Fast fashion is a fast track to exploitation.
Okay, let me back up. What is fast fashion? Fast fashion is defined as inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. See a style on a celebrity or catwalk today and buy it yourself in two weeks. To achieve this breakneck pace, fast fashion cuts all the corners they can: they use cheap materials, they produce clothing in sweatshops overseas where labor is cheaper, and they produce a large quantity to bring down per unit costs. The result is a disposable piece of clothing that might rip the third time you put it on.
And those sweatshops? Glad you asked.
A sweatshop is a factory where workers are employed at very low wages under unhealthy conditions and must work long hours. Workrooms are overcrowded, air quality is poor, the heat can be extreme, labor laws are ignored, and workers may suffer physical or sexual abuse.
It turns out that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to modern slavery.
This race to produce the cheapest clothes leaves factories forever searching for cheaper labor. Or free labor. The Global Slavery Index’s 2018 report states that over $125 billion worth of fashion garments are created annually via some form of modern slavery. These are then imported to countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Have you ever stopped to think about what goes into making one article of clothing you’re wearing right now? How many hands touch it? How much sweat, tears, or even blood spills onto the fibers? If you dare, check out the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide and see what grade your favorite brand receives. Hint: Forever 21 and Hollister get a D-.
Child labor isn’t only in chocolate.
The fashion industry is also rife with it. The International Labor Organization estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labor. Around 6 million of these children are in forced labor. Many work in the fashion supply chain, making textiles and apparel to satisfy consumer demands all around the world.
When you trace the supply chain all the way to the beginning–to the cotton plant, for example–you’ll find things you never wanted to know about your cotton shirts. World Vision found that children as young as five were recruited to work in the cotton fields and ginning factories for little or no pay. They may work up to 12 hours in extreme temperatures and may be given quotas of 50 kg of cotton per day. Exhaustion, heat stroke, and malnutrition are common. When the day is mercifully over, they may only have filthy field barracks to retreat to.
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, India, China and Egypt combined use millions of children to cultivate, harvest, and process cotton. Employers prefer to hire children because their small fingers don’t damage the crop, and they tend to be more obedient workers. In many cases, picking cotton is mandated by the government, whether you are young, old, or pregnant.
Moving past the cotton fields, you enter the spinning mills and garment factories.
Child labor is less common in this stage of the supply chain, but still tragically present. The SOMO report found that children perform diverse and often arduous tasks such as dyeing, sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, and folding, moving and packing garments. In small workshops and home sites, children are put to work on intricate tasks such as embroidering, sequinning, and smocking (making pleats).
“Modern slavery is not something that happens ‘over there’ that we don’t have to think about,” says Grace Forrest, founding director of Walk Free. “It’s a first world problem; it’s our problem, but it’s also our opportunity, we can change it. If we care about the people who make our products, we can make a difference.”
Clothing companies have a responsibility to track and be transparent about their supply chains. Most don’t own their own factories, but they do have influence. It’s time they stop passing the blame onto factory owners.
It all boils down to the law of supply and demand.
We demand cheap clothes, and then we demand them cheaper than cheap. What if instead we demand product lines that are proven to be free of child labor? What if we advocate for fair wages for those who make our clothes?
I’m a clearance tag shopper myself. Good deals get me excited. What woman doesn’t love finding a cute dress for $12? But remember–cheap, trendy clothes are usually made at the expense of someone else.
Now that you know all these horrifying things, what can you do about it?
I’m not asking you to feel guilty. I’m asking you to be conscious. Maybe you’ll want to start adjusting your shopping habits. It definitely requires a mindset adjustment to shift your focus from “which purchase most benefits me?” to “which purchase fulfills my need without exploiting others?”
If you want to take some concrete steps against supporting child labor and exploitation, here are a few suggestions. First, you can shop consignment and thrift stores. You still get the cheap prices but without supporting the fast fashion industry. Second, shop places that you know carry only ethically-made products. Research the brands you support with your dollars. Check out my Resources page for a few suggestions, and this list of 50 fair trade clothing brands. Also, check out my last post on Adored Boutique, a shop in East Grand Rapids that only sources products that are ethically made and supports survivors of human trafficking. Third, you can be an advocate. Ask the manager of your favorite store if their products contain slavery in their production line. They may not always know, but you will have alerted them that selling fair trade items is important to their customers. Change only happens when we speak up.
It’s not necessarily a black and white, cut and dried issue. Not every cotton shirt was made from cotton picked by little fingers that should have been holding schoolbooks instead. Not all factory owners abuse their employees or hold them in debt bondage. But, as consumers, we need to be aware of the facts so we can make informed decisions. Who do you want to support? Sweatshops or fair trade products?