Needle, Thread and Sweatshops: Who Pays the Price for Our Clothes?

What is fashion in the post-industrial age? According to Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, “The current definition is the production, marketing, and consumption of clothes—an industrialised system for making money.” Fashion is an ever-changing industry; it is the way we let our personality shine through, send messages to society, and, at its base, put clothes on our backs. It has undoubtedly faced drastic change with the increased automation in the production process, the release of new trends equally speeding up and matching people’s rising yet volatile demand for new and fashionable clothes. 

The global fashion industry has borne a new subsection—fast fashion—which has created trends that die as quickly as they are born, underpinned by the bassline of ‘buy, buy, buy’ every time we click. Overconsumption, ironically, is the trend we now cannot seem to shake as fast fashion delivers ‘£100 Shein hauls’ as the quick fix to our itch. People wanting new, fashionable clothes constantly and cheaply have birthed a culture of waste. Each year in the UK, 350,000 tonnes or £140 million worth of ‘used but wearable clothing’ is thrown to landfill sites—perceived obsolescence (the belief that a product is at the end of its life) has us reaching for the cash far more often than needed.

With the volatile changes in trends and uncertain demand, companies chasing profits cut corners at the top of the production process. Also, they outsource to developing countries where labour rights are not set in stone or even creating sweatshops in developed countries, such as Boohoo’s sweatshops in Leicester, UK, which were exposed mid-2020 to be sacrificing employee’s safety and human rights. Not only are garments workers employed by big corporations one of the most underpaid groups in the world, but they also face a countless number of occupational diseases and workplace accidents that are primarily left unsupported by the companies through insurance. Globalisation has lengthened the distance between consumers and producers; rarely do we stop to think about where our clothes come from, which begs the question: who pays the price for our clothes?

Fast Fashion—a genius business model?

The ‘fast fashion’ business model depends upon quick production and distribution times and rapidly replicated highly fashionable trends that create a large variety of popular clothes in line with consumer preferences. These three components allow firms to match their supply with uncertain demand fuelled by fast-changing trends. The priorities are low cost, high volume, high speed (from design to consumer).

The fast-fashion production process – bringing new, trendy clothes to consumers at lower prices.

Fast fashion firms support this reduction in time of production and distribution cycles primarily through outsourcing to developing countries that specialise in textiles, such as India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, etc. Here, labour rights are far more relaxed, allowing firms to be lax on wages, working hours and conditions, reducing costs substantially and maximising profits. According to the Fashion Checker survey in 2020, 93% of the brands surveyed were not paying workers a living wage. Globalisation has enlarged the distance between consumer and supplier, desensitising us towards violations within the supply chain and providing a veil for firms to cover their tracks. It may be argued that firms outsourcing provides essential employment, especially to women, who dominate the garment-worker population, and are thus given greater financial power. However, the cost at which these workers gain employment is high: dangerous overcrowding, lack of fire protection, unstable factory buildings, intense work targets, long hours and little pay. Are we then to accept exploitation as empowerment?

An attack on accessible alternatives?

For years, the fashion industry has been a close-knit and secret affair; tradition, cliques and expensive products made the platform inaccessible to most individuals. With the boom of fast fashion, the industry has been burst open, and fast fashion businesses are now a staple on most high streets. Initially, fast fashion had been hailed as a cost-effective, innovative way for consumers to stay in style and for firms to stay in business.

Fast fashion made the iconic catwalk looks widely available to the average person

Indeed, shouldn’t increased accessibility be lauded, as trendy clothes are attainable by the masses? To examine this, we must return to the impact of current trends changing so frequently: perceived obsolescence. People succumbing to micro-trends has resulted in people throwing away clothes before their ‘end of life’ stage as they are thought unfashionable. Obsolescence has been fully embraced by the fashion industry, with fast fashion simply increasing the stakes. Social media has accelerated this. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have allowed fast fashion brands to upload new looks that attract consumers through fashion influencers. Influencer marketing has had an electric effect on advertising fast fashion, making the previous ideal of celebrity lifestyle attainable for the average person. The obsession with being trendy evermore has opened a Pandora’s box of human rights violations. This is an excellent move for corporations, as profits are sustained (at least, in the short run) as people demand new clothes continuously.

Another lens through which we can observe the phenomenon is considering why fast-fashion prices are so low. Corporations predominantly outsource labour to developing countries where labour is cheap, and there are weak labour rights that allow firms to minimise production costs and maximise the volume of clothes. Workers are subjected to horrible working conditions like inhumanely long hours for very little pay, very crowded locations and a lack of protection for occupational diseases and workplace accidents. Sweatshops are the backbone of fast fashion and without the structure. At what ethical cost then are we buying these under-priced clothes? 

While fast fashion stores such as Primark provide low-price alternatives to poorer individuals, which means it is one of the only options available for this particular group of consumers, they also encourage overconsumption. The recent trend of ‘£100 hauls’ from fast fashion brands shared by online influencers have glamorised overconsumption,

It is easy to blame those who buy fast fashion out of necessity and vilify them for using their only options. Still, it is overconsumption that fuels fast fashion, not those buying out of necessity.

