Sustainability Report: The Dark Side of Fast-Fashion

Fast-Fashion is a billion-dollar industry. Fast-Fashion is a term used to describe a highly profitable and exploitative business model. It is based on replicating catwalk trends and high-fashion designs. And mass-producing them at a low cost, hence the term fast-fashion.

Bangladesh: Garment Capital of the World

There are 3.5 million workers that produce fast-fashion goods for export to the global market in Bangladesh. The industry generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue. The country imports 12% of all raw cotton and represents over 90% of its exports. Hence, Bangladesh is the second-largest clothing exporter after China.

It’s a $29 billion industry, however, garment workers have only made about $0.35 an hour.  Meanwhile, multinationals like H&M, Walmart, and Aldi take advantage of the country’s dismally low minimum wage.

Hence, this flood of foreign business has overwhelmed the country. Which leads to the lacking the infrastructure to meet demand. 

Working conditions have suffered as a result. For this reason, Bangladesh is now one of the worst countries in the world for worker rights.

Similarly, poor infrastructure, including shoddy electrical work, and stores of fabric and chemical dyes, have led to disasters. In particular the Rana Plaza Collapse. Indeed, the tragedy serves as a wake-up call for the dark side of Bangladeshi sweatshops.

At this time, Bangladeshi factory workers face appalling conditions. Furthermore, many are forced to work 14-16 hours a day seven days a week. For instance, it is reported that some workers finishing at 3 am only to start again the same morning at 7.30 am. In addition, workers face unsafe, cramped, and hazardous conditions which often lead to work injuries and factory fires. Since 1990, more than 400 workers have died and several thousand more have been wounded in 50 major factory fires. Moreover, sexual harassment and discrimination are widespread. And many women workers have reported that maternity leave benefits are not upheld by employers (About War on Want, n.d.).

Fast-Fashion in Rana Plaza:
The deadliest building collapse in modern history 

The 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse was a structural failure. It occurred on 24 April 2013 in the Dhaka District, Bangladesh. Where an eight-story commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed. The total death toll: 1,134. And unions called it “mass industrial homicide”.

It brought worldwide attention to death-trap workplaces within the garment industry.

There are at least 29 global brands that had recent or current orders with at least one of the five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building.

Of course, the revulsion over Rana Plaza forced brands and retailers to act. As a result, about 250 companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Indeed, the Accord was designed to improve safety dramatically in 2,300 factories supplying western brands.

Because of the Accord, factory owners began investing in ensuring worker safety. These investments are fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades, and other stronger foundations. Surely, eliminating safety hazards in facilities covered by the Accord alone.

Implementing Accord on Fire and Building Safety

More than 80,000 safety issues were identified that needed to be resolved. Many of the corrective actions such as reducing weight loads and adhering to load management plans are implemented and monitored. And inspectors have identified more substantial safety requirements. Such as installing fire doors and automated fire alarm systems, establishing fire-protected exits from factory buildings, and strengthening columns in the buildings. Brand signatory membership has increased dramatically. Covering more than 1,600 factories employing approximately two million workers.

Changes in Fast-Fashion

On May 31, an initiative of European readymade garment (RMG) retailers, shut down its operations in Bangladesh and handed over the charges to RSC. The RSC will be governed by global companies, trade unions, and manufacturers.

 RMG manufacturers, global brands and retailers, global unions, and their Bangladeshi affiliates established this unprecedented national initiative to carry forward the significant accomplishments made on workplace safety in Bangladesh.

Role of Consumer

The role of the consumer has an effect on the conditions and wages of workers thousands of miles away.

Characteristic of the consumer market in developed countries: the need for ‘fast fashion.’ whilst in the least developed countries (LDCs) the demand is ‘generally for less sophisticated and lower quality clothes.’

  • Average Spend in a developed country: In 2010, American households spent an average of 1,700 USD on apparel, footwear and related textile products and services.
  • Studies have shown increased awareness among consumers of ethical issues which plague the industry.
  • Problem: Whilst there is a general desire for more ethically produced products, for the most part consumers do not want to pay more for their products.
  • Ultimately brands respond to consumer demands and the most powerful tool which consumers have is the power of choosing where to spend their money.
  • Consumers may also partner with NGOs and Trade Unions to take part in campaigns which send a clear message to the brands.

