Close-up of a sewing machine. [Image: J Williams on Unsplash]

Fair Fashion: How to Support Justice for Garment Workers

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.

Visual definition of a living wage for garment workers. [Image: Clean Clothes Campaign]


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.

    Cost breakdown for a T-shirt. [Image: Clean Clothes Campaign]


    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:


    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.




    How Should We Think About What We Pay for Clothes? - Fashionista

    Workers Suffer While Fashion Brands’ Profits Return — Clean Clothes Campaign

    10 Cents More Per T-Shirt Will Help Garment Workers Survive Pandemic

    The impact of COVID-19 on the people who make our clothes : Fashion Revolution

    Fashion Revolution

    Poverty wages — Clean Clothes Campaign

    Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion | McKinsey

    2021 Edelman Trust Barometer

    Back to blog