By Eleanor Antoniou
This article mentions violence and sexual harassment.
This Black Friday, major fashion brand Pretty Little Thing reduced everything on their site by up to 99%, a shocking price reduction with clothes on sale for as little as 4p. These low prices invite high levels of consumerism which are detrimental to the environment. They must also make us question who is making these clothes, how much they are being paid, and what sort of conditions they are working in.
Fast fashion therefore is a human rights issue. It is a problem which exists even within the UK, highlighted in March this year by the Boohoo/Nasty Gal scandal. Their Leicester factory was accused of modern slavery after workers were made to continue without PPE in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, being paid as little as £3.50 an hour.
But fast fashion is also a feminist issue. Approximately 80% of garment workers in the global garment industry are women, aged between 18-35, yet female workers are not on equal terms with their male colleagues. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, these women, including young girls, are often vulnerable and living in poverty, forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy environments where they face gender discrimination each day. Women working in factories have described being stripped of their dignity, sleeping on the factory floor, denied toilet or water breaks, and sworn at by their shouting bosses. They must survive on inadequate pay whilst predominantly male CEOs from major fashion brands take four days, on average, to earn what a female garment worker in Bangladesh will earn in her entire lifetime, according to Oxfam International. On top of this, female workers are often balancing work with childcare and domestic activities, keeping them trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.
Fast fashion is even killing these workers. In 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people, 80% of which were women, and including a number of children. This building contained products of high-profile brands such as Primark, Matalan and Mango. The tragedy is all the more harrowing because the owner, Sohel Rana, was warned by an engineer that the building was unsafe. The day before the collapse, the structure shook so much that cracks appeared and workers fled in fear. Nevertheless, the next morning the factory’s bosses ordered work to continue, placing profits above workers’ safety.
The threat of violence and sexual harassment is also very real to women working within the garment industry. In 2017, humanitarian agency, CARE International, who are focused on fighting global poverty, discovered that nearly one in three female garment workers in Cambodia experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, including physical abuse, sexual violence, verbal abuse, and inappropriate touching. Even the journey to and from work is a daily risk for these women, who have described being afraid while outside due to the threat of sexual violence and harassment. A more recent study by ActionAid found that in Bangladesh last year 80% of garment workers experienced or witnessed sexual violence or harassment at work. The culture of silence around these issues leaves female workers feeling they cannot speak up for fear of being shamed or losing the jobs upon which their livelihoods depend, meaning they remain trapped in these unsafe spaces.
So what can we do to help? Firstly, we can buy less from fast fashion brands and shop in alternative places whenever we can. Since deciding I wanted to give up fast fashion in the summer, I’ve been trying to buy second hand, from places like Depop, or sustainable brands, such as nu-in or @thepopupgirlsshop platform on Instagram, who support many female-led independent labels. It helps to view it as a fun challenge to find ethically sourced items which you really love! We also need to change the way we see clothes and fashion. When you do buy from fast fashion brands, try to buy things you actually want and will re-wear. Ask yourself if you really like something, or if it is an impulse buy or a current trend which you won’t wear once it’s out of style. By changing this consumer attitude, we also benefit the environment. Every week in the UK, 13 million items of clothing end up in landfill (this includes some of the items we return to fast fashion brands!).
Additionally, we can ask our favourite brands, by email or social media, to make a change and be transparent about every aspect of their supply chain. Even brands like H&M which have a “conscious” range are avoiding the problem: they are allowing customers to buy clothes with a clean conscience yet distancing themselves from the suffering of the people who make them. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, H&M have produced no evidence to show that their garment workers are being paid fairly, since they outsource their production and do not track their supply chains. These brands need to change the way they source their products and prove they care about their workers.
Ultimately, we need to be aware of who is making the clothes we wear, and remember that these are real people, who have a right to feel safe and protected at work: fashion should never be at the expense of human rights and gender equality.
Here are some resources for further reading:
Labour Behind the Label, https://labourbehindthelabel.org
Clean Clothes Campaign, https://cleanclothes.org
Gaia Rattazzi, Instagram: @ssustainably_
Venetia La Manna, Instagram: @venetialamanna
Aja Barber, Instagram: @ajabarber
Illustration by Sophie Smith