Adidas, Forever 21, Walmart, Zara, Urban Outfitters, H&M. What do all these stores have in common—other than being heavily frequented this holiday season? The unfortunate reality is that they all use sweatshop labor, underpay workers or in some other way mistreat their employees.
Human exploitation is an unfortunate consequence of the modern world’s obsession with constantly dictating new fashion trends and updating our wardrobes—a phenomenon retailers like to call “fast fashion.” The problem is that in order to make a profit off of clothing that goes out of style mere weeks after hitting the shelves, stores have to sell a lot of it, and at cheap prices people are actually willing to pay. Their business model requires a means of production that’s fast, cheap and in-bulk. And that often means producing overseas, where low wages are legal and governments are less likely to enforce workers’ rights. According to Andrew Morgan’s 2015 documentary “The True Cost,” 97 percent of the clothing sold in the United States is produced overseas, largely in countries like India, Bangladesh or Cambodia, where most of the unseen exploitation occurs.
For example, Post Magazine explains that Bangladesh’s growing garment industry employs more than 4 million people, and experts say it has the potential to lift the nation out of poverty. However, the relentless demand for ever-cheaper clothes from Western stores is keeping workers’ wages as low as $68 a month. Bangladesh was also the site of the infamous Rana Plaza disaster. In 2013, a run-down eight-story factory making clothes for Walmart, Primark and other well-known brands collapsed, causing the death of 1,130 people and injuring 2,500 others. And human rights advocates in the region say that, since the disaster, factory owners have only increased production targets, forcing the surviving employees to work longer hours, often without overtime compensation. Our desire for nice clothing is jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of other people—at times even putting their lives in danger—and something needs to change.
Child labor has also become an appallingly common practice in the fashion industry because many of the tasks involved in the production of fabrics—cotton harvesting and yarn spinning, for example—are easiest for small, agile fingers. A 2014 report published by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) found that 60 percent of the workers at mills it investigated in India were under 18 when they started working there, and the youngest were only 15.
The fashion industry is also the world’s second-largest polluter, and cotton production uses vast amounts of water and chemicals, including 18 percent of the world’s pesticides and 25 percent of the world’s insecticides.
So what’s the alternative? Big name clothing brands are everywhere, so how are we supposed to purchase clothing without contributing to all these needless, devastating consequences? One answer is a growing movement known as “ethical fashion,” which aims to sell sustainable, fair-trade clothing made by adequately paid, well-treated workers. Among the catalogue of eco- and human-friendly brands are some you’re probably already familiar with, like Levi’s and Patagonia, and some you probably haven’t heard of, like Alternative Apparel, PACT, Everlane and Threads 4 Thought. A simple Internet search for “affordable ethical fashion brands” will introduce you to numerous websites and stores that don’t preach perfection but do their best to avoid leaving a trail of suffering in their wake.
Another option is to get clothes secondhand from thrift stores, garage sales or even older siblings. Putting old clothes to good use saves them from taking up space in a landfill and the money you spend will go to the thrift store or previous owner instead of unethical, exploitative brands.
So maybe instead of doing this season’s holiday shopping at Forever 21 or H&M, visit Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange (two popular thrift stores), or try an online brand that specializes in ethical merchandise. As consumers, we have the collective power to influence corporate decisions, but only if we all agree to send a message that exploitation is unacceptable.