In 2013, the Bangladeshi factory of Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 textile workers who had begged not to be sent inside. The day before, the workers had spotted large cracks growing like vines up the building’s walls. They had reported it to management. But the high time pressures in the fashion supply chain would not relent.
These workers – mostly women and girls as young as twelve – were given a choice: to file into work that morning, or to be fired. Two-thousand frightened faces dragged themselves into the factory. Just before 9am, Rana Plaza collapsed and in 90 seconds buried them within its rubble.
We’ve long forgotten Rana Plaza. The fast fashion industry produces 52 collections a year – one a week. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, the fast fashion brands that made their clothing at Rana Plaza – such as Primark, Walmart and Zara – have produced roughly 312 collections.
Fifty-two seasons of clothing a year have made what was once a utility into practically a single-use commodity. The average number of times a garment is worn is now just 14. T-shirts that are roughly the price of a cup of coffee in the UK or the US are up for grab to-go. And it is even more shocking that it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one single cotton shirt – the same amount of water a person drinks in two and a half years.
This industry is also the world’s second largest carbon polluter – only exceeded by the oil industry, and far greater than both the aviation and the food industries. But pollution does not end in the production process. Almost all our clothes finish their life cycles in landfills where they take more than 200 years to degrade. Globally, fewer than one per cent of garments are made into new clothes. Yet in the UK, we have around £30 billion worth of unworn clothing in our wardrobes and the average life span of an item of clothing is around two years.
Beside this exacerbated climate impact and the hole we are digging in our own pockets, the humans at the lowest tiers of the supply chains whose hands make these clothes have been made invisible. These garments are made by mostly millions of women and girls, being paid some of the lowest wages in the world. As the International Labour Organization reports, millions of people are exposed every day to an unsafe work environment. Work related accidents, occupational diseases caused by toxins in the textile dies, factory fires and catastrophes like the Rana Plaza are a reality that we continue to whitewash.
Human Rights violations are at the epicentre of the fast fashion business model and supply chains.
Outsourcing and offshoring became the standard practice and the promise of the globalized market several decades ago. The labels on our jeans that once read Madrid or London became India and Bangladesh. This transfer of labour was promoted by corporations with the promise of international development, economic growth, and emancipation for the developing countries manufacturing our goods: Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka would have the chance to participate in the global market, improve their standards of living and eventually become producers themselves.
But the data reflects a much more turbulent story of human rights violations and abuses in supply chains across the fast fashion industry. As well as the fact that inequality between the richest and poorest countries has in fact widened severely in the past three decades.
A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report provided evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam, among other countries. Human Rights Watch asserts that by treating labour costs as negotiable, global brands drive abusive cost-cutting measures that hurt workers and expose them to greater human rights risks in the supply chain.
Traid, a UK based NGO working to fight the exploitation of textile workers reports how in South India and Bangladesh the practice of Sumangali Thittam forces many young girls into modern slavery. This is a scheme in which the poorest girls in South India -300, 000 girls- are lured into three year apprenticeships in textile factories to earn money for their marriage dowries. Money that their families could not afford.
Traid has published data showing that these girls do not actually receive the lump sum they were promised. Their wages are deducted to pay for hostels where they live in cramped conditions that leave them vulnerable to depression and sexual abuse. Only about a third of apprentices finish this three-year period. Others have to leave early because ill health, accidents or abuse. Many are even fired by the factories before they are paid.
In the last few years, there have been a wave of protests by textile workers in the Global South to reclaim their human rights. These protests have been ignited by the Rana Plaza disaster and many other under-reported accidents – including fires and crumbling buildings that have left mass casualties – as well as meagre working conditions and salaries. The Guardian reported in 2018 how garment workers in Bangladesh make about $96 per month. This is 3.5 times below the Bangladeshi government’s own estimation of the minimum wage needed to meet a worker’s basic needs. These protests have been met with fierce state and corporate repression.
In 2018, The Guardian interviewed one of the few union leaders in Bangladesh, Mohammad Ibrahim, who defied the Government by exercising his right to freedom of expression. After leading a protest in Bangladesh, Ibrahim told the Guardian he was called to a meeting by the police who alleged they just wanted to speak to him. At the police station, he was bound and beaten. At night, Ibrahim was driven to a forested area. The police untied him and told him to run. Ibrahim knew of many other people whom the police had shot in the back of the head, on the pretext they were trying to resist arrest. He refused and spent 60 days in prison and witnessed the torture of other protesters.
Fast fashion is one of the biggest driving forces of climate change.
The core of the economic structures of the textile industry and its supply chains are built around non-renewable resources. Ninety-eight million tonnes of fossil fuels a year are used to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce dye and finish fibres and textiles. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture.
There are a lot of data about the global impact of fast fashion on climate change, but these data are often under-reported, deliberately ignored or greenwashed by the fashion industry. But these data are not often disaggregated to reflect how climate change affects the poorest countries –and communities- in much more acute ways. In the poorest communities, housing and infrastructure are less disaster resistant, and much less able to withstand the impact of climate related disasters. Just in the past year, 92% of natural disasters were climate related.
The local communities that produce our clothes suffer much more directly from the textile industry’s poor environmental practices. These include the discharge of untreated wastewater that pollutes local rivers that are used for fishing, drinking water and bathing. Clothes are typically sprayed with formaldehyde to prevent mildewing and wrinkling during shipping. Klow reports that the accumulation of these toxins over a period of time can lead to a rise in terminal illnesses such as cancer.
Despite the impact on climate change and the widespread human rights violations at the core of this industry, production and consumption are growing exponentially.
It is projected that the global consumption of clothing and footwear will increase by 63% by 2030, from 62 million tonnes a year today to 102 million in 2030, according to Traid. Meanwhile, since the Rana Plaza disaster, the International Labour Organization reports that no fewer than 109 accidents have occurred. Our fast fashion carbon emissions are growing at the rate of current trends of production based on immediate and finite gratification.
While many fast fashion brands pledged to increase worker safety in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, and vowed to slowly transition towards more sustainable models, the reality is that little has changed has been whitewashed and greenwashed by marketing.
As Traid reports, “brands and retailers know that many parts of their clothes supply chains use exploitative labour. Currently, brands have information about its ‘first tier’ factory suppliers, where most spot checks take place. However, many stages of garment production work are outsourced by factories to sub-contractors further down the supply chain where workers are invisible and exploitation is rife”.
While the fast fashion industry bears the burden of its ecological and human footprint, we as consumers with agency are the drivers who either endorse or reject these practices with our spending habits –and our tacit support for these practices. While transitioning to a sustainable, durable and ethical wardrobe may seem like an expensive practice for only the privileged, the reality could not be further from the truth. There is a misconception that to shop sustainably, one has to spend large amounts of money on expensive brands. But shopping in thrift shops and charity shops and clothes-swapping with our friends and relatives are ecological and budget-saving practices that stop clothes from spending 200 years in a landfill.
When we are able to invest a bit more, there are also hundreds of emerging sustainable companies using organic and recycled materials and ethical production methods. While some are more upmarket, there are also many more affordable brands – especially when we take into account that we don’t really need to buy cheap clothes every few months, we need durable, timeless quality pieces that we can cherish for years.
Every time we make a purchase, we are casting a vote for the society we want to live in.
By Carlota Nunez Strutt.