The fast fashion industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry by releasing products and clothing collections at break-neck speed. Their affordability, and trendy clothing has built them a large, global consumer base. But recently, public outcry over Kylie Cosmetics not paying their Bangladeshi garment workers arose. And along with this, many questions have been raised as well over the ethicality of fashion brands. Let’s delve inside the dirty secrets this industry has kept from us.
The fast fashion industry has built its empire on the blood and bones of many impoverished children and women. Who are paid less than 2% of the profits that are earned by these brands, according to a report by Oxfam. And, numerous well-known fashion brands are complicit in this exploitation. Beware, you might see your favourite brands named in this article.
Child Labour, Sweatshops and more:
Question it yourself for a moment, how is Zara able to churn out 20,000 designs annually, or Topshop feature 400 new styles every week, or H&M and Forever 21 receive new garment shipments everyday? How are these brands able to offer the latest trends at competitive prices? Two reasons: the garments they are supplied, come from factories that employ poverty-stricken children and women, who are paid starvation wages for working in horrific conditions.
In many countries, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and more; where poverty and deprivation of basic necessities is a structural part of society, child labour and the sweatshop model of labour persists. Recruiters for the garment industry trap needy children and women, promising decent wages, meals three times a day and time off for school, and many go along willingly. The reality of their working conditions is far from the illusions they were shown.
According to a report by UNICEF, 170 million children are employed in the garment industry. Hands that should be holding books and pens, are toiling 12 hours a day, sewing, stitching and dyeing garments to satisfy global consumer demand for fast fashion. This is the reality for 11% of children in the world.
Numerous women and children work in sweatshops. Sweatshop is a term for a workplace with very poor, socially unacceptable or illegal working conditions. The work may be difficult, dangerous, climatically challenging or underpaid.
Many recruiters for the garment industry confess to deliberately seeking child workers, as children are seen as compliant and obedient. Additionally, this is also the reason cited for recruiting women into the industry. But, the socio-economic hierarchies of these countries is what actually disadvantages these workers. Low education rates further increase inter-generational poverty, that in turn reinforces the need for child labour, as most low-income households require multiple incomes to sustain themselves. This turns into a vicious cycle, where children cannot seek an education which would expand their skills and employability; and allow them to seek higher-skill jobs with better incomes. Instead, they remain low-skill workers who are unable to improve their conditions.
Furthermore, countries that do not have protective policies in place for labourers are often the ones where labour is exploited the most. Women and children are less likely to organise into trade unions and demand rights, especially in countries where trade unions are banned.
In order to understand the labour exploitation that goes on behind the scenes, let’s observe some statistics.
In Bangladesh over three million people, 85% of whom are women, work in the garment industry. A 2011 report Stitched Up about conditions in the garment industry found:
- A garment factory helper’s wage starts at just £25 a month, far below a living wage.
- 80% of workers work until 8pm or 10pm, after starting at 8am — in excess of the legal limit on working hours.
- Three quarters of the women workers spoken to had been verbally abused at work and half had been beaten.
A 2010 report, Taking Liberties, shows that the garment industry in India is deeply reliant on the sweatshop model of production and exploitation.
- Factory helpers were paid £60 a month, less than half of the living wage.
- Workers at some factories worked up to 140 hours of overtime each month, working until 2am.
- 60% of workers were unable to meet production targets — in one factory the target for each worker was to produce 20 ladies shirts every hour.
Global Labour Justice (GLJ) published two reports detailing the exploitation and mistreatment of Asian female garment workers in H&M and Gap supplier factories — including (but not limited to) physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor work conditions, and forced overtime. Fashion Nova, is another brand found operating sweatshops in Los Angelos, USA consisting of mostly undocumented immigrants, paid below the minimum wage. From this we see sweatshops and labour exploitation are not issues faced by developing countries only.
The conditions that many garment workers are subjected to around the world has been labelled as modern day slavery.
Have you heard of the Rana Plaza Tragedy?
