Documentary – Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags

November 9th, 2009

garamet districtNew York City – The Garment Worker
Photo by: Paul Lowry

I recently saw a new documentary on the American garment industry called, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.  It goes into how the fashion/garment industry got started in America with New York City being at the center of it all, and where it is today.

Dozens of people who were at one time or is still in the industry were interviewed.  Individuals who’s parents worked in the New York City Garment District in the early part of the last century, union workers,  entrepreneurs who started garment manufacturing companies and people who was recently pushed out of business or laid off for various reasons were featured.  Reasons includes smaller companies going public, the recently crashed economy and factories going overseas.  Its a historical piece that’s both fascinating and will force you to think about our individual and collective choices.

How does this relate to green living?

“In 1965, 95% of American clothing was made in the U.S.A.; by 2009, only 5% is manufactured here.”

Most of our clothing is not local and is being shipped in from overseas.  The carbon footprint couldn’t get much larger than that.

Where is our clothing coming from?

Most of us are familiar with sweatshop labor, but I guess I didn’t realize that so many of our clothing comes from places that still practice modern day slavery. Though I personally try to be mindful where my clothing comes from, its sometimes hard to pass up on a good deal.  The problem is, that $10 dress from any large discount retailer cost more than just $10 as pointed out in the Story of Stuff video.  Chatting with local designers in the Portland area, I learned just how difficult and costly it is to create just one garment.  Factors such as the cost of materials (especial organic), paying employees a fair living wage, rent, insurance, overhead and so many others makes it difficult to break even sometimes let alone turn over a profit. Just because some locally made items are being sold at high double or triple digit prices, doesn’t mean the brick and mortar stores, online shop owners, designers, seamstress, etc are living large.  Its a tough and many times thankless industry to be in.

What can we do?

That is a very good question and I am always open to ideas. I do know we have to change our shopping and consumption habits: buy less and buy local.   Is there anything else we as individuals can do to reverse this trend?

11 Responses to “Documentary – Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags”

  1. Wow, that statistic is quite startling! I don’t think I had really understood the magnitude of the problem either. I honestly haven’t bought a lot of clothing in the last few years, mainly because I’ve been traveling and trying to save money.

    I’m actually planning on updating my wardrobe this winter, so this is something that is quite sobering and reminds me how mindful to be. I know that the markups are huge for clothes made in sweatshops, but I understand that it would be more ethical to pay those organic/local/alternative designers instead… this is such a complex and deep reaching topic.

    Thanks for bringing it up Carla. Wow.
    .-= Nathalie Lussier´s last blog ..Dry Skin Brushing Helps Eliminate Toxins… and Cellulite? =-.

  2. Carla Rose says:

    @Nathalie – It is quite sobering to see and read those statistics. Its more than “just” fashion, its our environment, human rights and economy.

  3. its a very important and also very difficult and complex topic!
    I produce all my dresses in my own studio! somtimes with
    bigger orders with help from a local seamstress and of course
    with help from all my lovely interns.
    .-= Liv Lundelius´s last blog ..chi sing =-.

  4. gina says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on the documentary-I really wanted to see it, but I don’t have cable so I’m hoping it will make its way to Netflix eventually. Appreciate the link to Story of Stuff as well :)
    .-= gina´s last blog ..Quick Note- DIY Handbags or: What You’re Getting from Me for Christmas =-.

  5. WOW ! What a statistics i am not sure about that .

  6. I’ve actually visited many of these textile factories first hand. What we consider slavery is what they consider making a living. It’s all about perspective. Some of my wealthier friends consider sitting in a cubicle all day a form of slavery as well. In any case, Asia has built up a gigantic infrastructure for manufacturing that is unbelievable until you see it and it is hyper efficient. I don’t really see how the US can compete
    .-= Steve C @´s last blog ..Best Of On Entrepreneurship =-.

  7. “Some of my wealthier friends consider sitting in a cubicle all day a form of slavery as well”

    Except they have a choice. It’s not slavery and it’s an insult to slavery to call it that. I think your wealthier friends probably have never been to a 3rd world country and have no clue what life is like for someone who is really poor. :)

  8. Carla Rose says:

    @Steve – I understand what you’re saying, but your wealthy friends have a choice. If they don’t show up at work, its likely they wont starve. They have more options than a young woman with no education working for almost nothing a day.

  9. Carla Rose says:

    @Class Factotum – I totally agree with you there!

  10. Joseph Sanchez says:

    Sounds interesting, where can I find this documentary! I know my mother would love it!

  11. Carla Rose says:

    Joseph, it was an HBO Documentary Film that came out a couple months ago. It should be on Netflix now. I would check there.

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