If there was a label on the clothing you purchased that said, “created by slave labor” or “made by a child” would you still purchase it? You're probably thinking, "of course I wouldn't", but you might need to think again. Chances are, your favorite items have these tags—they’re just invisible.
And that’s because the big name fashion brands that we all know and love (well, we used too, anyway) don’t want you to see the devastation behind what they create. They don’t want you to witness the atrocities that take place during the manufacturing processes, because if you did, you’d be the one protesting in the streets with the thousands of women who are fighting for a more just and humane existence, and not blowing your hard earned money on apparel that was never meant to make it past the season.
Brands who idealize the notion of fast-fashion aren’t looking out for the consumer and their needs; they’re focused on producing clothing at the cheapest price, which often times leads to unjust manufacturing processes, compromises in quality of clothing, and even human rights violations. Many of these factories are filled with mostly women, some in their teens, some just children.
Most of the world’s fast fashion clothing is manufactured in Bangladesh and China, countries that are notorious for having less than adequate protection for their workers. In 2013, the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh (one of the nearly 5,000 located there) collapsed, killing 1,100 people and injuring over 2,000. The building was unfit to for workers due to many safety violations, including cracks in the walls, ceilings, and nonexistent fire exits, conditions unions continuously complained about to no avail. Sadly, this is just one of MANY incidents resulting in the death of workers.
After the devastating incident, The Bangladesh Accord was introduced as an independent yet legally binding contract in which international brands, retailers, and trade unions voluntarily agree to ensure they will provide all Bangladeshi workers with a safe and healthy ready-made garment industry (RMG). According to the Accord’s website, it consists of six key components:
- A five year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi RMG industry
- An independent inspection program supported by brands in which workers and trade unions are involved
- Public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and corrective action plans (CAP)
- A commitment by signatory brands to ensure sufficient funds are available for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships
- Democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories to identify and act on health and safety risks
- Worker empowerment through an extensive training program, complaints mechanism and the right to refuse unsafe work.
Although many of the world's leading brands have signed this accord and it's a step in the right direction, there are a few things to note about this agreement:
- This only refers to workers and factories in Bangladesh, even though workers around the world are affected by the same threats
- The accord doesn’t address the issues surrounding the long and lethal hours many workers are subject to
- This accord doesn’t hold these brands responsible for paying a livable wage or benefits, an issue that is rampant throughout the industry
Not only are garment makers subject to long and lethal hours in unfit buildings, but they’re also often paid unlivable wages, and the law isn’t on their side. In Bangladesh, the average garment worker makes less than $3 USD a day, an unlivable wage even to local standards, yet it remains one of the lowest minimum wages in the world. Bangladesh isn't alone in this exploitation from global brands, but so are garment workers in Cambodia, China, India, Morroco, Turkey--need I go on?
Adheer Bahulkar, a partner in the retail practice of global strategy at A.T. Kearney a management consulting firm, shares why brands won't change their ways, “For most brands this is not a priority by itself, because while more than two-thirds of consumers say that they want better living conditions for the workers, less than half of the same consumers are actually willing to pay more for their purchases.”
Many brands take advantage of the extremely low wages, whether they like to publically admit it or not. Last year the leading RMG brand, Zara, got caught up in a human rights scandal. Although their website states, “Right to Wear is how we do business at every stage – operating in a way that is right for our customers, right for workers, right for communities and right for the environment”, many incidents prove otherwise.
In November of 2017, the Independent released a report indicating shoppers across Istanbul found secret messages written inside clothing by the Turkish workers who made them, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” Inditex, the parent company of Zara, released a statement in response pushing the blame on the third party manufacturer they employed, Bravo.
They were quick to push the blame elsewhere and although they helped initiate a joint hardship fund with Mango and Next, other brands that used Bravo manufacturing, it only covered a quarter of what the workers were owed.
Their claim of not being responsible for neglecting to pay workers would have had some weight, but one crucial fact came to light that suggests Zara is more aware of participating in slave labor than they’d like to admit.
Zara owns 50% of the factories they use, which is how they are able to get garments from design to shelves in less than two weeks—an industry first. This begs the question, how could they not have known who they were in bed with, being the manufacturing geniuses of the decade?
According to SCM Globe, Zara’s success is based on their micromanagement of supply chain, essentially supporting that there is no way they weren’t aware of their worker's conditions, “However, a fast-moving and finely tuned supply chain like Zara’s requires constant attention to keep it running smoothly. Supply chain planners and managers are always watching customer demand and making adjustments to manufacturing and supply chain operations.”
Due to the company being privately owned, it’s not legally obliged to released information regularly shared by public companies. However, what is known, is that founder Amancio Ortega regularly competes for the spot of the richest man in the world.
Zara is the industry standard when it comes to fast-fashion, and with more and more brands desperate to keep up with their churn and burn styles and prices, it’s likely more and more corners will be cut in order to deliver goods at this new industry standard. It's up to you to decide, is it worth it?
You may be asking, how you can become an informed consumer? Start paying attention to the companies you support. Ask yourself—where are these products made? Who makes them? Are these clothes clean?