In April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a factory collapsed killing more than a 1,000 garment workers. A 400 page report found that on April 23, cracks appeared in the building, shaking the structure enough that many workers fled. An engineer who had been called to inspect the structure warned that it was unsafe. Yet Mr. Rana and the factory bosses discounted any concerns and ordered their workers into the building the next morning, the report concluded. A generator soon switched on, and the building buckled and collapsed. Out of the 29 brands which were identified as using products from these unsafe factories, only 9 attended meetings to agree compensation for the victims. Famous brand Mango, was not one of them
Working in the garment industry can be deadly.
This is but one tragedy. In 2012, a fire killed 258 people in the Ali Enterprises textile factory in Karachi, Pakistan. A German court case sought to determine whether local discount clothing manufacturer KiK should be held responsible for the poor working conditions at its supplier company in Pakistan.
This raises an important question.
Should fashion brands be held responsible for the conditions of garment workers that are employed under completely different local suppliers?
The fast fashion industry is part of a very long global supply chain. This supply chain consists of producers and suppliers across many different countries that are one of the many components of the chain. Fast fashion brands have their headquarters in developed countries with a high-income consumer base. These brands play the role of marketing, sales and design which creates value and demand for the products. However, they are not part of the production process. Instead, production is outsourced to supplier firms in developing companies referred to as Tier 1 companies. These Tier 1 companies then subcontract production to manufacturing companies that are not affiliated with the fashion brands. Because of which these fashion brands carry no legal obligation to provide decent working conditions. And because unauthorized subcontractors are unregistered, they operate without government regulation and oversight, resulting in deteriorating work facilities where worker abuse runs rampant.
Many argue that fashion brands cannot ensure worker protection to unauthorized suppliers. Not only because it binds them legally to ensure safe working conditions, but because they open themselves to liability lawsuits if anything goes wrong. Millions of dollars can be spent in a single liability lawsuit. However, protecting profit margins while ignoring the blatant dehumanization that garment workers go through is no longer an agreeable option. There is an urgent need for brands to take responsibility for the blood, sweat and tears that are poured into their products.
On the contrary, there are other advocates that argue fashion brands taking increased responsibility and guaranteeing living wages to these workers, would be part of a larger step of global chain integration. Vertical chain integration consists of brands exerting greater oversight and coordination between suppliers, or even directly buying factories and suppliers. It would be profitable for the company because it can help ensure production efficiency, product quality control and maintaining brand reputation.
What brands should you avoid?
Here are the names of brands that you should avoid because of unethical practices. Uniqlo, Stradivarius, Topshop, Zara, H&M, Missguided, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Primark, Rip Curl, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Guess, Fashion Nova, Shein, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, New Look, Peacocks, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, Adidas, ASOS, Hot Topic, Shein, Nasty Gal, and Mango. And don’t forget Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s clothing line.
What can YOU do?
As a consumer, what can you do at your level to stop this issue? First, sign petitions that call for these companies to become more ethical such as the ones from Global Labour Justice. Additionally, become a moral consumer. Do not buy from brands that you know are unethical or engage in unethical labour practices. As a consumer of fast fashion, take more personal responsibility in ensuring that the products you consume are eco-friendly as well as from ethical sources. Become curious; demand transparency over the production process and labour conditions inside a brand; raise concerns over issues of child labour and sweatshops; and exert the power you have as a consumer to pressure brands to take corporate social responsibility.
More importantly, avoid overconsumption, don’t buy into short-lived fashion trends. Make your clothes last longer, and if you want to throw out some clothes; either donate them or recycle them. Either buy second-hand, or rent clothes! You are also making an impact on the environment as the fast fashion industry accounts for 8% of global pollution according to a 2016 report.
By believing we hold no power as consumers, we absolve ourselves of personal responsibility towards these issues. But, consumers are the driving force behind unbridled capitalism, our demands form the direction that companies follow. If we show a preference for ethical brands, larger ones will be forced to comply with consumer preferences to protect their profit margins. We have to acknowledge the power and responsibility we hold in this system and use it to bring change.