Your Clothes are Exploiting Workers

“It takes a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break.” (Forbes)

Fashion is a $2.5 trillion global industry. In 2017, the US alone spent $380 billion on apparel and footwear. Waste of this industry? 92 million tones, that is 4% of the world’s waste per year. An average American throws away over 68 pounds of textiles per year directly into landfills. With the rise of fast fashion, we are negatively impacting the environment. Fast Fashion brands like H&M, Zara, Missguided, Forever 21 and more are bringing new ‘‘trendy’ wear to their stores (and online) every week. This, of course, is affecting the way people shop, the waste they create and how they discard this waste.

 Let’s first describe the term ‘fast fashion’. What is fast fashion? Below are three definitions collected by The Good Trade:

 Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.
Good on You

"Fast fashion” is a term used by fashion retailers to describe inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends. As a result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Today, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in a single week to stay on-trend.
INVESTOPEDIA

An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.
Merriam Webster

Fast Fashion brands are constantly coming up with new designs and offering them at a low price. It encourages you, a customer to buy more. What we need to understand is that the piece of clothing you buy because it is trendy and cheap is not only affecting the environment but someone’s life somewhere. Your cheap clothes have a heavy price behind the price you actually pay.  

Credit: https://www.thegoodtrade.com

Credit: https://www.thegoodtrade.com

Zara’s founder, Amancio Ortega is one of the wealthiest men in Europe and the wealthiest retailer in the world. He is worth $68.5 billion as of 07/08/2019. Zara has deliveries to its stores twice per week! That dress you bought on Sunday from Zara may be out of trend on Wednesday, this is done deliberately because fast fashion brands want you to buy more. It is also known that fast fashion clothing may fall apart after the first wash. Our choice to buy more not only contributes to climate change but it also affects the people who are part of the supply chain. In 2017, according to Global Citizen, Zara’s workers added a note on the clothes they made for the brand. What did the note say? “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it”, Zara’s founder and other fast fashion brands’ owners are making billions out of this industry but many of their workers are not getting paid on time.

Big brands exploiting workers in developing countries is not new news. Back in April 2013, Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed, due to crack in the building and killed 1,132 people and left 2,500 people injured. Five months before, 112 workers lost their lives after becoming trapped inside the burning Tazreen Fashion factory in outskirts of Dhaka. The crack on Rana Plaza was noticed by the workers the day before the incident but they were asked to come back to work the very next day, the day the building collapsed. We would think (and expect) that the brands would make a change to make sure their workers are working in a safe environment and getting paid fairly but that is not the case.

Credit: https://labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/

Credit: https://labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/

Recently, factories in India were found to have given unmarked pills to their female employees under strict supervision that often lead to side-effects like depression, UTIs and miscarriages. Moreover, child labor and even forced labor in the textile industry is still a huge problem. The ILO (International Labour Organisation) estimates that 170 million children are engaged in child labor, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond. According to Forbes, “75 million people are making our clothes today. 80% is made by women who are only 18 – 24 years old. It takes a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break. A majority of them earn less than $3 per day.”

With the rise of demand for fast Fashion, workers, especially women, are facing pressure to meet their quotas often leading them to work long hours in an extremely unsafe (physically and mentally) environments. In factories where H&M and Gap’s clothes are made, workers reported threats and abuses they faced according to the Guardian. These allegations recorded between January and May of 2018 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, are a direct result of pressure for quick turnarounds and low overheads. One of the factories in India (supplier of H&M) a worker reported that her supervisor came behind her and yelled, ‘You are not meeting your target production.’ [Then] he pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again [and] kicked me.” Another factory worker in Indonesia (supplier of Gap) said, “… [supervisors] throw materials. They kick our chairs. They don’t touch us, so they don’t leave a mark that could be used as evidence with the police.”


When we shop, we need to look beyond the price tag. Many workers are facing abuse every day in their workplace, moreover, they are exposed to harmful chemicals.

 What can you do?

  1. Do not buy clothes just because they are trendy and cheap. Avoid retailers who are known for their fast fashion and do not fall victim to greenwashing as portrayed by these retailers.

  2. Look for certification labels like GOTS and Fair Trade before buying clothes to verify that the workers and environment are treated well.

  3. Ask brands to make their supply chain transparent. Sometimes the brand’s main supplier may outsource their work without the brand’s knowledge so brands need to make sure their supply chain is held to a high standard. They should have knowledge of when and where their suppliers choose to outsource. Join Fashion Revolution.

  4. Donate, repurpose, or sell your used but wearable clothes. Purchase secondhand if purchasing ethically made clothing is outside of your budget.

  5. Choose brands who practice sustainable business. Before buying anything make sure you use every piece of clothing in your closet.