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Ethical Problems in the Fashion Industry

Posted by Jessica Swanson on
What is Ethical Fashion

We’ve all been there. We’re on a shopping expedition when suddenly we come across that adorable sweater. And best of all, it’s only $10! After finding a good bargain, the adrenaline begins to course through your veins and the slight tug of an ethical dilemma is easy to push out of your thoughts.

Unfortunately, we rarely wonder, “What’s the story behind my clothes?” and instead focus on the price tag. But that inexpensive price may blind you from the fact that it was made by a 12-year old girl in a garment factory for $1 to support her younger siblings.

Unethical practices still run rampant in the 3 trillion-dollar fashion industry. And they’re not going away anytime soon. That is until we, as consumers, demand that things change.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest ethical issues in the fashion industry and what we can do about them.

1. Child Labor

168 million children throughout the world are forced to work.  

One example takes place in southern India.  Recruiters convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to spinning mills with promises of a well-paid job, comfortable accommodations, three nutritious meals a day, and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years.

In reality, they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern-day slavery and the worst forms of child labor.

Children are seen as obedient workers who slip under the radar, making them easy to manage.

There is no supervision or social control mechanisms, no unions that can help them to bargain for better working conditions. These are very low-skilled workers without a voice, so they are easy targets.

 2. Forced Labor

It is shocking to believe that slavery still exists today. But, sadly 27 million individuals are enslaved around the world—many in the fashion industry.

According to the CNN Freedom Project, modern slavery is defined as “when one person completely controls another person, using violence or the threat of violence to maintain that control, exploit them economically, and they are unable to walk away.”

Slavery in the fashion world can appear in a variety of forms from harvesting the cotton for a t-shirt, spinning the fiber to yarn, sewing the garment, and modeling the final product.

The most infamous example takes place in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton exporters. 

Every autumn, the government forces over one million people to leave their regular jobs and go pick cotton. Children are also mobilized and taken out of school to harvest cotton.

None of the people are paid.

3. Low Wages

In developing countries, most workers in the fashion industry don’t even make a living wage.

report by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights reports that garment workers in Ethiopia make just $26 a month.

Sadly, these meager wages, don’t even cover their basic needs, let alone allow them a budget for emergencies and incidentals.

A garment worker should earn enough income to support themselves and their family’s basic needs including food, shelter, clothing, education, and healthcare.

4. Long Working Hours

The quick turnaround of fashion trends found in high street shops causes brands to place huge amounts of pressure on their suppliers. They want their garments made as fast as possible and at the cheapest price.

This means that garment workers are often forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. During peak season, they may work until 2 or 3 am to meet the fashion brand's deadline. 

Their basic wages are so low that they can’t refuse overtime—aside from the fact that many would end up fired if they refused to work overtime. In some cases, overtime is not even paid at all. 

On top of that, clothing workers regularly face verbal and physical abuse. In some cases, when they fail to meet their (unreachable) daily target, they are insulted, denied breaks, or not allowed to drink water.   

This often forces factory owners to take short cuts which can lead to the unfair treatment of garment workers including:

  • Punishment
  • Intimidation
  • Threats
  • Forced labor
  • Child labor
  • Excessive overtime
  • Withholding salaries
  • Preventing time off
  • Limiting unions

5. Health and Safety Risks

If forced labor, low wages, and quick turn-around times aren’t bad enough, the fashion industry is filled with health and safety risks.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, killing 1,134 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, first revealed the unacceptable working conditions of the fashion industry to the world.

Employees usually work with no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling fiber dust, or blasted sand in unsafe buildings. Accidents, fires, injuries, and disease are very frequent occurrences on textile production sites. 

Many cotton farmers and sweatshop workers endure long-term exposure to pesticides, lead-based dyes, and poisoning from chemicals, and are found to suffer from:

  • Consistent vomiting, headaches, and tremors
  • Lack of coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Impaired memory
  • Concentration disorientation
  • Extreme depression and palpitation
  • Seizures
  • Death

This sorry state of affairs is a result of the big fashion brands’ focus on minimizing the cost of production in order to maximize profit. This fiendish drive to fortify the bottom line fuels these brands’ lack of concern for the wellbeing of their workers, which then leads to their failure to apply fundamental workplace health and safety standards in their offshore production units.

6. Prohibition of Workers Unions

Many factories in developing countries do not allow their garment workers to form unions in order to defend their rights collectively. 

Government law and specific regulations often restrict the creation of unions. As an example, in Bangladesh, only 10% of the 4,500 garment factories have a registered union. 

If employees do show interest in forming a union, the factories often physically attack their workers or instantly fire them. 

Ethical Fashion Starts With You

It’s pretty obvious that the mainstream fashion industry is desperately in need of a major overhaul.

Ethical fashion is on the rise as more fashion brands, both new and existing, are transitioning to sustainable, ecological, and ethical clothing supply chains and production methods.

But it doesn’t stop there. As consumers, we need to take a stand in order to spread the message that no living soul should have to suffer or die in the name of fashion.

When we purchase an item of clothing we are voting with our wallets and are helping to drive trends, which encourages ‘fast fashion’. There are several things that we can do as active consumers:

Research companies to see how ‘ethical’ they are before deciding to purchase from them or not.

Support companies who show transparency in their supply chains on their blog or social media channels.

Shop at charity shops to help recycle the vast amounts of second-hand clothing caused by ‘fast fashion’.

Shop locally to help support small businesses in your community.

Attend clothes swap events with your friends; trade-in your old clothes that you don’t wear anymore for new items.

Buy less, choose well, make it last. Buy high-quality clothing less often.

Repair, mend, and customize old clothing items to make them brand new again. If you don’t know how to sew, ask a friend, relative, or use a local seamstress.

When you shop at Alare, you can rest assured that every brand we carry is ethical and made responsibly.


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