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This clothing brand proudly uses prison labor. Critics say it’s exploiting workers.

Can a brand like Carcel ever rely on truly ethical prison labor?

Carcel’s new production hub at a women’s prison in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Carcel, a trendy Danish clothing brand, has an unusual marketing strategy: It doesn’t shy away from discussing its use of overseas prison labor.

In fact, Carcel’s labor practices are a key part of its branding. Its website advertises “silk made in prison” in both English and Thai; the brand’s new silk line is made in Thailand. Each garment’s label includes the name of the woman who made it, and Carcel highlights those women’s life stories on its blog. Even the brand’s name, which translates to “jail” in Spanish — albeit pronounced differently: carcel instead of cárcel — is a nod to the Peruvian prison where its wool garments are made.

Since launching in 2016, Carcel has received near-universal praise in fashion circles. Vogue said it was “helping Peruvian workers find their independence”; i-D lauded Carcel for giving its incarcerated workers “a decent living, a little dignity, and a chance to break the cycle of poverty and drug trafficking that leads to devastatingly high incarceration rates all over the world.” (In both Peru and Thailand, most of the women who work for Carcel are serving time for crimes of poverty, like drug trafficking or theft.)

But more recently, the tide has begun to turn against Carcel, all because of a viral Facebook ad.

Some people first hearing about Carcel find its business model more exploitative than empowering. “I was just so awestruck — it seemed like the most tone-deaf thing in the world to me,” Lapis, a Twitter user who criticized the brand online and declined to provide her last name, told me.

Carcel, for its part, maintains that it’s giving marginalized women opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. “We fully recognize the sensitivity around creating jobs in prisons. This issue is important to discuss — and we’ve clearly not succeeded in explaining why we work in prisons,” a Carcel spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Most people who are in prison today barely make anything, and they and their families are left without an income for many years. We want to help change that. We offer women in prison real and dignifying jobs at market rates in order to include them in the economy and so they can sustain themselves and provide for their families and create a better life.”

So is Carcel really helping incarcerated women in developing countries break the cycle of poverty, or is it taking advantage of the women it claims to uplift?

Carcel: a socially conscious, for-profit company

Before launching Carcel in 2016, Veronica D’Souza founded another company, Ruby Cup, which takes a Toms Shoes-esque approach to menstrual cups; the buy-one-give-one model helps keep African girls in school, she said in an interview with i-D. D’Souza came up with the idea for Carcel while visiting a women’s prison in Nairobi, Kenya, where she saw inmates working on crafts. “I saw that they were knitting every day but they didn’t have any market where they could sell their products,” D’Souza told i-D. “It was also very clear that these were women from the village. Poverty was the main reason they were there.”

After looking into which countries have an “intersection between some of the highest quality materials in the world and high rates of female incarceration due to poverty,” D’Souza and Carcel co-founder Louise Van Hauen settled on Peru, where organic alpaca wool abounds and where impoverished women often find themselves imprisoned for drug-related crimes. “About 60 percent of the women who are incarcerated [in Peru] are there for being drug mules,” D’Souza said in 2016. “People go to the villages and pick the poor, young, beautiful, and pregnant girls because they can more easily get through customs.”

And thus, Carcel was born. The brand’s Kickstarter met its funding goal in just one day, and its first production hub was a Cusco prison where, according to D’Souza, many women already had experience working with wool. Carcel’s Peruvian workers are paid between 650 and 1,100 Peruvian soles (approximately $180 to $329) per month, depending on their level of experience, the brand revealed in a recent interview with the New York Times. The prison takes a 10 percent cut of the workers’ wages, the workers keep a small amount for daily living expenses, and the rest goes to their families’ bank accounts.

The brand expanded to Asia in 2018, setting up shop in a women’s prison in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and announcing the expansion with a blog post on its website featuring a photo of the new workspace. Instead of wool, the Thai women work with silk; like the Peruvian workers, they’re paid a stipend that, according to Carcel, is higher than the country’s minimum wage but far below the cost of goods they produce.

In a February 11 blog post explaining its business model, Carcel posted infographics — which have since been deleted — attempting to explain why its products cost so much more than what its workers are paid to produce them. A wool sweater made in Peru, for example, costs $345, more than what most of Carcel’s Peruvian seamstresses make in a month.

A screenshot from Carcel’s website explaining the price breakdown of its clothing.

According to the company’s calculations, the labor cost of making a wool sweater is $15. Add another $25 for the alpaca wool, $20 more to cover production and other operational costs, $4.70 for shipping the sweaters to Denmark, $3 for packaging, $11 for customer shipping, and $10.35 each for fees charged by either Shopify and Stripe or PayPal, and a Carcel sweater ends up costing the brand $99.40 to produce. Carcel says its markup is just 2.8 times the cost of production, compared to an industry-wide average of 4 to 6 times, and the value-added tax is 25 percent. The brand’s Thai-made silk shirts — retail value $283 — similarly cost $9.50 to sew, plus an additional $65.80 for shipping, packaging, materials, and fees, coming out to a total production cost of $75.30.

It’s worth noting that Carcel didn’t make any of this information public, or even disclose the exact amount its workers were paid, until a tweet criticizing the company for using prison labor went viral. Of course, very few private companies feel compelled to break down their profit margins this way, especially to the public — but Carcel frames itself as a socially conscious brand, not a purely profit-seeking enterprise.

