As the festive season approaches once again, marking the end of a year that has traded lockdowns and Zoom parties for in-person social events and celebrations, you may have the itch to update your wardrobe with some party-worthy pieces. This is advocated for by the adverts that pervade our TVs and phones, informing us of the latest fast fashion trends that are apparently necessary for a happy and enjoyable Christmas. However, behind this lies a harsh and less-than-glittering reality, in which garment workers’ safety and rights are sacrificed in the trade-off for cheap clothing items that are often discarded before spring arrives. Although there is now a greater awareness of the enormous detrimental environmental effect that fast fashion causes – being, for example, the second biggest water-consumptive industry in the world – there still seems to be a disconnect between the clothes we wear and the people that make them.
So, what is happening in order for you to hold that bargain in your hands? In the global supply chain, garment workers are the ones who endure the negative effects of the high demand for fast fashion. They are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions to make a minimum, rather than a living, wage. This disparity is shown in research which has uncovered that Bangladeshi garment workers are paid 3.5 times less than what would be considered a basic living wage. A recent survey of 300 clothing companies including brands such as Adidas, New Look and ASOS, found that 93% of garment workers aren’t paid a living wage. This has knock-on effects that force workers to work for longer hours or take out loans in an attempt to survive, demonstrated in the statistic that the average working day for a garment worker is 14-16 hours, 7 days a week.
During these working hours, there exist more difficulties and danger for garment workers. Young women aged between 18 and 24 represent 80% of garment workers, and it is commonplace for them to face sexual harassment and assault. Employment and wages are used as bargaining tools by male supervisors in order to have non-consensual sex with female workers, a report found. Jeyasre Kathiravel is one of many female garment workers who has been killed and murdered by her work supervisor. Further danger is presented by the structurally unsafe buildings in which they work. One of the most infamous examples of this is the Rana Plaza where 1,134 people died whilst working, despite management’s knowledge that the building was structurally unsound.
It is essential then that when we are motivated to buy fast fashion, especially in the festive period which is known for heavy consumption, we take a moment to consider the individuals who have to forgo their health, rights and even their lives to make such items. It is hard to see the worth in these clothes when we consider what – and who – has to be sacrificed. There are, however, ways to address these issues. Sites such as Good on You provide appraisals on a wide-range of brands by rating their ethics through three categories – people, planet and animals. Using a tool like this is a great way to check the transparency of a brand before you buy from them. Shopping second-hand is another way to obtain a fashion fix in a more ethical way. This can be done in person or online, with sites such as Vestaire, Depop and Vinted offering extensive collections. Renting is also another option growing in popularity through companies such as Rent The Runway. As well as avoiding fast fashion, we must also be active in advocating for systemic change. The Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, War On Want and The Circle are just a few of the organisations fighting for better conditions for garment workers. They provide a range of ways to get involved and help, whether it be through donating, campaigning or signing petitions.