When you think of the fashion world, you might envision models on a runway, elegant outfits, and the joy of looking and feeling beautiful. While this is all true, there is also a dark side to fashion - the exploitation, imbalance, and injustice that permeate the industry.
In reality, most garment workers (60 million worldwide) earn too little to cover essentials, let alone navigate hard times or build a better life. Yet they work inhumane hours in unsafe factories to meet impossible targets for a global industry worth US$1.7 trillion.
In this post, we look at this problem and how Covid-19 has aggravated it. More importantly, we present ways you can help as an ordinary consumer – from supporting ethical fashion and shopping sustainably to advocating for the cause.
Understanding the Imbalance of Power
The entire apparel trade caters to the wants and needs of brands. Unethical ones often pit suppliers against one other to get the lowest prices, highest production targets, and longest payment terms. They only pay after delivery and face little risk or liability.
On the other hand, suppliers bend over backwards knowing they are easily replaced. As a result, they cut corners to save money often risking the health and safety of workers. They offer poverty wages and short-term contracts to offset the extreme uncertainty. If a brand fails to pay, workers receive nothing for their labour.
The Unforeseen Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic only escalated the problem. Brands fought to save their cash flow; they cancelled orders, paid reduced prices, or delayed payments. It left factories unable to pay wages and other production costs. Many closed, leaving thousands of workers jobless overnight.
Two years on, the value of unpaid wages to garment workers worldwide is almost US$12 billion. That of orders not paid by retailers is US$18 billion. Yet some brands keep pushing for lower prices and extended terms. Trapped at the bottom of the supply chain, garment workers become even more vulnerable to exploitation.
How You can Help to Rebalance Fashion
The pandemic exposed the power that brands wield in the industry, but it also revealed the incredible power consumers have over brands. The crisis triggered a major perspective shift for consumers worldwide. Never before have consumers focused more on supporting trustworthy brands whose values aligned with their own. Nearly two in three of us now believe we can encourage brands to change.
Counterweight #1 - Support Living Wages
In the growing ethical fashion movement, human rights take center stage. Ethical brands believe that fair payment for garment workers is the foundation of a just fashion system. A living wage is enough for a worker and their family to afford a decent standard of living. That means it should cover basic expenses and savings for unexpected events, something the pandemic made painfully clear.
That is why our business model at Poème Clothing puts workers first. Empowerment is our core value, mere survival is not enough. We want to help end generational poverty and enable our employees to build better lives. We are fortunate to work directly with a small, family-run factory that offers a living wage, social benefits and sane working hours. By our standards, nothing less would be ethical.
Counterweight #2 – Vote for Your Values
Almost 80% of consumers want to use their buying power to make society better. Nearly 90% expect brands to act beyond their product or business: take care of employees, address social challenges and support local communities.
This kind of consumer pressure has seen more brands making public commitments to paying a decent living wage. But some of the wealthiest and fastest-growing brands are still unwilling to take responsibility. Choosing brands that demonstrate integrity means using your money to vote for an equitable fashion system.
These brand trackers offer good starting points:
- Remake’s Brand Directory tracks and reports on the progress (or lack thereof) of more than 40 brands, giving each one an accountability score.
- Fashion Checker by the Clean Clothes Campaign is a tool that tracks wages and working conditions in the global garment industry.
- Also by The Clean Clothes Campaign, Facility Checker tracks living wage gaps and gender equity in factories supplying major brands.
- The Covid-19 Apparel Portal tracks the commitments of fashion brands and the pandemic’s on-going effects on garment workers.
- Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index reviews and ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands to encourage transparency.
Counterweight #3 – Use Your Voice
The harsh truth is that the law enables this unbalanced system. The legal minimum wage in many producing nations falls far short of a living one. Unethical brands exploit this because they are not liable for human rights violations in other countries. Changing this will require new regulations, reformed legislation, and industrial bargaining.
To put it into context, it could take as little as 10 cents per T-shirt to ensure a living wage for garment workers. The disconnect comes into sharp focus when we realize the brand collects almost $4.00 profit, but the worker who made it only gets 20 cents. That is why it is critical to support credible organizations that fight for decent working conditions, hold brands accountable and amplify worker voices.
Here is a list of options for getting involved:
- Remake fights for fair wages and climate justice in the clothing industry. Become an ambassador in your community, donate to Remake or donate directly to garment workers.
- Justice in Fashion identifies and addresses the imbalance of wealth, power, and risk across the garment industry. Discover ways to make a difference or learn from their library of free resources.
- You could simply sign the Fashion Revolution Manifesto but there are many ways to get involved. Help them take action by donating or mine their extensive free resource library for knowledge and tools.
- With A Living Wage for Garment Workers, advocates and activists fight for labour rights and raise emergency funds for garment workers in dire need. You can fundraise, donate, and collaborate with this campaign.
- The Awaj Foundation is a labour rights nonprofit with over 600,000 worker members across Bangladesh. It invites training and research collaboration, offers internship opportunities and accepts donations.
- The mission of The Garment Worker Center is to organize low-wage garment workers in Los Angeles in the fight for social and economic justice. They offer internship and volunteering opportunities, but you can also donate.
- Good Clothes, Fair Pay aims to collect a million signatures from EU citizens to petition for laws that support living wages. If you’re not eligible to sign, there are a few other options to support the initiative.
- The Clean Clothes Campaign amplifies worker voices in the garment and industry. Options for getting involved include the #PayYourWorkers petition and donating. They also offer resources and guidance on challenging brands.
The Fashion Revolution is in Our Hands
As an ethical consumer, you can hold brands accountable in simple ways even if the law cannot (yet):
- Support living wages by choosing ethical fashion
- Vote for your values by shopping with intention
- Speak up for workers by sharing knowledge
Together, we can turn the tide. Feeling beautiful should not come at the expense of exploited people. We can all do better to transform the fashion world - starting today.