This horrific tragedy remained one of the world’s worst industrial accidents in history. 1,138 garment workers were killed and most of them were women who made clothes for dozens of the best-selling fashion brands. The incident put a spotlight on the existing poor working conditions of garment workers who were paid very little to make clothes for us.
This year, Fashion Revolution Week takes place from 19th April to 25th April and its aim is to raise awareness regarding the systemic issues concerning the fashion industry, focusing on the interconnectedness of human rights and the rights of nature. This is the time when we come together to demand and make positive changes concerning the environmental and social issues that are prevalent in the fashion industry.
Why should we care?
As much as we love clothes, we cannot continue to exploit resources, put more burden on our natural world, pollute our land and oceans, disregard the alarming rate of climate change, and expect the economically underdeveloped countries to take care of our waste. Nor can we continue to allow big brands to profit at the expense of garment workers who are struggling to live with dignity.
Since the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, many positive changes have been observed. Many brands have shown greater transparency and accountability. Despite all these, various issues remain invisible, obscured, and misunderstood. This is because the entire supply chain is often complex, and many brands have yet to map out their entire supply chain. According to the Fashion Transparency Report, 101 out of 250 (40%) of the world’s largest fashion brands published their first-tier manufacturers, while only 7% reported some of their raw material suppliers.
Furthermore, human rights abuses and environmental degradation remain widespread across the global fashion industry. While more people have recently become aware of these problems, a vast majority of people are still oblivious to the impact of their clothes on human exploitation and climate change. Here are some of the main reasons why there is still a need for major improvements in the fashion industry.
1. Large Gap Between Living Wage And Minimum Wage
Garment workers are commonly known to be paid very little for their work. Even though wages have increased in some countries where clothing is made, many people in the supply chain are still paid too little and struggle to afford most of life’s necessities. In countries throughout Asia where most of our clothes are made, wages for garment workers typically equate to the country’s minimum wage. Yet, minimum wages are often extremely low compared to what is called a living wage.
In Bangladesh, data from “Tailored Wages 2019: The state of pay in the global garment industry” report tells us that the legal minimum wage is $118 per month, while the actual living wage for a single person is $558 per month. This means that a Bangladeshi worker would need to be paid about 5 times more than the current minimum wage to afford a decent standard of living.
2. Crisis Further Deepened By Covid-19
At the start of the pandemic, many big brands cancelled orders that they had placed with factories and suppliers before the pandemic. According to the researchers at the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium, the “value of apparel imports to the US and the European Union plummeted by $16.2 billion between April and June last year.”
As a result, suppliers significantly reduced or suspended operations, or even went out of business resulting in reduced income, temporary suspension or even job termination for garment workers. Many of the workers who had permanently lost their jobs, “did not receive the mandated severance pay” that they urgently needed.
When operations resumed, brands demanded for discounts and even extended payment terms for the goods they ordered. The minimum wages were often barely enough before the pandemic. Brands’ responses to COVID-19 pandemic further left the workers unprotected. As a result, garment workers’ declining incomes lead to widespread hunger among them and their families. About 77% of garment workers in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia reported that they or a member of their household “had gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic” (Workers Rights Consortium,2020).
3. Gender-Based Discrimination And Abuse
Furthermore, gender-based discrimination and abuse are still prevalent in the fashion supply chain. Millions of garment workers around the world are young women, often in extremely low-paid jobs. Men are usually employed in supervisory, management, and ownership positions in factories, making women particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are still common in the fashion supply chain. “One in every two women workers in garment factories in Southeast Asia has experienced sexual harassment” (CARE International, 2019).
4. No Genuine Freedom Of Association
In some parts of Asia such as in Bangladesh, hundreds of new trade unions have been registered in recent years. Despite that, workers who try to organize and fight for better pay and working conditions are continued to be cracked down by the government and garment factory owners. In late 2018 and early 2019, more than 11,600 garment workers in Bangladesh were arrested, fired, or forced to resign for participating in strikes. “Police reportedly used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas against the protestors” (IndustriALL Global Union, 2019).
The Myanmar military coup early this year has also cost countless garment workers’ deaths. Although some brands temporarily paused placing new orders with suppliers in Myanmar, “the action brands took did not provide any meaningful support to workers who protested in the strike” (Ecotextile 2020).
5. Forced Labour In The Supply Chain
Evidence of forced labour is also presented in Xinjiang, China where cotton is grown and picked by Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, against their will in vast detention camps (Wall Street Journal, 2019). Many brands such as H&M and IKEA publicly published that they have stopped buying cotton yarn from this region.
However, China is a major producer of cotton worldwide contributing 20% to the global cotton market, of which more than 80% originates from Xinjiang province. Although brands may not source directly from factories in Xinjiang, there is still a high risk that the cotton used may still come from that region.
Brands typically only know their first-tier suppliers, who assemble the final product. The suppliers typically source fabric from a mill which buys yarn from a spinning mill which in turn buys cotton from a broker who buys cotton from various farms. This makes tracing cotton to a specific region or farms extremely challenging. Therefore, there is still much more work to ensure forced labour is not present in the supply chain.
6. Global Warming And Other Environmental Impacts
As consumers worldwide buy more clothes, the growing market for cheap items and new styles is taking a toll on the environment. “On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000.”
As such, the fashion industry is “responsible for 10 % of annual global carbon emissions” (UN Alliance, 2018), more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). Furthermore, textile production is very water-intensive and “dries up water in some of the water-scarce regions.” Dyes and chemicals are often released into rivers and streams, changing the colour of the river and destroying the local ecosystem.
Furthermore, most of the businesses in the industry operate under the current linear model of making, using, and disposing, and thus create tonnes of waste every year. Majority of the clothes we discard either end up in landfills or incinerators. Less than 1% of textiles and clothes are recycled into new textiles and clothes (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). Currently, the textile to textile recycling technology is simply not available at scale, and we cannot depend on recycling alone to address these waste issues.
Though many brands and businesses are already taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, most of these efforts are focused on reducing the impact of materials and introducing energy efficiency in their operations. A more radical shift is needed to encourage a reduction in consumption and promote longer utilization of clothes. The industry needs to move fast in adopting a circular model to promote garment rental, resale, repair, and refurbishment; to increase used clothes collection and to design clothes that can be disassembled and recycled easily.
How to get involved?
To create positive changes and shine a light on these issues, we all need to collectively take actions so that we can use our voices to lift millions of workers out of poverty, provide them with decent and dignified livelihoods, as well as protect and restore our living planet.
So, let’s do our part and join the fight in this revolution. Here are a few things you can do this week:
Take a selfie with the 'Who made my clothes?' poster, post it on your social media and tag the brand #WhoMadeMyClothes?
Write an email (free template here) to your favourite brand and ask them who made your fabric.
Invite a friend to join Fashion Revolution Week.
Join our Virtual Movie Night for the screening of The True Cost on April 23-25, 2021. Save your spot here.
- Visit the Fashion Open Studio which allows you to step into designers’ studios virtually and meet the people that make your clothes.
To find out more about why a Fashion Revolution is needed, how to get involved and access further resources to help you learn about the key issues facing the fashion industry, please visit www.fashionrevolution.org.
Also, here are a few documentaries worth watching if you want to find out more about the negative consequences fashion industry has on the environment as well as people.
- The True Cost: This documentary exposes us to the ugly side of the fashion industry and challenges us to think who pays the price for our clothing.
- River Blue: This film offers awareness about the toxic side effects of textile and jean manufacturing on some of the world’s largest rivers and its effect on humanity.
All photos sourced from Unsplash, Canva or Fashion Revolution Week Free Media Kit