How does fashion fuel modern slavery?

Slavery is interwoven into the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the products we use on a daily basis. It could even be happening right on your doorstep. Despite being an offence that’s outlawed in every nation across the globe, there are more people held in slavery today than at any other point in human history.

When it comes to fashion, slavery occurs at all stages of the supply chain; from state-sponsored enforced labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and young women trapped in the cotton mills of India right through to children working in the garment factories of Bangladesh.

How do we know if slavery was used to make the clothes hanging in our wardrobes? The answer may not be immediately obvious - you can’t actually tell if slave labour was used to make an item of clothing just by looking at it. What you can do is make an educated guess by delving a bit deeper and taking a look at the facts:

Yep. According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, fashion ranks second (after tech) in the top five global industries implicated in fuelling modern day slavery.

Pick an item of clothing and take a look at the label. Then, answer these 3 questions:

1. Where was it made?
China, Bangladesh and India are three of the world’s biggest clothing manufacturing hubs. The Modern Slavery Index 2017 (MSI) has found that there is an ‘extreme’ or ‘high’ risk of slavery being used in supply chains in each of these countries, with China (the world’s largest clothing manufacturer) being one of the worst offenders. The MSI also found that incidents of slavery have increased in supply chains all across Europe, largely due to the sudden influx of migrants who are highly vulnerable to exploitation. The five EU countries that pose the highest risk of slavery are Romania, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Bulgaria. Of these countries, Romania and Italy have the highest number of reported violations in the EU, including severe forms of forced labour and human trafficking. Turkey was also placed in the ‘high risk’ category; the war in Syria has driven more than 3 million people across the border and many of them have been forced to join the country’s informal workforce due to a restrictive work permit system. In 2016 a BBC Panorama documentary found that asylum seekers and refugees (including children) were being exploited while making clothes for well-known high street stores in the UK.

The Global Slavery Index has revealed that out of the all the products imported into the UK, clothing is most at risk of of being produced under conditions of modern slavery, with 35% of all clothing imports (worth over $9 billion) coming from ‘at-risk’ countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

2. What material is it made from?
Cotton is one of the most widely used fabrics in the clothing industry, and one of the most controversial. In India, thousands of girls and young women are deceived and trafficked into the cotton mills of Tamil Nadu. Under the Sumangali system, impoverished families are encouraged to sign up their daughter(s) to receive a large bulk payment in return for three years’ work in the cotton mills. However, despite promises of clean living spaces, learning opportunities, good working conditions and a living wage, after arrival many of these young women and girls describe having their movements restricted, living in squalid and overcrowded accommodation, working excessive hours and being subject to sexual harassment and abuse. In many cases, the promised bulk payment never materialises or is significantly reduced, having been subject to various deductions to cover things like living costs and penalties for ‘mistakes’ made by the women in their work. Often referred to as the ‘Textile Valley of India’, much of the cotton used in clothing all over the world is spun, woven and dyed in the cotton mills of Tamil Nadu.

Not all slavery happens under the radar. Each year, over one million people are sent to harvest cotton under a system of state-sponsored forced labour in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cotton. Although the labels on our clothing tell us about the materials they’re made out of, they don’t reveal where that material was sourced. The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of international organisations working to end the use of forced labour in Uzbekistan. They’ve created the Cotton Pledge, which asks brands to commit to avoid using Uzbek cotton in their clothes. Over 250 brands including H&M, Adidas, Nike, Gap and Zara have already signed up. Find out if the brand that made your clothes has added their name by taking a look at the pledge here.

3. Was it made by a fast fashion brand?
If so, there’s a higher chance that slavery was used to make it.

According to human rights organisation Anti-Slavery:

…the way in which companies operate can increase the likelihood of slavery in the final product. If a brand gives its supplier a large order with a short turnaround time beyond the suppliers’ capacity, this could increase the risk of slavery as the supplier may subcontract work to factories that are not regulated by the same standards as the supplier.”