Sustainability and the Environment

The profits may be sustained in the short term as consumers continue to demand new, fashionable clothes. However, the acceleration of the process to match this uncertain demand creates waste on the consumers’ side but cutting corners during the production cycle results in pollutants being released into the environment, which later renders the location unusable for other purposes in the future. Sustainable practices ensure that any product does not cause harm in the long run and does not compromise the future for the sake of the present.

Fast fashion brands primarily utilise open-loop production cycles, which means that the input of the raw materials into the production cycle is not dependent upon the product’s end of life. This releases firms from considering the impact on people and the environment. Garments at the end of their life are not recycled but go straight to waste. While consumer-side waste is stressed by the industry, the production system remains a polluting and wasteful one. 

Releasing pollutants during production and the lack of a system that utilises end of life products has meant that the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions (UN Environment, 2019). Another example of pollution is the excessive use of pesticides. Cotton is a staple within the industry. Over a quarter of this cotton is produced via pesticides, which, combined with the open-loop production process, means that pesticide is released into the environment and harms natural ecosystems and agriculture in these locations. This damage is amplified when it reaches the people in those areas, as the pesticides become concentrated, potentially causing health complications such as autoimmune rheumatic diseases or respiratory issues.

‘Closed-loop’ production cycles have been presented as the solution to this and call for transparency and commitment to eco-friendly practices to re-introduce ‘end-of-life’ products back into the production cycle. These cycles follow the following steps:

  • Material Sources – raw materials are extracted from the natural environment.
  • Production – materials are sent to factories to make the final product.
  • Packaging and distribution – products are stored in warehouses and shipped to retailers.
  • Use & maintenance – the consumer utilises the product to the end of its life.
  • Recovery – Waste materials are recycled for re-use or re-entering into the production cycle.
  • Material sources – recycled materials are re-entered into the production cycle, minimising waste and the cycle begins again.

This process would require high levels of regulation and accountability at every stage of the cycle, something the fashion industry has been struggling with greater difficulty recently.

The people behind the clothes

The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, shocked the world to begin to realise the human impact of fast fashion. Rana Plaza’s (previously home to five garment buildings) collapse resulted in the deaths of at least 1,132 people and injuries to more than 2,500 people. 

The deaths of thousands revealed the chilling reality of the garments industry. Despite being exposed to one of the highest incidences of workplace-related incidents, garments workers – predominantly women and children – are paid one of the lowest wages in the world. The below-standard pay then forces workers to make difficult decisions to pull themselves out of abject poverty, which often leads to children going into the workforce prematurely to support their families.

Amongst the rubble of the Rana Plaza, fashion’s dark secret was revealed. Photo by NYU Stern BHR: Rana Plaza Site | Visited 5 December 2014 | NYU Stern BHR | Flickr

The Rana Plaza tragedy exposed fashion’s dark secret to the world; the exploitative supply chains were spotlighted. For the world to open its eyes, thousands had to lose their lives. Even sharing workers’ struggles has not been enough to turn the tide, much of the time production is simply moved elsewhere, refusing to be associated with the horrors while workers are left behind to be punished for their courage or simply remain exploited.

“They only buy and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. A lot of garment workers die in different incidents.”

Shima Akhter on the harrowing experience of garments workers in Bangladesh, The True Cost

Holding corporations accountable is essential to bringing change to the industry. Accountability is key as firms are in control of the business deals they make and including ethics in these decisions ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry as well as delivering justice to the workers. However, top-down pressure has previously backfired as firms move production elsewhere, leaving behind the bad conditions as someone else’s problem. Corporate responsibility plays a large role in the long-term overhaul of the harmful business practices in place. Concerned consumers cannot dismantle existing business deals on their own and nor can overseas workers easily detach themselves from exploitative contracts – we must return to the root of the problem to take it down. Calling corporations to action is the way to get the largest benefit for workers.

Where next?

Combating the negative impacts of fast fashion may feel like a mountain of a task and it can feel hopeless to create change, fighting against massive corporations. Public opinion is changing, however, and some corporations are slowly accepting the concept of corporate social responsibility. The fight is not over, lives are on the line and the passion for justice has not yet run dry. We as consumers still have some tools we can use:

Possible actions you can take:

  1. Holding corporations accountable:
    • Support anti-sweatshop charities, e.g. TRAID – empowering garments workers via trade unions on the ground.
    • Contact your local politician (via email, telephone, etc.) to encourage them to bring attention to malpractices on the political stage.
    • Get involved in campaigns against the negative impacts of fast fashion – e.g. the Bangladesh Accord campaign –
    • Raise awareness about polluting and exploitative practices in your community.
  2. Reducing waste:
    • Repair your clothes as much as possible.
    • Buy second-hand clothes.
    • Pass on clothes to your friends and family. Hand-me-downs are a great way to extend the life of your clothes.

So you want to know more about fast fashion?

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