Fashion stories

The Story that needs to be told: ‘The Failings of the Fast Fashion Industry’-II

Part II- The personal cost

Following on about the first part of this story about the environmental cost, this is the second part of the story of the failings of the fast fashion industry: the cost for the people who make our clothesThese stories are what led to the birth of Colour My Daythe Sustainable Way wanting to tell more people about the true story behind the clothes in our wardrobes and the shops that we use and helping in supporting sustainable brands.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Working in constant danger

The fashion industry is not only the second most polluting industry on this planet. The horrors of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013 brought global attention to the dangerous working conditions associated with the fashion industry. This disaster killed more than 1,130 garment factory workers but unfortunately was not the first: death and injury were already a known risk for garment workers in developing countries. Just five months earlier, 112 people had been killed in fires at Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka. And two months before that, the worst industrial disaster in Pakistan’s history had killed more than 250 people at Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi. 

The fast-fashion industry exploits people in developing countries, using cheap labour to quickly mass-produce clothing that keeps up with trends and enables their seasonal releases (which can be as many as fourteen in one year). Since these trends  become ‘outdated’ so quickly, many of them remain unsold. Bloomberg reported in 2018 that H&M had a record piled-up inventory of unsold garments worth more than 4 billion dollars1. Our demand for clothes has unfortunately also not slowed down over the last decades: on average, we now buy 60% more items of clothing and keep them for half as long compared to what we did 15 years ago.

The documentary ‘True Cost’ (2015) tells the true story of the fast-fashion industry. It touched on the use of GMOs and pesticides in growing cotton for the fast fashion industry. It showed that higher levels of pesticide use causes higher instances of cancer, birth defects and mental health issues. The more expensive cost of GMOs which results from  Monsanto’s seed monopoly has resulted in many  farmers having incredibly high levels of debt, which in turns has led to higher suicide rates — as bad as one farmer committing suicide in India every 30 minutes (read about this in the story on No Nasties) .

Low wages, long hours, exploitation & child labour 

In clothes production costs of machinery and material tend to be fixed, so pressure is often put on workers’ wages in order to reduce costs. The official minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is around 58 euros:  a lot less than is needed to meet basic needs and to support a family3. Due to the lack of law enforcement workers, particularly women are often paid less than the minimal wage. Even with full-time jobs, they and their families are unable to escape hand-to-mouth survival. Most garment workers in Asia work a six-day week as standard, rising to seven days when tight deadlines for production need to be met. Many work 10-14 hours per day, increasing the risk of accidents and ill health, and are not entitled to breaks or to paid leave.

On top of this garment workers are often at the mercy of unscrupulous factory bosses. Owners of factories are able to build unsafe structures and pay illegally low wages by offering bribes to authorities and inspection companies. Meanwhile, workers demanding more rights and better conditions are often intimidated and prevented from taking collective action. One year before the Rana Plaza disaster, a Bangladeshi labour activist, Aminul Islam was found tortured and murdered near a police station outside Dhaka4

Physical and sexual abuse is also prevalent. For example, a 2016 study of garment workers in South India found that 60% of women had experienced intimidation and violence in the workplace, with one in seven women reporting sexual violence at work5. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 170 million children are employed in illegal child labour – many in the industry and textiles sectors. Children are employed at all stages of the supply chain – from cotton picking, to spinning, to sewing – and are often preferred for their smaller, more delicate hands and because they will accept even lower wages.

Changes for the good can have a huge impact

Employing high numbers of workers in poorer countries means the fashion industry has the potential to create positive change for millions of people. Garment industry workers are mostly poor, young, less educated, and female (80% of them) – and working in countries with poor regulation and limited workers’ and women’s rights.

The fashion industry therefore has the potential to support the economic and social empowerment of workers, and women in particular. For this to happen, there needs to be a shift from faster, lower-cost production, driven by consumer demand to fewer non-seasonal collections made ethically and sustainably. 

Greenpeace Report2

Low wages, long hours, exploitation & child labour

In clothes production there are fixed costs like machinery and material so to reduce costs the wages of the workers have been lowered over the years. The official minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is around 58 euros which is a lot less than is needed to meet basic needs and to support a family3. Particularly women are paid even less. Due to the lack of law enforcement workers are mostly paid even less than the minimal wage. Even with full-time jobs, them and their families are unable to escape hand-to-mouth survival. Most garment workers in Asia work a six-day week as standard, rising to seven days when tight deadlines for production need to be met. Many work 10-14 hours per day, increasing the risk of accidents and ill health, and are not entitled to breaks or to paid leave.

On top of this garment workers are often at the mercy of unscrupulous factory bosses. Owners of factories are able to build unsafe structures and pay illegally low wages by offering bribes to authorities and inspection companies. Meanwhile, workers demanding more rights and better conditions are often intimidated and prevented from taking collective action. One year before the Rana Plaza disaster, a Bangladeshi labour activist, Aminul Islam was found tortured and murdered near a police station outside Dhaka4.

Physical and sexual abuse is also prevalent. For example, a 2016 study of garment workers in South India found that 60% of women had experienced intimidation and violence in the workplace, with one in seven women reporting sexual violence at work5. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 170 million children are carrying out illegal child labour – many in the industry and textiles sectors. Children are employed at all stages of the supply chain – from cotton picking, to spinning, to sewing – and are often preferred for their smaller, more delicate hands and because they will accept even lower wages.

The Covid-19 outbreak has not helped: many fast-fashion brands cancelled their orders due to falling numbers of sales without paying their factories for incurred costs, leading to workers not receiving their wages which then aggravated their situation.

Vote with your wallet & let your voice be heard

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The bottom line of all this is that change is needed, fast. Not only top-down through legislation and meaningful collaboration between brands and other industry stakeholders. But also bottom-up starting with us as consumers. We carry a lot power in our voices and in our wallets. Buying a 5 euro T-shirt in the sale is not a reason to rejoice. We need to be aware of the detrimental effects of the desire to buy many, cheap and disposable clothes that we wear less than 5 times on average.

What can we all do?

1. Buy less, but buy better: Make sure that what you buy is of better quality and really suits you so you will wear it for longer. Here are some tips on how to tell if a garment is well-made.  

2. Use your voice to encourage greater transparency in the fashion supply chain by asking brands #whomademyclothes? on Instagram or post one of the pictures that you can find here.

3. Sign the Fashion Revolution Manifesto

Colour My Day presents truly sustainable brands to you so you do not have to look very far if you are in need of new clothes. Find out about them and their stories here. Or have a look at the shop-the-looks if you know your colour type. If you do not know your colour type, have a look here to find out more.

Sources:

  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-27/h-m-profit-plunges-to-16-year-low-as-clothing-chain-loses-allure
  2. https://wayback.archive-it.org/9650/20200401053856/http://p3-raw.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/briefings/toxics/2016/Fact-Sheet-Timeout-for-fast-fashion.pdf
  3. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_436867.pdf
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/world/asia/bangladeshi-labor-organizer-is-found-killed.html?_r=2&ref=world
  5. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-25/abuse-rife-in-indias-garment-industry/7543498
  6. https://labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/

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