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Lauren Lein on how supporting local designers can save lives around the world

Lauren Lein

Lauren Lein

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Recently, we all heard and read about the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. At first, news outlets reported “some” lives lost, vastly underplaying the tragedy. But as the days went by, we learned that more than 1,100 workers lost their lives. When I heard the news, my mind raced back to a story I’d heard just a few months ago, when a fire in a similar Bangladeshi garment factory claimed more than 100 lives.

I’ve been a fashion designer for most of my life, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the factory collapse and its innocent victims. These men and women lost their lives because they were unwillingly part of a huge issue in the fashion industry — one that we ALL bear some responsibility for. They were working under terrible conditions, without safety inspections or regard for human health. And for all of their hard work, they earned a grand total of $38 a month. Not a day — a month.

Now, as they have before, industry leaders are embracing proposed reforms. The safety accord proposed by the Bangladeshi workers, which went unsigned and ignored by the “big companies” when it was proposed two years ago, is now gaining support. But I’m skeptical. When was the last time we talked about the still-homeless in Haiti? Or discussed the parts of the 9th Ward that are still uninhabitable in New Orleans? Tomorrow’s headlines will make this story go away — unless we all decide to make a change in our own lives.

Here’s how you can help: When you’re adding to your wardrobe, hitting your favorite boutiques and department stores, if you see a cashmere sweater for $9.99, stop and think. That price tag means that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (or in this case, Bangladesh). Most of these cheap deals, sale items and markdowns come from sweatshop environments, where people are treated inhumanely — and, as we’ve seen recently, sometimes die as a result. No sale is worth this. If we as consumers push back and refuse to purchase these items, the industry will be forced to make a change.

So what should you buy instead? Chicago is home to hundreds of designers, pattern-makers, sewers and contractors, all of whom craft gorgeous merchandise that they make right here in our city. I’ve been a Chicago designer for 21 years, and I’m really passionate about our city’s fashion industry and its thriving community of garment workers. Best of all, they’re paid a fair wage and don’t endanger any lives in the process.

I am proud to represent this community as the president of the Apparel Industry Board Inc. (AIBI). As a delegate agency of the city of Chicago, we work to promote our local designers and manufacturers. Soon, we’re launching a new training center where designers will learn how to use the latest technology in pattern-making and production. And we run the Made in Chicago retail store at 16 W. Grand, where you can support local artists by purchasing their designs.

So the next time you’re out shopping, stop and look at labels — they should read, “Made in Chicago” or “Made in America.” Before you make a purchase, please think about the precious lives lost, and choose not to support inhumanity.

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