In summary

Eliminating sweatshops with SB 62 is crucial to level the playing field for fashion brands that know how to balance profits, people and the planet.

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By Susie Buell, Special to CalMatters

Susie T. Buell is the co-founder of the global lifestyle company Esprit de Corps. Since selling the company, Buell has devoted herself to philanthropy and politics, and continues to support climate solutions and programs that develop leadership among women and girls,

I co-founded the brand Esprit in the late 60s to make ready-to-wear clothing that gave women a way to express their individuality and joy. After seeing all the waste and pollution in the industry, I started pushing the idea of sustainable and ethical fashion. 

Esprit’s 1992 Ecollection, made with organic cotton, reclaimed materials and natural dyes, was decades before its time. We proved you could make a profit selling cool clothes and doing good for the world around you. 

Today, fashion is at a crossroads. Incredibly, ethical and sustainable apparel is a soon-to-be $8.25 billion global market. One of my granddaughters, a Gen Z-er, is part of a generation that overwhelmingly supports brands with sustainable principles. On the other hand, many brands are still churning out climate-destroying volumes of clothing using exploited labor, and it’s enabled by outdated policies right here in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has a key opportunity to side with a better future for the fashion industry and grow California’s economy with the Garment Worker Protection Act, Senate Bill 62, introduced by state Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Democrat from Los Angeles. 

For fashion to thrive in the years to come and for our planet to exist beyond my grandchildren’s lifetime, we need to give the next generation of responsible apparel brands the right environment to succeed in. I believe SB 62 is the right tool to get us there. 

California’s 46,000 garment makers are routinely underpaid, receiving $5.85 an hour on average (and some as low as $2.68 an hour) while working in cramped, dirty factories while making clothes for big global brands. The Garment Worker Protection Act offers a solution by ending the piece-rate system of pay, under which garment makers earn pennies per garment sewn, instead of the minimum wage.

It’s an arcane system that’s been in place since my earliest days in the fashion industry, and it needs to go. The bill also aims to hold brands accountable when factory wages dip below the legal minimum. This solves the problem at its root, as the low prices that brands pay to factories is what’s driving the sweatshop conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Minimum wages for garment workers are a matter of basic fairness, but they’re also a climate issue, too. Underpaying garment workers not only costs their communities and taxpayers hard-earned resources, it enables the fashion industry to make far more items than consumers need and the planet can endure. Fashion is responsible for 4% of global carbon emissions as a result of this overproduction. 

Eliminating sweatshops is also crucial to level the playing field for brands that know how to balance profits, people and the planet. There are more than 150 companies that endorse SB 62, many of which produce in California. They include L.A.’s Reformation, a sustainable fashion brand beloved by my granddaughter’s age group; All for Ramon, a Mexican-American-owned brand manufacturing elevated basics in Los Angeles; and Saitex, the world’s “cleanest denim factory,” and which brought 230 jobs to California after onshoring last year.

I see leadership amongst these companies for taking responsibility for garment workers, but I also see a massive opportunity for California as the global leader in responsibly-made apparel, a market growing faster than the traditional fashion industry. We should all recognize these brands and producers that support SB 62 for what they are: The future of fashion. 

California’s next generation of consumers and businesses have taken the idea of ethical and sustainable fashion further than I ever could have envisioned when I first started Esprit. Just imagine what they could do with smart policies like SB 62 and the forward-thinking support of the governor. 

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