An ever-growing presence, ‘fast fashion’ has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Brands like Shein, Forever21 and Zara increasingly release high volumes of clothing at break-neck speed to cater to evolving fashion trends. Coupled with their ability to offer competitive prices, it is no surprise that many of them have large consumer bases spanning across the globe.
At first glance, this may seem like a win for consumers. After all, being able to purchase cheap, trendy outfits for a fraction of the price of high-end brands; isn’t that good news?
Not if you consider the dismal, unsettling reality beneath the surface — that fast fashion is sustained through an exploitative system that abuses vulnerable workers, with many of them being forced to toil in dangerous sweatshops for minimal pay.
Many questions have been raised over the ethics of fashion brands and their linkages to poverty. Find out more about the disturbing secrets this industry has kept from us by reading below.
Zero Accountability Over Unethical Production Practices
Question it yourself for a moment — how is Zara able to churn out 20,000 designs annually, and how is it possible that Topshop features 400 new styles every week? And did you know it’s not unusual for them to have 52 fashion ‘seasons’ a year?
Brands like H&M and Forever 21 receive new garment shipments daily. The newly emerged fast fashion giant, Shein, already has tens of thousands of styles on their website, and yet each day, about 2,000 more are added.
The reason they can produce apparel at rapid speed is that they do not interact with production, and instead outsource to supplier firms in developing countries. These firms then subcontract production to unauthorized suppliers that are not affiliated with the fast fashion brand that carried out the initial outsourcing.
Without authorization or affiliation, these brands carry no legal obligation to ensure decent working conditions in the obscure tiers of their supply chain. And because unauthorized subcontractors are unregistered, they can operate without government regulation and oversight.
This, coupled with persistent demands for shorter turnaround times and lower prices from suppliers, opens up dangerous capacity for abuse and nonadherence to labour standards.
Labour abuse is baked into the supply-chain model championed by apparel giants. – Penelope Kyritsis, research director at the Worker Rights Consortium
Perpetuating Poverty By Exploiting The Needy
Inadequate labour protection laws result in dangerous and dehumanizing working conditions, the consequences of which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments of society. This is because sweatshops often prey on the poor — those who do not have the luxury to turn down any form of work as it is their only means to sustain their families.
Many garment workers toil up to 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. During peak seasons, some of them even work until 2 or 3 am to meet deadlines set by the factory manager. In many cases, overtime is demanded at the last minute and workers have no choice but to comply. This is because refusing to do so would put them at risk of being fired and therefore, rob them of their only source of income.
Despite backbreaking work, the minimum wage for a fast fashion worker only ranges from a half to a fifth of the living wage. This means that employees are paid 5 times less than what is required for them to fulfil basic needs such as food, rent, healthcare and education. In India for example, the average worker in a sweatshop makes just 58 cents an hour, and in Bangladesh, it is as low as 33 cents.
Despite long hours away from their families, the workers who make our clothes simply do not make enough to live on – keeping them in poverty.
Exacerbation of Gender-Based Violence and Inequality
It is important to note that women make up the vast majority of garment workers in fast fashion factories. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, this figure is as high as 80 to 95 per cent.
Historically, women’s integration into paid work has been regarded as an important stride in the fight for gender equality. But here’s the problem with fast fashion: rather than challenging the subordination of women in society, it reinforces it.
In garment factories, women are routinely paid less than their male counterparts. The fact that factory management positions are often male-dominated further exacerbates this problem, as it results in a hierarchical power structure that makes it difficult for female workers to freely report on instances of abuse and to be taken seriously in the workplace.
Consequently, female garment workers end up in a relationship of dependency with their male superiors, who are often also their abusers. Global Labour Justice (GLJ) reports in recent years detail worrying evidence of exploitation and mistreatment of Asian female garment workers in H&M and Gap supplier factories — including (but not limited to) physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor work conditions, and forced overtime.
With so little decision-making authority, female workers in the fast fashion industry are unable to improve their situation. To make matters worse, many of them do not possess a financial safety net to search for labour elsewhere.
Even if they could change jobs, other professions such as housemaids or mine workers often hold an equally high or even higher probability of dangerous working conditions and harassment. This reality corners millions of women in unsafe workplaces.
