Fast fashion: the human cost

Fast fashion may be cheap to buy, but what about the cost to the people who make our clothes? Emily takes a closer look at the social impacts of the fashion industry.

The biggest industrial disasters of our generation

The horrors of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013 brought global attention to the dangerous conditions associated with the fashion industry. This was the biggest industrial accident in a generation, killing more than 1,130 garment factory workers, but it was not an isolated incident; death and injury were already a known risk for garment workers in developing countries. Just five months earlier, 112 people had been killed in fires at Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka. And two months before that, the worst industrial disaster in Pakistan’s history had killed more than 250 people at Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi.


Driven by demand?

These tragedies have a particular, intimate link to our lives and choices. The workers at Rana Plaza, Tazreen Fashion and Ali Enterprises were producing clothing for mainstream European and US companies. That the worst industrial disasters in modern history happened within the last five years at clothing factories is striking. Are the disasters on this scale directly linked to our Western consumers’ increasing desire preference for “fast fashion” - cheap clothing, hastily produced to respond to the latest trend in record time? And beneath the headline disasters, what do we really know about the people making our clothes today? Is there a deeper, human cost to “low-cost” clothing?


The particular nature of the fashion industry

The industry is worth an estimated $1.7 trillion a year and is a manifestation of globalization, operating across countries and continents. It's one of the most labour-intensive sectors, employing more than 75 million worldwide today, 80% of whom are women and girls. Towards the end of the 20th century the majority of global clothing production shifted from developed to developing countries, particularly in Asia. The fashion industry contributes over $600 billion in exports across Asia and has contributed to significant economic development and poverty reduction across the region.

Employing high numbers of workers in poorer countries means the fashion industry has the potential to create positive change for millions of people; there is huge potential to be a force for good on a global scale. Given that 80% of garment workers are female, the industry also has the potential to support the economic and social empowerment of women in particular. But this is undermined by the trend towards faster, lower-cost production, driven by consumer demand, which has accelerated over the last decade. On average, we now buy 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for half as long compared to what we did 15 years ago.

The fashion industry is notoriously “buyer-driven”; the retailers and traders – predominantly in Europe, US and Japan – are able to dictate where, how, and for what price their clothes are produced. The sub-contracting of production across different countries allows retailers to force down prices and involves complex supply chains with limited visibility and transparency. And it's those who sit at the bottom of the chain who largely bear the brunt.            


The human cost

Garment industry workers tend to be poor, young, less educated, and predominantly female – and working in countries with poor regulation and limited workers’ and women’s rights. Combined with the demands of fast fashion for large volumes of clothes produced as quickly and cheaply as possible, it is not surprising to find human suffering at the end of the fashion industry’s supply chain.

Not all garment and textile workers worldwide are subject to exploitation and dangerous working conditions – some countries and factories are better at pay and protection than others. And for many workers, this is their best option for earning a wage and escaping extreme poverty. Nevertheless, the global fashion industry experience for many millions of workers is shocking:

Unsafe, unsanitary conditions.
Many garment factory buildings – such as the Rana Plaza’s upper levels - have been hurriedly and cheaply constructed as developers see the opportunity to cash in on global demand for cheap clothing. These buildings do not provide appropriate structural support and are at risk of collapse or fire. The workshops are often overcrowded and lack access to safe drinking water and to toilets. The chemicals and burning processes used in the production of clothes can also be hazardous to the health of workers.

Extremely low wages
With many costs of production fixed – such as machinery and material – reducing production costs generally involves driving down workers’ wages. The official minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is around $68 per month, significantly less than is needed to meet basic needs and to support a family. Poor law enforcement and exploitation means many workers across Asia are paid below their country’s legal minimum wage, particularly women. Even with some wage increases, many garment workers are even poorer than they were a decade ago, given the inflation in food and housing costs. Even with full-time jobs, the workers and their children are unable to escape hand-to-mouth survival.

Long hours
Most garment workers in Asia work a six-day week as standard, rising to seven days when tight deadlines for production need to be met. Many work 10-14 hours per day, increasing the risk of accidents and ill health, and are not entitled to breaks or to paid leave.

Garment workers are often at the mercy of unscrupulous factory bosses. Although the Rana Plaza building had been declared structurally unsafe after cracks appeared, workers were ordered back in the following day, with threats of withheld pay. Owners of factories are able to build unsafe structures and pay illegally low wages by offering bribes to authorities and inspection companies. Meanwhile, workers demanding more rights and better conditions are often intimidated and prevented from taking collective action. One year before the Rana Plaza disaster, a Bangladeshi labour activist, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and murdered near a police station outside Dhaka.

Physical and sexual abuse is prevalent. For example, a 2016 study of garment workers in South India found that 60% of women had experienced intimidation and violence in the workplace, with one in seven women reporting sexual violence at work.

Child labour
The International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million children are caught in illegal child labour - many in the industry and textiles sectors. Children are employed at all stages of the supply chain – from cotton picking, to spinning, to sewing – and are often preferred for their smaller, more delicate hands and because they will accept even lower wages.


What now?

The Rana Plaza disaster triggered national and global action to support garment workers in developing countries. New regulations and agreements have been reached on building safety, workers’ rights, and increasing pay, with varying degrees of success in implementation. Many brands rushed to sign the Bangladesh Accord, set up in the wake of Rana Plaza to show their commitment to ensuring that the people who make their clothes have access to safe working environments. Five years on, with the media spotlight turned away, many of the original signatories have been slow to add their names to the new agreement which came into effect in June 2018. Effective, sustainable change needs to happen at the top through legislation and meaningful collaboration between brands and other industry stakeholders. But we also cannot escape the implications for us as consumers if our desire for cheap, disposable clothing is one of the principle drivers of exploitation and dangerous conditions in garment-producing countries, on an ever-increasing scale. So what can we do?

1. Reduce the amount of clothes you buy - and when you do buy, get something you love that you'll wear for a long time.

2. Buy better quality - here's some tips on how to tell if a garment is well-made 

3. Use your voice to encourage greater transparency in the fashion supply chain by asking brands #whomademyclothes?

4. Sign the Fashion Revolution Manifesto

Want to know more about how to help change fashion for good? Sign up here for ideas and inspiration sent straight to your inbox once a month.





Emily Ribeiro