Heather White is Keeping Fast Fashion in Check with Her Boots on the Ground

Written by Evan Coller, Social Venture Network, @SVNetwork

Photo credit Luigi Casentini

Photo credit Luigi Casentini

Another garment factory fire, this time at a Chinese-owned clothing factory in the town of Prato, Italy, has cost the lives of 7 workers trapped in a dormitory built onsite.

The New York Times reported this week that Prato is a town with one of the highest concentrations of Chinese immigrants in Italy, a town with more than 4,000 Chinese-owned businesses. Many of these immigrants are believed to be living in the city illegally, working for a network of wholesalers and workshops turning out cheap clothing for the export market as well as well-known retail chains.

SVN member Heather White has been doing extensive research on global working conditions and has spent two years focusing on the city of Prato. She happened to be in Prato at the time of the fire and reported on her experience.

“I originally came here on the weekend to scout fast fashion brands for an Al Jazeera show – and it just happened the fire had occurred Saturday night. I was at a special meeting of the Prato city council last night to address the fire and what can be done to prevent future disasters like this.”

In a recent study through the Harvard Center for Ethics, Heather states that dangerous working conditions for Chinese immigrants have been present for over a decade.

Our favorite U.S. brands are engaged in a new business model called Fast Fashion that was first pioneered by Chinese factory owners operating outside of Florence, Italy 10 years ago. Using illegal trafficked workers from China who had been snuck into the country (they paid $13,000 to scary middlemen called snakeheads who guided them step by step overland from Central China). Chinese factory owners would accept an order from local Italian garment firms and not stop production until the order was completed. Most factories employed 50 workers or less, which meant there were no shift replacements. Workers put in 30+ hours at a time and people literally died at their sewing machines…there’s a saying in Italy, “No one from China ever dies here.” Meaning if a Chinese worker dies in Italy, someone else immediately appears to take their identity papers and their name, and if they die, someone else appears, and so on.”

This vicious cycle isn’t unique to Italy. Extreme working conditions due to fast fashion and pressure from large American companies are a global issue. Recently, Heather has reported on the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 workers, the forced silence of working women in India and the unregulated use of student interns in China at Apple manufacturer Foxconn.

We can count on new technologies like Indigenous Design’s Fair Trace Tool and grassroots movements like Greenpeace’s new Detox campaign to keep the pressure on companies from the consumer side, but it’s encouraging to know that women like Heather White are traveling around the globe to hold companies to higher standard.

You can learn more about Heather in this interview with SVN. Look out for her upcoming film exposing global working conditions from her research in the field.