Ethical production in the fashion industry: Who made your clothes—and how were they treated?

Ethical production in the fashion industry

Look down. Someone, somewhere, made every single garment you have ever worn. Do you know how they were treated? 

On April 24, 2013, a Bangladesh garment factory in a building called Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring thousands more. The world watched the coverage in horror, as people desperately tried to rescue those who were buried alive. The factory workers had been complaining about the building, which was obviously dangerous and making creaking sounds, but were forced to work regardless. The collapse is, to this date, “the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history.” But it’s not just the building, or the bosses, who are responsible for these deaths—fast fashion is, and by extension, we are.

It’s just one example of how fast fashion kills, but it’s hardly the only one. Around this world, and to this day, garment workers are mistreated with horrible working conditions and extremely low pay. Companies such as UNIQLO and Zara have come under fire for not paying workers and H&M has had factory fires, but these are far from the only companies. The truth is that the economics of fast fashion don’t allow for workers to be paid and treated fairly: someone, somewhere, is paying the cost for these cheap pieces, and it’s not the consumers in wealthy Western countries.

It’s essential to note the intersectionality here, as the vast majority of garment workers are marginalized: poor women of colour. We are taking advantage of BIPOC workers every time we shop, without realizing it. It is continued, pervasive, exploitation on a mass scale. 

In addition to unsafe conditions and low pay, these women routinely face harassment on the job. Not only that, but the fashion industry is rife with child labour. According to a UNICEF report, “Child labour is a particular issue for fashion because much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour and some tasks are even better suited to children than adults. In cotton picking, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop. Children are seen as obedient workers who slip under the radar, making them easy to manage.”

What’s the situation for Bangladesh workers today? Reports are mixed, but mostly negative, sadly. Some safety situations are believed to be improved, but conditions are still very hazardous and workers may even be paid less today than they were back then.

What are the solutions?

  • Buying far less overall, and buy secondhand.
  • If you buy new, choose ethical, slow fashion brands and Fair Trade clothing. Ask the company, “Who made my clothes?”—truly ethical companies can answer questions about their supply chains at every step of the way. 
  • Speak out: sign petitions and help spread the word in your own day-to-day life.

Read more about Rana plaza:

Photo courtesy of Ashley McIntosh.


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