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A Tale of Two T-shirts, Green on a Budget

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Fair Trade & Social Justice page and our Clothes For a Change page.

This is a tale of two T-shirts, one from the popular mall store Forever 21, and one from Green America Green Business Network member Blue Canoe. The shirts are both blue and made of 100-percent cotton. They both have cap sleeves, slight tapering at the waist, and come in sizes XS-L. But that's where the similarity ends.

The Forever 21 shirt costs $8.80. The Blue Canoe shirt, $45.95. Which to choose?

"No contest," says just about any budget-conscious shopper in America. "The Forever 21 shirt, hands down."

Even for those who understand that there's more to both shirts than meets the eye, the price difference raises the question that many people have asked us over the years: If there's a premium on green goods, how can one buy green on a budget?

Taking Responsibility -- or Not

It's true that people may pay a premium for green goods and services, but it's not because green companies are trying to earn a larger profit. The fact is, no matter how successful a green business becomes and how much of a cost advantage that company offers due to economies of scale, it'll never match the low, low prices of a conventional corporation like Forever 21 for one simple reason: Truly green businesses pay for external social and environmental costs that corporations are content to ignore-and foist on the communities in which they do business. To illustrate, let's return to our two T-shirts.

The Forever 21 shirt likely has ties to sweatshop labor. In 2001, the company moved most of its manufacturing to Asia after a lawsuit was filed that year alleging sweatshop conditions in its US factories. And in 2012, Forever 21 was one of several being investigated by the US Department of Labor (DOL) for wage and overtime violations in its remaining US facilities in Los Angeles. In March of this year, the DOL issued a subpoena demanding that Forever 21 release records of its US workers' wages, work hours, and working conditions, after the company spent months refusing to comply with a DOL request stemming from the 2012 investigation.

Forever 21 has also been linked to overseas sweatshops by worker advocates, and it has refused to sign on to the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, even after the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse last April.

Forever 21 has refused to join retailers like Gap and even Walmart in committing to not buy cotton from Uzbekistan, where child labor in cotton fields is rampant.