Fashion is one of the most labour-dependent industries because each piece of apparel must be handmade along a lengthy supply chain. 1 in 6 of the world’s workers are employed in the fashion industry, and a majority of those workers are female. This makes fashion a hot button feminist topic when considering the implications of employing so many women in an unregulated labour market. In line with the Fashion Revolution Week 2021 theme of ‘Rights, Relationships, and Revolution’, we wanted to answer the all-important question: what is the impact of fast fashion on garment workers?
Every year, we collectively purchase tens of billions of pieces of new clothing globally. A McKinsey and Company study found that fashion consumption increased by 60% between 2000 and 2014 alone. By 2030, it is estimated the fashion industry will consume resources equivalent to two Earths, with the demand for clothing forecast to increase by 63%. To meet the demand of fast fashion’s ever-changing window displays, fashion as we know it has been increasingly reliant upon low-cost labour. Over the decades, the fashion industry has made an intentional choice to move its labour to low-income Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Here it recruits mainly female factory workers because of Asian women’s social and economic vulnerability.
The realities of unsafe workplaces
Workers’ rights violations are commonplace in these off-shore factories for fast fashion garment workers. And while extreme poverty certainly affects both men and women, women experience many more obstacles in escaping poverty. They often feel unable to organise and advocate for themselves as a group, either due to cultural norms or strict anti-union policies within the workplace. Stories coming out of factories in Bangladesh tell us about women with bladder infections due to a lack of bathroom breaks and managers forcing women to take the contraceptive pill. The lack of a living wage amplifies issues like denial of maternity leave, inadequate sanitation, and sexual harassment in the workplace.
An Oxfam 2019 report found that 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and 1% of Vietnamese garment workers earned a living wage. This prevents workers from saving money to have a safety net while looking for alternative employment. Often, women start their daughters working in the factory as young as age ten to help feed their family because one wage is inadequate. Being trapped in this cycle makes women increasingly more susceptible to sexual abuse because they can’t risk the loss of income by reporting misconduct, with 1 in 4 Bangladeshi garment workers disclosing some form of abuse to Oxfam.
Is boycotting the answer?
With all of this mistreatment, does that mean the only option is to boycott clothing made in low-income countries by fast fashion garment workers? Fortunately, we don’t have to draw the line so strictly because the industry doesn’t have to be so inherently exploitative. By improving women’s access to financial resources, work in the fashion industry could be a tool of empowerment instead of exploitation.
According to the UNDP, one of the most effective strategies in international development is to put money directly into the hands of women. The statistic is that for every one woman lifted out of poverty, she will bring seven other people over the poverty line alongside her. Good development recognises that women don’t have a knowledge or skills shortage; they just have a cash shortage.
Garment factories that offer a liveable wage and the flexibility to balance a personal life outside of work can go a long way in improving the status of women to meet the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.
Fortunately, Deloitte Access Economics report for Oxfam in 2017 found that paying a living wage to fast fashion garment workers throughout the supply chain may only increase the retail price of a garment by 1%. Similarly, researchers Hall and Wiedmann found that increasing the cost of clothing made in India an average of 20c per item would be enough to lift all Indian garment workers out of poverty. This simple step makes fair working conditions a reasonable expectation for consumers.
Turning the industry around
The 2019 State of Fashion report describes a 630% increase in the use of the word ‘feminist’ in brand marketing between 2016 and 2018. The report predicts that moving forward, consumers are increasingly looking for extended corporate social responsibility in the brands they support, with the expectation that companies will disclose their social impact. This is a crucial trend after the devastation of COVID-19 in 2020 that caused another shock to an already fragile system. Now in the 2021 report, as we emerge into a post-pandemic world, there is a focus on many companies reconnecting with supply chains. This is good news for the women and men who make our clothes.
The importance of uplifting women
Women already run the lion’s share of global businesses and make up the majority of the fashion industry, even if their work is currently informal or valued at 50% of men’s wages. There is a clear opportunity to give workers greater ownership over the garment-making skills that companies are so eager to source by ensuring women, particularly women of colour, are promoted into leadership roles and included in all decision-making that concerns their livelihoods and wellbeing.
Those currently employed in the industry already know how to run their businesses and understand what workers need. Paying a living wage, providing adequate time off and paid leave, and ensuring strict workplace safety codes within the factory are all good starts. There are existing companies using fashion to provide fair work, such as Dorsu in Cambodia and Mayamiko in Malawi. These companies challenge the myth that the slave-wage business model is the only way to be profitable.