Halloween is a money-maker. Though the holiday's got nothing on Christmas, the 157 million Halloween-celebrating Americans will likely spend $6.9 billion on their festivities this year, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reports.
Costumes are, of course, one of the biggest sources of revenue. People are expected to spend $1.2 billion on costuming the grown-ups, $950 million on the kiddies and $350 million on the pets (holla!).
But if we're going to be real, our 2015 sexy minion, pizza rat and Donald Trump outfits will all likely end up in the trash or a donation bin eventually; costumes come cheap enough that many people throw them out sans guilt. The average consumer spends "an average of $27.33 on costumes for the whole family," the NRF reports.
That got us thinking: Where are these costumes actually coming from?
We've heard from John Oliver and the New York Times that we should be wary of dirt cheap clothing and conscious of the human rights no-nos associated with "fast fashion" -- an industry that provides in-demand designs with a sense of whiplash urgency and a big-box store price.
It's reasonable to assume that many mass-produced costumes come from factories, but the rest of the details -- who made them and, more importantly, how well they were treated in the workplace and compensated for their work -- are harder to track down.
Ilana Winterstein, director of outreach and communications at Labour Behind The Label, said this is often the case.
"Unfortunately there is a real lack of transparency in the industry, which is one of the big issues we campaign on," Winterstein told MTV News. "It is this lack of transparency which allows human rights abuses to continue unchecked and makes it very difficult to trace an item of clothing back to a particular factory or for consumers to know the working conditions of the garment workers making the clothes."
Without pointing to any specific company, Winterstein said there are "systemic human rights abuses" throughout much of the garment industry. Conditions may include wages far below the poverty line, 10 to 14 hour days (which can increase to 18 hours during peak seasons) without overtime pay, forced overtime, harassment, verbal and physical abuse, unsafe facilities with limited access to water and restrooms and a lack of union rights.
To ensure that garments are produced ethically, "Brands need to commit to working with factory owners and engaging with workers through local trade unions to ensure their voices and concerns are being heard," Winterstein said. "They need to use independent local auditors who can check the safety and conditions of a factory, who can speak to the workers in their own language and who are truly independent. Some brands are doing more than others to combat these issues in their supply chains, but no major brand is doing enough."
While there is some legislation in place -- like the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 -- that require many companies to disclose their policies toward human trafficking as well as human rights violations in their supply chains, these are far from perfect, and don't address the widespread problem.
"The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act does not mandate that businesses implement new measures to ensure that their product supply chains are free from human trafficking and slavery. Instead, the law only requires that covered businesses make the required disclosures -- even if they do little or nothing at all to safeguard their supply chains," California Department of Justice Attorney General Kamala D. Harris writes in the act's resource guide. "Companies subject to the Act must therefore disclose particular information within each disclosure category, and the Act offers companies discretion in how to do so."
Even if companies say they have methods of assessing the risks of human rights violations, there's nothing forcing them to be up-front about where these costumes are coming from. You can't just google your way to the person who made your costume to make sure they were paid a fair wage and treated right.
Barbara Briggs, associate director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, said companies have the right not to disclose where their products are coming from -- they can argue it's a "business secret" -- but a survey of working conditions abroad suggests workers' rights could potentially be violated.
"We don’t have any right to universal information on working conditions," she said. "But asking that question is really a powerful thing to do."
Costume importers have factories in various countries, but data collected by American University in the late 90s showed that, at least at the time, the top import country for "festive, carnival or other entertainment articles (excluding for Christmas)" by a huge margin (78 to 67 percent) was China, with Mexico, Taiwan, U.K., Hong Kong also in the top five. More recent data from the from the Department of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel show that for clothing in general, China remains the top import country, followed by Vietnam and Bangladesh.
"Workers in China or Vietnam don’t have right to independent organizations, unions or free speech," Briggs said. "In Bangledesh workers are paid far below livable wages. These are things [the United States] fought for at the beginning of the century, but there’s still a long way to go."
The kinds of violations workers face could be things like human trafficking, Briggs said, but other right outlined in the International Declaration of Human Rights -- like the right to unionize -- are often violated as well. In fact, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations says that those restrictions on worker's rights (and the low prices that often accompany them) are part of the reason various industries go abroad to find manufacturers.
Ultimately, Briggs said buying garments from "fast fashion" outlets -- especially during "super seasonal industries" like mass-produced Halloween costumes -- makes it likely that you're buying into sweatshop labor.
"It’s our sense these days when you buy garments, you are virtually guaranteed that you’re wearing a sweatshop on your back," Briggs said.
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