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By Sharon Zukin, Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center

Waiting for a friend in the fitting room at UNIQLO’s “global flagship store” in SoHo, New York, last Saturday afternoon, I saw how popular the Japanese chain’s products are with all kinds of consumers. Spanish-speaking families with teenage children, a Chinese-speaking couple with a toddler, and an enormous number of twenty-something women were all shopping for summer clothes. Many brought an armful of garments into the fitting room.

Yet when they walked out, they left most items behind with the attendant, who patiently folded them into the perfect rectangles that shoppers expect to find on shelves. Between customers’ entrances and exits, the attendant swept the floor and checked the rooms for tidiness, as well as for companions who may have strayed in, despite his warnings. “I’ll get in trouble with the protection services,” the employee told me, “if they find these people have come in.”

Routine consumption spaces give us a lot to think about, these days. First, the universal appeal of fast fashion. UNIQLO has more than 1,000 stores around the world, is opening new stores in Colorado and Canada, and aims, according to articles in business media, to dominate the market for low-priced, casual but classically-styled clothing in the U.S. and Japan, if not globally. Though UNIQLO’s business model reminds me a lot of The Gap’s and Benetton’s rapid expansion during the 1980s, with control over all stages of the production chain, from sourcing from partners in low-wage countries to tasking employees with sweeping the fitting room floor, the company was the first to open “branded” stores in Japan, in 1974. But I wonder whether UNIQLO’s star will also fade in time, a victim of changing consumer demand, unsatisfactory products, or falling dividends.

Spending an hour in the fitting room gave me time to think about the employees who occupy the “downstream” links in the production chain. On average, UNIQLO’s sales associates in the U.S. earn between $10 and $11 an hour, which is $1.50 more than the hourly minimum wage set by New York State. Yet this is $3 to $5 below the minimum wage endorsed by advocates in New York City, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, and $1 less than the minimum wage proposed for New York City workers by governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke at a recent rally for fast-food workers in the city.

Most lower-level retail store employees in New York are young members of ethnic and racial minority groups. Many of my undergraduates do this kind of work to pay their way through college, working too many hours—on their employers’ demand—to get good grades. And a report by the National Employment Law Project finds that most U.S. workers who earn less than $15 an hour are predominantly women engaged in service work, also African Americans and Latinos.

Like Nike and other transnational brands, UNIQLO produces, for the most part, in China. One of its Chinese partners, which has worked with the company since 1997, also operates factories in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. So the price of the $13 T-shirt I find in the SoHo store is kept low by harsh working conditions, low wages, and badly compensated overtime throughout Southeast Asia—conditions that the company has promised to change.

As sociologists, we are professionally fascinated by the structural inequalities and institutional arrangements that support mass consumption, and morally bound to teach our students about them. Our courses connect well with the rest of the sociology curriculum, as well as with growing concern among young adults about unemployment, wage levels, and corporate ethics.

Using stages of the production chain to organize a course on the sociology of consumption enables students to integrate their observations as both low-wage service employees and low-price shoppers. They can begin to see a common interest with the person who sits at a sewing machine in Ningbo, China to produce their UNQLO T-shirt. Discussing this with other members of the class, they may develop their voice to demand new laws and new business models.

Yet regardless of how much they learn, the corporate titans of transnational brands are always moving forward. While I teach Brooklyn College students to be wary of $13 T-shirts, Nike is opening a “community store” not far away. This new format promises that the store’s employees will volunteer to do community service, especially with young people. To do this work, Nike is offering part-time jobs which may be appealing to students…even if they also have to sweep the fitting-room floor.

Published by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

Writer, sociologist, public intellectual, twenty-first century nomad.

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