“Clothes aren’t going to change the world. The women who wear them will”
– Anne Klein
As women in the Western world, we’re the fast fashion industry’s main target market. Every month a new round of glossy fashion magazines hits the shelves, showing us the latest “must have” trends to walk off the catwalk and onto the high street.
Unlike their high-end designer counterparts, we don’t have to save and lust after the latest look – we can pop in on our lunch break and pick up the latest catwalk look at a bargain price.
With the cost of raw materials, especially cotton, on the rise over the last few years, and the property prices for the stores that sell the clothes on a similar upward trend, more ethically-minded consumers are starting to question why they can still pick up a T-shirt for less than the cost of a latte.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza in April 2013 killed 1,130 people. Most of them were low-wage garment workers producing clothes for Western brands in unsafe working conditions. For the brands producing their clothes at Rana Plaza this was an unwelcome spotlight on their production practices and many were slow to respond. It took two years for Benetton to pay $1.6m in compensation after initially denying any links.
The disaster prompted further investigations into the working practices of the fast fashion industry. The Fashion Revolution campaign was launched to campaign for more ethical conditions, fairer wages, and increased transparency in supply chains, and in 2015 the documentary The True Cost explored the industry’s global impact.
But what does that have to do with women’s rights?
97% of our clothing is now made overseas where textile workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the world and roughly 85% of them are women.
Fast fashion has changed how we make, buy, and discard our clothes. We’re throwing away more textile waste globally than ever before as the low cost of our clothing makes it easier to discard pieces that previous generations would have repaired.
Our reluctance to “make do and mend” has led to a decline in skills. The big high street brands demand standardization in their garments and production has been outsourced overseas in search of cheaper labour and a more industrialized approach.
While the “handmade” label on luxury brands gives the impression of a highly skilled seamstress taking her time to lovingly sew each garment, the reality in Bangladeshi factories is strikingly different.
Even the cheapest t-shirts are handmade. Garment workers work long shifts, frequently past midnight, to meet the production demands of the Western supply chain. Each worker is responsible for one seam and a runner (usually not much older than a child) ferries the garments between machines, moving them along the production line. At Rana Plaza, garment workers were arranged into rows for working as many as 70 sewing machines.
Brands who manufacture in the developing world tell us that they are empowering otherwise unemployed textile workers with skills that help lift them out of poverty. But there’s nothing empowering about the dangerous conditions, poor wages, and expensive lodgings preventing these workers from saving any money.
Each worker is only responsible for their part of manufacturing, unlike the skilled seamstresses who used to make entire garments from scratch.
These workers are mostly young women, working late into the night – making it almost impossible to look after their children, who many of them are working to support. These women are endangering themselves in poor working conditions, not being paid a living wage, and being ripped-off by lodging costs to make just one small part of our cheap t-shirts. They work for a few years and then by their early thirties they’re cast out. All so we can pick up a cute new dress for Friday night for less than the cost of our lunch.
More and more brands are attracted to Bangladesh for its low labour costs and the country saw record export levels in 2015.
The country can’t afford to lose its textile industry. According to the World Bank, the proportion of Bangladesh’s population living below the poverty line dropped from 49 per cent to 32 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and the average life expectancy has risen from age 55 in 1982 to over age 70 today, particularly for women. Much of this success is due to the boom in textile exports, and in 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza disaster, the government increased minimum wage by 71 per cent.
This all sounds like good news, but the picture for garment workers on the ground is not so positive. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance estimates that the minimum wage is still just a fifth of what is needed to live in Bangladesh with dignity. With production costs increasingly on the rise, the human cost is the easiest to keep low.
Consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics behind fast fashion and are demanding change. Larger brands are starting to take responsibility for safety in their overseas factories and are “working proactively on social responsibility within the supply chain”. But for workers on the front line, not much has changed.
The Modern Slavery Act (now law in the UK since 2015) states that brands who turn over more than £36m a year must publish a statement outlining the steps they’ve taken to ensure their supply chain is free of slave labour and human rights abuses – but this still doesn’t address low wages and security concerns.
The human cost of the garment industry is too big to ignore, as we consistently witness this type of exploitation. As women, we are the main consumers of the fast fashion industry. Only if we demand higher standards, higher wages, and better worker’s rights for the women making our clothes will things start to change.
As women, we need to stand together, demand more, and ask “who made my clothes?” So the next time you pick up a fast fashion “bargain” on the high street, ask yourself who has really paid the price.
About the Author
Sian is a love of travel, fashion and all things ethical. She is one of the founders of Little Lotus Boutique, supporting artisans and championing handmade, ethical garments from across the globe. She lives and blogs in the UK but rarely sits still and can often be found with a backpack on exploring a different corner of the world!