Placing large orders with tight deadlines is common practice in fast fashion, an industry built on a high turnover of new trends. Because brands don’t set up formal relationships with sub-contracted factories, they aren’t subject to the same scrutiny as officially-contracted suppliers and they’re not required to comply with a brand’s standards and policies. Although brands are well aware that sub-contracting happens regularly, the lack of monitoring in these factories significantly increases the likelihood of slave labour and other human rights abuses occurring.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires all clothing brands with a presence in the UK and an annual turnover of over £36 million to publish a statement on the steps they’re taking to ensure that slavery isn’t happening anywhere along the supply chain. However, the use of sub-contracting - where clothing is made in factories other than the brand’s official supplier - demonstrates that brands often don’t know who is making their clothes and what conditions those people are working in. Can brands really claim to be taking effective action against slavery in their supply chains if they don’t have this kind of information? Here’s a clue: No.

While the business practices of fast fashion brands make slavery in the supply chain more likely, other brands aren’t immune to the risks either. Slave labour is embedded deep into the supply chains of every type of clothing brand, from high-street discount stores all the way up to high-end luxury labels. Accelerated levels of production and the ‘race to the bottom’ in search of cheap labour combined with a lack of transparency in the way our clothes are made has created a perfect storm in which human rights abuses have been allowed to continue for decades.

So, have the clothes in your wardrobe been made by slaves? Probably - but the story doesn’t end there. More of us are starting to make the connection between our clothes and the people who make them. As consumers, we’re beginning to look beyond the price tag towards the true social and environmental cost of our clothes, challenging brands to become more transparent and demanding higher standards.

Fashion Revolution explains why this matters:

“Transparency means companies know who makes their products – from who stitched them right through to who dyed the fabric and who farmed the cotton. When companies are working in a transparent way, this also implies openness, communication and accountability across the supply chain and with the public too. At the moment the public do not have enough information about where and how their clothes are made. Shoppers have the right to know that their money is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is essential.”

Transparency builds trust, and more brands are realising that it’s time to allow their customers to take a look behind the scenes.


It’s not all doom ‘n’ gloom. The ethical fashion scene is burgeoning with new brands who are showing that it’s possible to combine radical transparency with great design. If you want to be sure your next clothing purchase is #slavefree, do some research and find a brand that’s open about every stage of their production.

Earlier this year we spoke to Charlotte Instone, founder of Know The Origin. She explained the story behind the name of her brand:

“Know The Origin is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of name. We want to use our brand as a tool to prove the importance and urgency of transparency in fashion. It acts to challenge consumers and brands alike on whether we really know who made our clothes. We encourage brands to be open about their supply chains and to enforce fair practices so that we can create a culture of accountability within fashion.”

Why not take a break from fast fashion to support a brand that’s actively doing good instead? If this one’s a struggle, ask us for inspiration or follow us on Instagram for more ideas.

Want to know who made your clothes? Ask the brand that sold them to you. You can be part of the movement calling for greater transparency in fashion in 3 simple steps: take a picture of the label in any item of clothing in your wardrobe, post it on social media, tag the brand and ask #whomademyclothes? Learn more about how this simple action is transforming fashion supply chains here (and tag us with any responses you get from the brand!)




Sumangali: The Untold Stories
More than 200,000 women and girls are trafficked into the cotton mills in Tamil Nadu, India. Deceived with promises of a steady job and good earnings prospects, many of them discover that the reality they face in the mills is vastly different to the life they imagined.



Wardrobe Crisis Podcast by Clare Press
There are heeeaps of brilliant episodes on this podcast…but to stay on topic, here’s 3 to get you going:
Baroness Lola Young on Modern Slavery
Safia Minney on Fair Trade
Outland Denim’s James Bartle on Fighting Human Trafficking




Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney
Read the stories of the men, women and children caught in slavery making the clothes we buy in high street shops across the world. Author Safia Minney explains how business-as-usual in today’s fashion industry keeps people trapped in systems of exploitation and lays out a roadmap for the simple steps we can all take to bring positive change

How many slaves work for you?
Slavery exists within so many of the things we love; clothes, phones, coffee, chocolate. This interactive questionnaire takes you on a short journey to discover how many slaves are working to make the products that you use, wear and consume on a daily basis.


Take a look at some of the brilliant organisations working to educate people on slavery and fighting to end it. Sign a petition, support a campaign, spread the word, repeat.


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