Carcel’s decision to frame itself as a transparent, progressive company is what got it attention in the first place. But that framing also inspired much of the backlash it has received in recent weeks.

The backlash to Carcel, explained

The negative responses to Carcel were prompted by a Facebook ad that is similar to much of its other marketing materials. “Our new silk line from Thailand is made by incredible women in the prison in Chiang Mai,” it read. But this time around, potential customers were seemingly turned off by the idea of buying expensive clothing made by incarcerated women.

“This is a rebranding and commodifying of social justice — taking the aesthetics and the language of social justice and using it to sell clothes,” Carl Wilhoyte, who wrote a post about Carcel for the left-leaning blog Zero Balance, told me. “We saw this with Pepsi co-opting the imagery of Black Lives Matter in the ad where Kendall Jenner gives a Pepsi to the cops, and we [also] saw this with Gillette, and with Starbucks’s whole ‘race together’ thing. I think Carcel is a part of an emerging pattern of leaning hard on [social justice issues] and making them part of your branding. ... It’s part of this new corporate strategy that’s like, we can’t just talk about the quality of the products, we can’t just talk about the lifestyle; we also have to make it about larger social movements.”

For Carcel’s critics, the issue isn’t just that the company uses prison labor, or how much the incarcerated workers are paid — though that’s obviously a part of it — but that it frames its use of prison labor as a social justice issue. Some critics claim that Carcel is attempting to alleviate the symptoms of poverty in countries like Peru and Thailand without addressing the causes. “[T]he criminalization of poverty is THE REASON [C]arcel exists,” one person tweeted. “Shouldn’t you be instead trying to alleviate poverty by giving women outside prison jobs so that they are not incarcerated? It seems like you are waiting for poverty to do its job so you can exploit women,” said another.

Carcel’s interpretation of its business model is different.

“It is well recognized amongst international organizations and the [International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that sets global labor standards] that having access to job training, social team skills, an[d] being able to save up while being incarcerated improves the opportunity of reintegration into society,” a Carcel spokesperson told me in an emailed statement. “We believe that incarcerated women should be equally treated to those who are not in prison both in terms of employment rights and wages.” In other words, Carcel sees itself as a way of giving opportunities, namely good work at a fair wage, to incarcerated women who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them.

Carcel’s workers — or, at least, those who have been able to speak to the press — take pride in their work and relish the opportunity to provide for their families while in prison. “When I got here eight years ago, this prison was a really sad place,” Teodomira Quispe Pérez, a widow and mother of six who is serving a 13-year sentence for drug trafficking and works in Carcel’s factory in Cusco, Peru, told the New York Times in an interview. “I am looking forward to getting out and buying my own machine. Working in this textile workshop takes me away from my imprisonment.”

No one is denying that Carcel’s incarcerated labor force, many of whom would otherwise not be working at all, benefit financially from their employment. It’s also worth noting that unlike incarcerated workers in the United States, who describe being coerced into working and are paid far below minimum wage, Carcel’s workers are paid wages equivalent to what non-incarcerated workers in their countries make, even if those wages are much lower than the cost of the goods they produce.

The backlash to Carcel isn’t just about wages: It reveals two very different ways of looking at the world, as well as two very different approaches to solving issues of poverty and inequality. Carcel is trying to solve these problems from within the market; it’s a company, albeit one that touts itself as socially conscious, not a nonprofit.

Some of Carcel’s critics, like Lapis and Wilhoyte, say that despite any good intentions D’Souza and Van Hauen may have, the problems of poverty and mass incarceration can’t be solved by a private company with an imprisoned labor force, especially when those workers don’t own their labor. In other words, they think that a company like Carcel can’t solve problems within the market when the market is exploitative in and of itself.

Is there such a thing as socially conscious prison labor?

Both Lapis and Wilhoyte suggested the idea of a workers collective as an alternative, more progressive model to what Carcel is trying to do. “If this is supposed to be for the women’s benefit, why don’t they own what they’re producing? Why don’t they own their own labor?” Lapis said, adding that Carcel has not made any efforts to address the laws that put its workers in prison in the first place. “I think there needs to be more investment in changing the systemic circumstances which lead to these women being incarcerated. Why aren’t they investing any money into fighting against these laws that keep these women incarcerated? To me, if you aren’t fighting against these laws, if the women don’t have control over their labor, then it’s still exploitative.”

The disconnect between Carcel’s worldview and that of its critics is made evident in a 2017 Vogue interview in which D’Souza suggested that Carcel wasn’t about challenging systemic injustices:

You can’t come in with a Danish mind-set of what is a just system and what isn’t. What we can do is get access and change things from the inside without being an NGO or yelling and screaming about the justice system being broken. We can do it through something that makes the prisons shine as well, by showing that the women are happier because they can provide for their families, that they won’t come back into the prisons and will be better assimilated into the economy once they’re out, which is a win for everybody in society.

Carcel may have been founded with the best intentions, and it may have a positive effect on the lives of the women who sew its clothing — but its marketing strategy is so decontextualized and devoid of critique of the structures that led to these women’s incarcerations that to many critics, none of those benefits really matter.

The backlash to Carcel isn’t a response to a single company. It’s indicative of growing discontent with the systems that allow a company like Carcel to exist. The debate over whether Carcel is good, bad, or somewhere in between echoes broader political arguments over whether the problems we face today — poverty, inequality, and mass incarceration, to name a few — are the result of a social and economic system that needs to be tweaked to better work for everyone, or are instead natural consequences of a broken system.

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