The fashion industry needs a revolution, and it starts with a seemingly simple inquiry: Who made my clothes? In order to transform the industry, particularly, the practice of fast fashion, visibility needs to be given to the seemingly invisible faces behind our favorite brands, those of the garment workers who create our clothes.
Who made my clothes? This is a question that enables us to distinguish between the heavily altered reality carefully sculpted and put forth by fast fashion retailers as to the nature of their garments and the actual state of things. The ugly reality consists of dimly lit, cramped, excessively hot, and more often than not unsafe factories in Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. It is here where fast fashion garments and accessories are made and the conditions in which laborers exist are a far cry from where most of us imagine our clothes coming from. That cognitive dissonance began to come to an end – at least for some – three years ago when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh.
On April 24, 2013, over 1,100 people lost their lives when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. News outlets across the world reported on the collapse, which quickly became one of the greatest industrial tragedies of all time. Many of the grief stricken faces of some of the 60 to 75 million garment workers worldwide were seen for the first time. And no longer were the true makers of our clothes invisible. As informed consumers, we can no longer ignore the fact that our inexpensive clothing comes at the high cost of the lives of others.
The affordability of our clothes is made possible by low wages, unsafe working conditions, and the degradation and alienation of the people who make them. As expected, garment workers often times can’t afford the very clothes that they create; however, in the case of Bangladesh, they aren’t even paid a living wage. Although the minimum wage for garment workers has increased to $68 a month, many still find themselves struggling to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Wages are often withheld or never paid in full and those who complain are subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. The blazer, dress, or just about any product that you consider a steal because of its low price point comes at the cost of garment workers’ stolen wages and livelihood. Since the turn of the century global demand for low cost clothing has fueled the rapid expansion and resulting ethical misconduct of the garment industry. In order to end the cycle of unethical behavior, we must demand that the brands we love ensure that the manufacturers within their supply chain respect their workers’ human rights.
Dozens of garment factories have closed their doors because of safety concerns since 2013. However, there is still a widespread need for reform. As of now, many of the nearly 4,000 reported garment factories in Bangladesh continue to prioritize profitability over the sanctity of human lives.
While there has been an increase in compliance with rules and regulations set by the Bengali government and the International Labour Organization, there are industry players who fall outside of the scope of compliance. According to a study conducted by New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights, the number of factories reported by the Bengali Garment Manufacturers and Export Association do not include the more than 3,000 factories that engage in subcontracting. The industry demand for low prices encourages the practice of subcontracting to unregulated and unreported factories. As a result of working in factories that operate outside of the scope of regulatory organizations, workers in these factories have not benefited from the regulatory changes that have occurred since 2013.
An array of recent studies reveals that millennials care about social responsibility more so than any other generation. According to a corporate social responsibility study conducted by Cone Communications last year, a reported 91% would switch to a brand with an associated cause. However, in order to truly enact our beliefs, we need to use our $200 billion in purchasing power to support companies that put people before profits. We can start doing so by asking ourselves, “Who made my clothes?”
David McCombs is an Academic Fellow at the Fashion Innovation Alliance, an organization that brings together fashion and technology leaders around issues of public policy, social values, and fashion law. He is currently pursuing a BSBA in Marketing and Information Systems and Technology at American University in Washington D.C.