Harming Children In Poverty
Women are not the only victims of abusive fast fashion supply chains. Desperate to help provide additional income to the family, poverty-stricken children are also equally — if not more — susceptible to working in abusive sweatshop conditions.
According to an ILO report, 170 million children were employed in the garment industry in 2012. Deceived by recruiters promising decent wages and meals three times a day, children could be found working in all stages of fashion production; from cotton-picking, yarn-spinning to even sewing garments. Though these numbers have declined over the years, child labour remains a persisting model in fast fashion production networks.
Many recruiters in the garment industry confess to deliberately seeking child workers as they are seen as more compliant and obedient. Its consequences are harrowing — hands that should be holding books and pens, are toiling 12 hours a day, sewing, stitching and dyeing garments to satisfy global consumer demand for fast fashion.
Unable to obtain an education that would expand their skills and employability, these children remain stuck in low-paying jobs even as they grow older. This, in turn, entrenches intergenerational poverty and reinforces the need for child labour.
These unethical labour practices demonstrate how fast fashion and poverty are interlaced. The cycle of oppression and exploitation comes full circle — and the fast fashion industry ensures it goes on and on.
A Threat To Human Dignity
The defining characteristic of fast fashion — the constant cranking of new trends — drives production targets that are almost impossible to be met, putting garment workers at risk of severe physical and emotional abuse.
The facts and figures we’ve explored reveal the heart-wrenching truth: fast fashion relies on globalisation and like all exploitative industries, it is powered by cheap labour used to generate huge profits with low production costs. Brands that pay poverty wages inherently take advantage of the poor, trapping them in impoverishment with minimal ability to mobilise.
It is crucial to acknowledge that a living wage is not a luxury or a privilege — it is a universal human right for every working person around the world, including the ones who make our clothes.
It is now time for fast fashion brands to publicly commit to paying living wages to ensure that their workers can live in dignity. It is also imperative that they develop credible, transparent, time-bound plans to map out how they will achieve this goal.
What You Can Do To Help
The unethical practices of fast fashion brands are indeed alarming — but it is within our capacity to take a stand against them. As a consumer, you have the power and agency to act for change.
One of the steps we can take is to avoid shopping with fast fashion brands, and instead, start supporting sustainable and ethical ones. By doing this, you refuse to funnel your money into an industry that abuses and torments impoverished communities. You communicate that you are against the sweatshops that force workers to endlessly toil for minimal pay, and that you care for the wellbeing of these communities.
Fortunately in Malaysia, ethically-made apparel is a growing production network. More and more socially conscious brands have emerged in recent years. Social enterprises like Batik Boutique and Changgih for example, are committed to providing dignified jobs for impoverished communities rather than forcing them further into poverty.
Secondly, we can make a change by shopping second-hand and loving the clothes we already have. By stepping out of the trend cycle and shifting towards minimalist living where possible, you can do your part in mitigating the problem of throwaway culture and overconsumption that is often perpetuated by the fast fashion industry.
Another effort that we can carry out as individuals is to generate greater awareness of the issue at hand. By stirring discussions about fast fashion among our peers and family members, we can encourage people to rethink what their purchases are contributing towards and therewith, start holding brands more accountable for their actions.
Brands listen to us because we buy their products. As customers, we can use our power to demand that they provide dignified working conditions and decent pay for the people who make our clothes.
Change must indeed occur at the hands of fast fashion companies to make a permanent difference. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that individually and collectively, we can still make an impact by pushing them to make this change.
Explore Our Sources
- 2018. Green America. Factory Exploitation and The Fast Fashion Machine. Link
- 2020. Australian Style Institute. What is fast fashion? Link
- 2021. Insider. Here’s how Shein gets consumers to keep spending. Link
- 2021. Al-Jazeera. Are your favourite fashion brands using forced labour? Link
- Clean Clothes Campaign. Working hours and overtime: 96-hour work week. Link
- 2021. SustainYourStyle. Inhumane working conditions. Link
- 2018. FastCompany. Why this company is making its factory wages public. Link
- 2014. Fashion Revolution. Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry. Link
- 2021. Good On You. The impact of fast fashion on garment workers. Link
- 2021. Good On You. How fast fashion traps women and girls in poverty. Link
- 2020. Medium. Inside the Ugliness of the Fast Fashion industry. Link
- The Guardian (sponsored by UNICEF). Child labour in the fashion supply chain. Link