Sunlight coming through a chain.
27 Jan
Sunlight coming through a chain.

Exploitation in the Fashion Industry Is by Design

The globalisation of supply chains has led to some of the worst exploitation in the fashion industry, as garment workers suffer under the tyranny of big brands that treat them like mere commodities. The Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign is one way to help build real corporate accountability.

The reality of the people who make our clothes

“People used to import slaves to their rich countries, but right now we are being enslaved within our own communities, through the globalisation of our supply chain,” says Nasreen Sheikh.

As a former child labourer in a Kathmandu garment factory, Nasreen Sheikh’s words about modern slavery conditions hiding in plain sight across the fashion industry ring truer than most.

“As garment workers, we become a living machine,” she reflected in an interview with Fashion Revolution. “We are not born just to be poor, but we are being treated in this society by capitalism, by colonialism, by greed and control and fear.”

It may be tempting to disconnect from the reality of the people who make our clothes, particularly when headlines about low pay, gender-based violence, union busting, and wage theft flood our feeds just as frequently as targeted ads for so-called sustainable fashion. But as brand billionaires multiply while garment workers struggle to afford life’s basic necessities, it is critical to scrutinise the origins of exploitation in the fashion system, and more importantly, who benefits from maintaining the status quo.

The hangover of fashion’s colonial roots

The fashion industry’s role in colonial exploits such as the Transatlantic slave trade and the cultural devastation of India is a shameful legacy, but from trade routes to power relations, a fundamental systemic change is still yet to manifest. Colonisation—a deliberate regime of cultural supremacy—has always been enacted through the extraction of resources and the exploitation of labour. So, just as colonialism explicitly commodified and devalued people and land to bring wealth and power to empires, the modern fashion system proudly echoes this dark history. In fact, a 2020 article by sustainable fashion advocates Ayesha Barenblat and Aditi Mayer explicitly names Western fashion brands as today’s colonial masters.

Just as colonialism explicitly commodified and devalued people and land to bring wealth and power to empires, the modern fashion system proudly echoes this dark history.

It is these structural power imbalances between fashion corporations and their suppliers that lock millions of garment and textile workers—most of whom are living in regions previously impacted by imperial extraction—into a cycle of poverty. “Fashion racism isn’t just what we see in magazines and on runways,” fashion labour researcher Minh-Ha T. Pham reminds us in her webinar on racism in fashion supply chains for Slow Factory Foundation. “It is also in the invisible structures and relationships that act as core mechanisms of fashion’s systemic racism, which is sustained by the policies, contracts, and laws that constitute global fashion supply chains.”

Fashion is one of the world’s most lucrative sectors, so it is not for lack of funds but a lack of redistributive measures that have sustained this unfair and exploitative system. In Europe alone, the market size of the industry was valued at $532.8bn in 2021 (GlobalData). Meanwhile, millions of people working in the supply chains that fuel European consumers’ desire for new clothing are not paid enough to fulfil their basic needs. COVID-19 further deepened this inequality, with Oxfam reporting that a new billionaire was created every 30 hours during the pandemic, at the same rate that one million people risked falling into extreme poverty. This is no coincidence. “Building back better” after the pandemic must include dismantling the very structures that allowed businesses to profit off the back of workers suffering.

Chasing the cheap needle around the world

Today’s fashion supply chains trace colonial trading routes, which are upheld by a “race to the bottom” by corporate powers constantly seeking to squeeze labour costs and maximise markup. Delphine Williot, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Fashion Revolution, describes this dynamic as being upheld by an extreme power difference between fashion brands and the suppliers and workers who make our clothes. “The economy of many garment-producing countries strongly relies on bringing in business from western brands—they will dictate the contract terms and push suppliers to accept them at the cost of losing business to other countries with more competitive pricing and delivery times,” Williot adds.

The rapid economic development of countries like Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest exporters of ready-made-garments (RMG), is closely linked to the fashion industry. Therefore, a common question that arises in debates about this neocolonial reliance on Western business interests is simply, “what about jobs?” But it is precisely this paternalistic perspective that keeps Bangladesh’s 4.2 million RMG workers trapped in a debt-riddled cycle of low wage labour and diminishing participation in civil society driven by excessive and exhausting overtime. Meanwhile, a lack of robust regulation means that retailers in the Global North are able to avoid accountability for improving the working conditions of the very jobs they create.

In her debut book Consumed: The need for collective change; colonialism, climate change & consumerism, fashion writer Aja Barber discusses this false dichotomy in detail. “The notion that any company which claims the jobs it brings overseas is an altruistic move really should be codified as ‘its cheaper’,” she reminds us. “No one wants to acknowledge that this cycle is never about altruism or bringing jobs to people. It’s about stopping change happening from within.”

The limits to individual action

Recently, increasing numbers of major brands have publicly promised to do the right thing by garment workers, attempting to repent for decades of investigations into the murky reality of fashion supply chains. But according to the latest Fashion Transparency Index, 96% of brands still do not publish the number of workers in their supply chain paid a living wage.

The truth is, we do not have time to wait any longer for voluntary measures and empty promises from individual brands. The industry needs to be held accountable by law. One place to start is in the EU, the largest clothing and textiles importer in the world. The EU has the responsibility to ensure that all clothing, whether made domestically or overseas, is made in safe conditions with fair pay. Which is why the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign is calling for EU legislation that requires extensive living wage due diligence is conducted by any brand selling onto the EU market. This is not about Western governments “fixing” problems in recently industrialised countries, but instead building real corporate accountability for the problems caused by brands in the first place.

The global fashion supply chain is like a pyramid scheme with garment workers at the bottom and wealthy executives at the top.

The global fashion supply chain is like a pyramid scheme with garment workers at the bottom and wealthy executives at the top. It is by design that this pyramid is propped up largely by women of colour in the Global South. We need to recognise the structural racism inherent in the fashion system, and we need to shift the balance of power.

If you are an EU citizen, sign your name for Good Clothes, Fair Pay now. The petition must reach one million signatures by July 2023 in order for the European Commission to respond, so every action helps to demand fair pay as a fundamental human right for the people who make our clothes.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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