Fast Fashion and Unfair Labour Practices
Writer: Veronica Yung
Editor: Renata Daou
Graphic Designer & Illustrator: Benedicta Shafira
A defining factor of fast fashion is that the production to consumption process is extremely quick, and usually only takes about 4 months. According to CBC marketplace, H&M receives new clothes in their stores 4 times a week although today, it is not uncommon for this process to be a lot shorter. An example of this would be just 24 hours after Kim Kardashian was seen wearing a vintage Thierry Mugler dress, a similar dress was released on Fashion Nova for a lower price of $50, which is another defining feature of fast fashion. But how are fast fashion companies able to produce so much for such a low price?
The answer is unfair labour practices in a fast fashion company’s supply chain.
Child labour is often used in the production stage. The UN defines child labour as “work for which the child is either too young…or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.” According to the International Labour Organisation, about 170 million children, which makes up 11% of the world’s children, are considered child labourers.
There are multiple reasons for the use of child labour, one of which, for example, is that they are preferred for jobs such as cotton picking because their small fingers do not damage the crop. Ultimately, the main reason for child labour is the cheap source of labour, which allows fast fashion compaines to maintain their low prices. Furthermore, recruiters are able to exploit families in poverty. According to the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, recruiters are able to employ young girls as they promise parents that their daughters will receive well paid jobs, good accommodation, meals and schooling, most of which are not true.
Other reports also display the unethical nature of labour that apply to workers of all ages. According to a 2011 report done by Stitched Up in Bangladesh, workers are only paid, on average, £25 a month, which is below the living wage at £42. It also details that 80% of sweatshop workers often start working at 8AM and end around 8-10PM, meaning their work days are 12-14 hours long. This is against Bangladeshi laws, where the work week should be 48 hours long, meaning the maximum working hours of a five-day work week should be only 9.6 hours a day. A different report details that factories also have unrealistic production targets, with one being the production of 20 shirts per hour (Taking Liberties, 2010).
There are many specific examples of unfair labour practices. One of the most well known ones is the Rana Plaza Tragedy.
The Rana Plaza Tragedy took place on the 24th of April, 2013, when a factory collapsed, leading to a death toll of over 1000 people, with over 2,500 injured. The tragedy was preventable, as the cracks in the building that led to the collapse were seen the day before. Many workers that morning had begged to not be sent in, but they were forced to work anyway. At around 9 AM, the floors began to break and the building collapsed in 90 seconds. This factory supplied clothes to many fast fashion brands, including Primark, although the full list of brands is unclear. This tragedy led to some improvements in working conditions, although they are limited to making sure factories are stable enough to ensure that workers will not die. This shows the complete lack of care of fast fashion brands as it took a large death toll to make minimal improvements to their supply chain.
A less well known example of unfair labour practices are the LA sweatshops. A 2016-2019 investigation by the United States Labour Department showed that brands such as Fashion Nova supplied their clothes from sweatshops in LA that owed $3.8 million in wages to their workers. The report details that workers were paid as low as $2.77 an hour, although minimum wage in California in 2017-2019 was between $10.50-$12 an hour. The reason that these sweatshops were not reported earlier is the majority of their workers are immigrants from Mexico and other Central American countries, with either illegal or indeterminate-status. This allowed the sweatshops to weaponise documentation status as their workers feared deportation. A similar example to the LA sweatshops are those in Leicester, UK, which often supply brands such as Boohoo.
There are things we can do individually in order to make sure we do not support unethical brands. One way is to buy from slow fashion brands, which are often both sustainable and ethical. An example is Lucy & Yak, whose factory garment workers in India are paid 3-4 times the state minimum wage. They have also ensured good working standards by opening a new factory, with improvements including an increase in the size of the factory to ensure a safe and comfortable work space. You can also check how ethical a brand is using the app ‘Good on You,’ which rates clothing brands based on the transparency of their supply chain.
Of course, slow fashion brands are often more expensive than fast fashion. A way to have a more ethical wardrobe is by using second hand clothes. This can be done by having hand-me-downs from family, swapping clothes with friends or buying clothes from thrift/charity shops, including online ones such as Depop or Vinted. Another way is simply to limit consumption by making only necessary purchases.
This does not take away from the fact it should be the company’s responsibility to make sure that all levels of their supply chain have fair labour practices. It is unnecessary to produce so much in such limited spaces of time, and the lower profitability of clothes made ethically is a sacrifice that fast fashion brands should be willing to make.