Do you know who made your clothes?
Six years ago the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh made me ask that question. I was one of many shocked to find that the people working in that unsafe factory, under terrible conditions for almost no pay, were making clothes for brands I was wearing that very minute.
Over 1,100 garment workers died that day, exposing some secrets of the fashion industry. Not only is the garment industry one of the most polluting industries on the planet, but it’s also an industry that has historically employed mostly women who endure abuse and unsafe conditions for little pay (usually well below their country’s minimum wage).
Women make up about 85% of all garment workers. In the countries where fast-fashion is produced, namely Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, they are an easy target because they can be paid below the minimum wage and likely won’t make a fuss out of fear of repercussion. According to some reports, these women work an average of 60 hours a week and take home the equivalent of less than a dollar an hour. This is not considered a living wage, not by American standards or the standards of the women’s home countries.
In his new book, “Drawdown,” Paul Hawken ranks the top 100 solutions to climate change. He lists “educating girls” high on the list at No. 6. Studies have shown that educated women make huge contributions to the economy and society. They also have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, as well as having healthier children.
The last several decades have seen an improvement in the education of women in many countries, but there are still millions that don’t have the time or money to go to school. Raising wages and making laws about work hours could give these female garment workers greater opportunities and the chance to break the cycle of perpetual poverty.
Even in a post-#MeToo world, there are voices that have been forgotten. There are over 40 million garment workers in the world, and more often than not they endure all kinds of abuse and unsafe work conditions — just so someone can save money on a T-shirt that may only be worn a few times.
There’s a quote that I often use to help explain why I care about conscious consumerism and educating about supply chains: “Every time you buy something, you cast a vote for the kind of world you want.” I often discuss human and women’s rights, and I can’t in good conscience cast a vote for a world in which millions of women and children are exploited and abused for the sake of fashion. There’s something hypocritical about saying I support all women and their opportunities, then turning around and buying a product that perpetuates the problem.
Supporting human rights means supporting the rights of people everywhere, not just those in your backyard. Taking advantage of people who are struggling and desperate to provide for their families is frowned upon, but there’s a sad tendency to overlook how we do that very thing to people of different nationalities just to feed our bad consumer habits.11 comments on this story
There’s long been an assumption that consumers won’t buy ethically sourced clothing because of the higher cost. But that notion has been turned on its head in the last few years. Last week was Fashion Revolution week, and people all over the world posted to social media to ask brands, “Who made my clothes?” It’s a necessary question, and the honest advocate will be willing to accept the outcome: Supporting better practices will mean higher short-term expenses. But choosing to support brands who treat workers fairly is worth it because the long-term benefits of changing your consumer habits far outweigh the short thrill of getting a cheap piece of clothing.
There’s an abundance of reasons to stop purchasing cheap clothing and supporting sweatshops: reducing pollution and climate change, educating women, elevating societies, reducing waste — take your pick. Cast your vote.