Carcel Produces Fashion With Prison Labor: Exploitation or Ethical Business Model?

Carcel Produces Fashion With Prison Labor: Exploitation or Ethical Business Model?

A friend sent me an ad from the Danish brand Carcel promoting that their silk was made by women in the prison of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t parody. I looked it up, and they’re serious in their assertion that prison-made clothing is not only ethical, but an improvement to the fashion supply chain.

The brand claims that they’re providing these women a chance to earn a wage and job training while in prison. They work with prisons across the developing world, and tout their model as a sustainable alternative to other garment supply chains because the prisoners freely choose employment, are paid a fair wage, and can learn a trade. However, they’re still profiting off incarceration, following in the footsteps of  problematic prison labor practices in the U.S. and elsewhere. The entire model is contingent upon poor, desperate women continuing to be arrested and condemned to long sentences, but Carcel insists that their intentions are pure and outcomes, positive. 

I was not the only one to be alarmed by these ads. Twitter exploded with comments mocking the brand for epitomizing white saviorism and exploitative capitalism. Photos of the brand’s founders, lithe and pale, next to their wrinkled worker-prisoners seemed to epitomize racial, imperial, and class divides. They asked, “what stage of capitalism is this?”

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Meanwhile, Carcel, which means prison in Spanish, claims that their workers can “learn to support themselves, send their children to school, save up for a crime-free future and ultimately break with the cycle of poverty.” The company’s CEO Veronica d’Souza says, “In our belief, a fair wage in a country should be related to the cost of living, that’s why we use living wages as a baseline for our salaries.”

She says her inspiration for the brand came from a trip to a women’s prison in Nairobi, where women were incarcerated for poverty-related crimes, like theft and drug trafficking, to support their families. Behind bars, the women made small crafts like sweaters or teddy bears, but “without access to good materials, skills-training or a market on the outside, they didn’t get to sell their products,” d’Souza says. “When they got out, they were further marginalized and impoverished and many of their children had been left to grow up without a provider, continuing the poverty cycle.” 

Carcel Fashion Produced With Prison Labor - Exploitation or Ethical Business Model?
Eleuteria, hand knitting a jumper for Carcel luxury label. Credit: Carcel

The brand currently work with prisons in both Peru and Thailand. In their Peruvian prisons, the prison authorities say it’s been a success. About 5,000 women are incarcerated in the facility, and more than half are actively employed by the fashion industry, making leather goods, clothing, or textiles. In Thailand, a spokesperson for the Chiang Mai prison says, “They looked at about 4-5 prisons but finally decided on Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution because we have our own silk factory.”

So, what’s the problem if the prisons like the project and they’re giving women a chance to earn a living? It’s because this system is driven by opportunism and profit, and fueled by poverty. Using prison labor is not a philanthropic endeavor. They claim that they’re giving women a fair wage, and that that wage is associated with livability, but they use the minimum wage in each area as their baseline. The minimum wage rarely equates to a comfortable living (it certainly doesn’t in the U.S.). According to the prison in Thailand, the laborers are paid approximately 320 baht per day (roughly US$10 per day), which is approximate to the minimum wage in the kingdom, though officials are trying to raise it to 325 or 330 baht.

Fashion Produced With Prison Labor- Exploitation or Ethical Business Model?
Credit: Carcel

They also claim that they are breaking the cycle of poverty, but their work does little to provide upward mobility to their workers. Once they are released, if they are (some women are in for life), they will continue to be garment workers in the developing world — some of the poorest, most exploited, and least protected workers on the planet. Simply providing jobs is not enough to combat poverty if those jobs are dead-end. Instead, Carcel could provide upward mobility to their workers by training them to take on management positions when they re-enter the workforce. A nonprofit or other agency could provide education and advocate on behalf of these women, many of whom are jailed unfairly given the circumstances. But remember, Carcel is primarily a luxury brand focused on making money. Using cheap labor of any kind to make expensive goods to sell to rich Western women and enrich other wealthy Western women isn’t altruism, it’s just capitalism. 

Let’s assume one woman in their Thai prison makes one shirt per day for the ease of math. It costs them approximately $10 USD to pay her 320 baht, and they sell those same shirts for a retail price of $170. Even over-estimating that raw materials cost $20 and tariffs and transportation cost another $20 per shirt, the remaining $120 goes to marketing (models, photoshoots, ads, etc.) and executive salaries. So, how much ethical applause should the brand get for their band-aid solution?

Fashion Produced With Prison Labor- Exploitation or Ethical Business Model
Carcel’s workshop inside a prison. Credit: Carcel

To be fair, Carcel didn’t invent capitalism, nor are they the only luxury brand to rely on cheap labor and markups to sell an image of exclusivity. But they are asking for special consideration from activists and influencers who in turn will sign off on their practices to their well-meaning followers. While some will argue that other workers or prisoners in these countries would jump at the chance to work for Carcel, the problem is not the jobs themselves, but the insistence that what they’re doing is ethical. This practice is only ethical if you assume that there are no alternatives to the systematic poverty and current supply chain models. It presents a problem for brands who want to join the big business of “saving the world:” neither brands nor consumers can use the current capitalist, consumerist culture to offset the damage that culture does.

So, while Carcel is doing some good, keep in mind that it was Western consumers and companies like Carcel that perpetuate global wealth inequality and imperialist attitudes about labor in the developing world.

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Images via Carcel

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