The exploitation of cheap labor for fast fashion results in the irony of creating jobs while fuelling poverty, and threatens the human rights and lives of manufacturers.
Why is it happening ?
When apparel brands apply a business model aiming to release product on a weekly basis at the lowest price possible, it demands the lowest production costs. The lack of transparency within the fashion industry has provided a loophole for brands to conceal the conditions in which their clothes are made in and to detach themselves from accountability. As fast-fashion brands invest in foreign suppliers for the production of their clothes, the direct effect is an increase in competition amongst manufacturers. This competition within garment production has forced manufacturers to employ inhumane conditions in their factories to ensure the lowest cost of production and become appealing to foreign brands. Companies choosing low-priced manufacturing inevitably choose low-quality working environments.
When garment workers are hired on a basis of a combination of low wages, forced overtime, and dangerous conditions, the accumulated effect establishes low-cost production models, enabling brands to release fast-paced cheap apparel. This transformation in the fashion industry has skewed consumer perception into creating a false demand for constant product. Without a mechanism of transparency in the fashion supply chain to hold brands accountable, attracting customers by releasing new trends every week at the cheapest price possible is inevitably at the expense of health, safety and rights of garment workers.
Why does it matter?
Four years ago an eight-story building holding five garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh killing over 1,000 women. While this tragedy remains a symbol of the appalling conditions garment workers face on a daily basis to produce clothing for global fashion brands, it was by no means a one-off incident. The demand for constant product at a low-priced rate ironically bears a colossal hidden cost. Fast fashion is intertwined with visions of fires engulfing factories and the exploitation of its workers. Amidst the rubbles of the collapsed building in Bangladesh an array of clothing labels were found from brands including Primark, Mango, and Benetton. The unethical relationship between companies and manufacturers is often concealed from the public, allowing people and the brand to become disconnected from the true cost of production.
This lack of transparency reaps significant human rights consequences; garment workers are exploited for their vulnerability in securing employment and face horrifying daily conditions. The labor behind producing what is marketed as the “must-haves” of the summer season are far too often weaved with forced overtime, denial of toilet breaks and a lack of ventilation. While these are daily norms in the lives of garment workers, they have large-scale effects. This is a global high-demand industry composed of nearly 85% of women, and there is potential for providing an opportunity to increase the standard of life. However, the exploitation at this level of the supply chain has transformed them into some of the lowest paid workers. The lack of transparency exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty; garment workers earn less than enough to secure basic necessities. This is the pure irony of creating jobs while fueling poverty. Moreover, the quest for extra low production costs have placed people in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. The quick spread of diseases only fuels poverty even further and the dangerous working environments have shed light on the worst side effects of the true cost of cheap fashion. Today, sacrificing human rights for profit is directly incompatible in a world committed to promote full and productive employment and decent work for all.
What can you do about it?
A distorted demand for rapid and constant product must be shifted to a demand for transparency. Brands are being called upon to sign a pledge releasing information on their suppliers, holding themselves accountable for the behind-the-scenes of clothes production. However, there is a still a significant gap in accountability between the making and selling of most global brands. Consumers hold a tremendous power in revolutionising the way the industry works and the movement requires more momentum.
At the individual level, a contribution can be done by signing this petition demanding companies to release information about their supply chain. The demand for ethical shopping is growing and a quick means of obtaining information on a particular brand is by downloading the Good On You app for free, which rates brands in line with their impact on labor conditions, the environment, and animal abuse.
Image Credit: Fashion Revolution
Ana Beatriz Brito briefs from Lisbon, Portugal. She holds an LLM in Public International Law and is currently a legal intern at the United Nations. Connect with her via LinkedIn.