Mass consumption is on the rise and the fashion industry is no exception. Worldwide 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed every year, a 400% increase from only twenty years ago. However, approximately 85% of these textiles end up in a landfill every year. This is an indicator of the mass demand from consumers and rapid turnover in trends that is occuring. In 2014 the average person bought 60% more clothing than in the year 2000, however, they kept each item of clothing only half as long. This can largely be attributed to the rise of fast fashion, micro-trends, and the cheap and exploitative labor that makes it possible.
The Rise of Fast Fashion
“Fast fashion” refers to the rapid production of clothing, generally in a way that sacrifices quality for quantity. Prior to the mid 1900’s there were generally 4 seasons of fashion, one for every season of the year. Now fast fashion companies such as H&M create 52 “micro-seasons” a year, one for every week. This new pattern created a massive demand for apparel and the creation of approximately 53 million tons of clothing annually. In order to sustain this level of production at a cost that allows the consumer to purchase clothing in large quantities, many fast fashion companies sought a way to cut costs in the supply chain. In order to achieve this, companies began taking their production to developing countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and less regulations. The rapid trend cycle, known as micro-trending, encourages the majority of fast fashion companies to engage in unethical labor practices in order to create a high volume of clothing at a low cost.
Labor Practices in Fast Fashion
What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us?
One of the main reasons fashion companies are so eager to take their subsidiaries to countries such as Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh is the lack of oversight that occurs during the actual textile production. Many brands choose to have minimal control over each step of the supply chain in order to avoid opening themselves up to enormous legal liability. Brands allow their subsidiaries to remain largely unregulated because it absolves them of responsibility for the unethical practices being used to produce their clothing at such low costs. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for brands to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of their labor forces as it is being brought more and more into the public purview, as exemplified in 2019 when thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh went on strike over their low wages garnering international attention.
What We Do Know
The fast fashion industry employs approximately 75 million factory workers worldwide. Of those workers it is estimated that less than 2% of them make a living wage. This leads to workers living below the poverty line and the European Parliament has even described the conditions of factory workers in Asia as “slave labor”. Many garment workers are working up to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. The textile industry also uses child labor particularly because it is often low skilled, so children can be exploited at a younger age.
Additionally, the health of laborers is adversely affected by working conditions. The production of fast fashion clothing employs the use of 8,000 synthetic chemicals. Some of these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer and factory workers are regularly exposed to and breathing in these chemicals.
There are also structural dangers that come with avoiding codes. This was demonstrated by the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza Factory collapsed in 2013 and 1,100 people were killed and 2,500 more were injured. Safeguards on the building had expired and engineers had even recommended the building should be condemned. However, workers were ordered to come in anyway, and they came for fear of not being paid. After this incident, building inspections were done on 1,106 factories used by fast fashion companies and 80,000 safety related issues were found.
The idea that all companies take responsibility for their supply chains and ensure factory workers have a living wage and conditions are safe is a bit of a pipe dream considering the very exploitation of that labor is what allows those companies to increase their profit margins. Therefore, rather than ask for individual accountability, it is clear a more structural change is necessary. The most successful regulation in this sector is the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord, which came after the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The Accord is the first legally-binding agreement in the modern era between workers, factory managers, and apparel companies and affects the safety of over one million workers in Bangladesh factories. This model should be emulated in other countries that rely on fast fashion manufacturing and a similar model could be used to ensure fair wages.
In addition, countries that headquarter the fast fashion companies can implement regulations that de-incentivize outsourcing offshore, or require that if a company is going to outsource offshore they be in greater control of their supply chain. This would force greater regulation of wages and hopefully prevent companies from abusing foreign labor because it is less expensive.
The fashion industry is growing rapidly, with an estimated 20% growth between 2020 and 2021, and it isn’t slowing down. Consumer demand for a larger quantity of clothing at a cheaper price point has pushed development of the fast fashion industry. This has led to the dangerous exploitation of the labor force who makes the fashion industry possible. In order to prevent further damage to garment workers it is necessary that legislation emulating the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord be put into place in every country. There need to be larger pushes for legislation around fair wages and corporate responsibility for supply chain management. It is imperative to address and resolve the human rights violations occurring as a result of fast fashion.
Author Bio: Emma Ross is a second year law student at The George Washington University Law School. She graduated in 2020 from Binghamton University with Bachelor’s in Political Science and Psychology. She is currently a member of the George Washington Journal of Energy and Environmental Law. She also serves as a legal consultant to the Coalition for Integrity.