Role of NGOs

NGOs can play a role in advocacy, awareness, and influencing action. NGOs lobby governments and multi-national corporations, often facilitate negotiations between workers and employers or brands. Research and publications by NGOs can bring greater awareness of the issues in the industry and can help track change.

Recent Examples of Consumer Action facilitated by NGOs:

  • Clean Clothes Campaign: Living Wage Campaign-Consumers may sign a petition on the website of Clean Clothes Campaign, demanding living wages, e.g.a minimum monthly wage of $177 for Cambodian garment workers.
  • Stop The Traffik: Make Fashion Traffik Free Campaign -Consumers may organise clothing exchanges to raise awareness of trafficking and exploitation in the garment industry. They may also fill in postcards to send to the branded clothing stores in their area asking them to ensure their supply chains are free from trafficking

Fast-Fashion and Clothing Brands

Global clothing brands are extremely powerful in this industry. Indeed, the brands which normally take the form of multinational corporations have the power to create change in the industry.

Some brands have started to respond to pressure from workers, NGOs, and consumers and are developing and implementing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies.

CSR Policy Example: Forever 21 -In its online CSR policy, Forever 21 commits to ethical sourcing, and ensuring vendor compliance with wages, and other fundamental workers’ rights.

Final Thoughts on Fast-Fashion

Almost no fashion brand owns factories anymore. The business model is one of contracting out: a brand places an order at a supplier, who then often subcontracts this out even further.

Yet, when garment workers face problems, it is often the garment brands that can (and should) use their influence. Brands also recognize this. They have elaborate Codes of Conduct that should, in theory, make sure that no human rights violations occur. Although we all know, this is far from the case. From poverty wages to unsafe factories to union-busting, all kinds of violations are endemic within the global garment industry.

Therefore, it is vital that workers, worker rights advocates, and others have accurate information on what brand produces where.

Transparency alone does not resolve in improved working conditions, higher wages, or accountability. But transparency is necessary. It is a precondition to effectively campaign for those other goals.

Consumers are also demanding answers; in a world that is ever more connected, they deserve an answer when they ask #WhoMadeMyClothes

Indeed, creating a truly sustainable global garment industry. This requires input from all players, including brands and retailers, business associations, trade unions, government NGOs, and the end consumer.

Reference List

Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, (2018). Safe Workplaces. Retrieved from https://bangladeshaccord.org/

Clean Clothes Campaign, (2015). General Factsheet garment industry February 2015 report. Retrieved from https://cleanclothes.org/file-repository/resources-publications-factsheets-general-factsheet-garment-industry-february-2015.pdf

Clean Clothes Campaign, (n.d.). Rana Plaza. Clean Clothes Campaign. Retrieved from https://cleanclothes.org/campaigns/past/rana-plaza

Ovi, IH. (2020 June 01). RMG Sustainability Council launches to sustain workplace safety. Retrieved from https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/06/01/rmg-sustainability-council-launches-to-sustain-workplace-safety

Oxfam Australia, (2013 December 05). The Bangladesh Accord and why it is important. Retrieved from https://www.oxfam.org.au/2013/12/the-bangladesh-accord-and-why-it-is-important/

Roberts, A. (2014 October 16). The Bangladesh Accord factory audits finds more than 80,000 safety hazards. The Guardian Australia Edition. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/15/bangladesh-accord-factory-hazards-protect-worker-safety-fashion

Safi, M. (2018 April 24). Rana Plaza, five years on: safety of workers hangs in balance in Bangladesh. The Guardian Australia Edition. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/apr/24/bangladeshi-police-target-garment-workers-union-rana-plaza-five-years-on

Volodzko, D. ( 2019 March 05). Bangladesh is burning and sweatshops are fuel. The Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvolodzko/2019/03/05/bangladesh-and-the-fire-next-time/#1b6a79942ca1

War on Want, (n.d.). Sweatshops in Bangladesh. War on Want Organisation. Retrieved from https://waronwant.org/sweatshops-bangladesh

Len Peralta

About the Author

Len Peralta is the creator of LCM Digital Training. Her goal is for digital learning to be engaging, interactive, and cost-effective. Follow her on Twitter @AskLenPeralta