay an employee in the USA. This is often exploited as there is usually very minimal surveillance of work environments and fair wages etc. The AEO Supply Chain is attempting to monitor this and create more humane working environments for their employees, no matter where they are located in the world.
None of these factories were created to solely service AE, instead they have taken them on as clients. This means the factories have their own pre-established working standards and environments for employees. Usually large clients likes American Eagle will turn a blind eye to inhumane working conditions as it can keep the prices even lower. This is where American Eagle is being more accountable. They state: “Before any new factory can begin working with us, we first conduct a pre-sourcing inspection of their facilities – if a factory cannot meet our standards, it is not approved for production.” As well, they continue to engage with the suppliers and monitor that they are still reaching the AEO “social compliance expectations”.
“Our goal is to create long-lasting, supportive relationships with our suppliers as we work collectively to improve conditions within the supply chain.”
Their “American Eagle Outfitters Vendor Code of Conduct”, which every factory supplier must agree to, is “based on universally-accepted human rights principles and the fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization.”
Parts of this include rules and regulations such as not using child labour, which should be a no-brainer but child labour is still used on a global scale today. AE’s increased interest in humane working conditions only began relatively recently (in 2010) and continues to grow.
AE’s Supply Chain gives me some hope, but a red flag definitely went up for me when thinking about the environmental footprint of shipping all these clothes back to the USA as well as other global distribution locations. When reading about AE’s environmental efforts it is clear they are sending the message that American Eagle is environmentally progressive but they haven’t quiet got there yet.
For instance, they state that “American Eagle Outfitters strictly prohibits the use of skins from endangered exotic animals in all products. We also prohibit the use of skins from nonendangered exotic animals if those animals have been slaughtered inhumanely.” This statement definitely leaves a whole lot of wiggle room. They can still slaughter animals and use them for clothing, they just have to prematurely kill them for personal gain in a way that isn’t inhumane.
Other environmental initiatives include working with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and a lot of initiatives in their offices. When you think of the environmental impact of massive factories powered by greenhouse gasses producing extreme quantities of products, it seems a bit redundant to highlight that “we’ve switched all of our stores, offices and distribution centers to recycled paper.”
Initiatives like this are definitely helpful, but most AE environmentally positive projects that are being developed for overseas production have not happened yet. For example, “by the end of 2017, American Eagle Outfitters’ goal is to achieve a 20% reduction below the 2012 baseline of 0.014 CO2e mt/square foot”. Whatever that means, it hasn’t happened yet and if politicians have taught me anything it’s that often things that start with “by the year _____” don’t usually happen.
One good thing, at AE factories, is that during production factories discharge treated water into the surrounding environment. The only thing is, water quality reports are submitted by manufacturers in their own supply chain. Sounds like it would be pretty easy to smudge a few numbers and make reports look better than they are. When quality reports are conducted they should always be done by an outside source to avoid any type of corruption of data.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by American Eagle’s growing efforts to keep their company socially conscious, especially since they are such a large corporation. I’m excited to see what new initiatives they may come up with, and I’ll check back in 2017 to see how their reduction plan might have panned out.
Next time you pick up a new pair of jeans or find yourself in a clothing store, try to find more information on the source of these products. Ask questions! If an employee doesn’t have the answer, the internet probably will. You can even interact directly with many large corporations through social media by tweeting directly at them or contacting them in a number of different ways. American Eagle’s twitter has already responded directly to five tweets today, and it’s not even noon!
Make a statement with what you wear, support brands you believe in, and ask questions! So many questions!
And remember, poppers, to see change, share change, be change. Much love xo.
Ethical: 8.5/10 Environmental: 4/10 Fashionable: 7/10