We can all agree that slave labor is terrible-- that might even be why you are here reading this post to learn more about ethical fashion. Many of us know that factory conditions worldwide (and here in the United States, as well) are not up to par - not even close. This is not just a feminist issue, a race issue, or even an environmental issue; the production of fashion intersects all of these topics.
The high demand for fast fashion - the way we quickly get rid of our clothes and purchase new ones - causes exploitative working conditions worldwide. And demand for cheap clothes is so high that brands are not slowing down to change; they’re simply focused on profitability.
“For each garment that is made, the garment maker usually reaps no more than 1% of the garments’ worth. (However,) the owner of H&M is the 28th richest person in the world. The co-founder of Zara is the 4th richest person in the world.” (Urge.org)
This is why ethical fashion was born, to slow down the production cycle and ensure that fashion does not just benefit the CEOs at the top. But it benefits everyone from the consumer to the producer. Fair trade is one way to produce ethical fashion. Standards set in place ensure that brands slow down and look at the whole line of production, and not just at the end when the consumer is spending money.
Here are the ten principles of fair trade:
Let’s talk about why people work in fast fashion. People work in factories for the same reason anyone has a job. To earn a living, to take care of your family because we all need money to live off of. But in many cases, there are little to no other options, and factory work is the only way to earn a living. This is the case in the U.S. It is well documented that fast fashion is produced within the U.S. under slave/exploitative labor.
It is obviously problematic if working in a factory with deplorable conditions is the only option for an income. This automatically creates a system of power. The factory owners (and brands) have it, and the individual worker has very little. Most garment workers are women of color who have few other options to turn to for an income. This is a racial inequality issue around the globe.
Ethical fashion is also a feminist issue because approximately 80% of garment workers are women. Women commonly work in garment factories after being held back from getting an education - especially compared to their male counterparts. And the whole kicker is that for every dollar a woman earns, 90-80 cents goes back to her family and community -- compared to 40-30 cents for men. So communities would be stronger if women had a chance to earn as much as men. Even in garment factory work, males are typically in managerial positions while women supply the lowest-paid labor.
This exploitation of labor has been happening from the beginning of time - European imperialism was explicitly designed to exploit states and oppress their citizens (non-white people).
“Sourcemap has traced supply chains for most major clothing and apparel manufacturers, and the data mapping it provides show that world trade routes are mostly the same as they were 150 years ago at the height of European colonial exploitation. In the same way that colonized nations provided cheap sugar, chocolate, coffee, and fruit to the West, “developing” nations now provide cheap semi-disposable clothes to the West and global economic upper classes. ” (The Cut)
Which also makes this a colonization issue. Fast fashion clearly has its roots in the oppression of black and brown people. While ethical consumption aims to create fair labor through “living wages” and “good work environments,” it still has its work cut out to create a more equitable world. “Fair Trade advertising bears a start resemblance to colonial-era market campaigns that are presented exotic and smiling subject in order to normalize a system of racial hierarchy by attesting to ‘the ethical and moral nature of the product’” (Ramamurthy 2012). Using stories of artisans without informed consent as a way to sell “ethically-made” products is still a form of exploitation, often exploiting an artisan’s trauma to sell products.
Factory work is also bad for the environment, and as such bad for the health of the people who work in the factories, the people who live near the factories, and the people who live near areas of the world impacted by the climate chain. For example, in China, some factories leave workers exposed to chemicals that the workers associated with headaches and other side effects (Chang 2009).
People are marginalized through factory work every day when many aspects of inequality come together. Ethical consumption is not just about worker’s rights; it is about environmentalism, colonialism, racism, poverty, and so much more. There are so many ways that our consumption impacts the world-- it can be unimaginable at times! We make decisions every day about how we spend our money. We choose how much plastic there is, how much gas is used to get stuff to our doors, how much mining is done to retrieve valuable metals we need in our laptops and cellphones. Intersectionality is such an essential concept of ethical consumption.
As much as we want things to be straightforward and simple, they are not. They are tied together in ways that can never entirely be undone. This naturally leads to intersectionality. We can all have our passions, but so frequently, our passions are not a singular thing. They are tied to one another. Supporting ethical fashion means supporting workers’ rights, environmental justice, feminism, racial justice, + working to decolonize our world.
One final note. The intersectionality of ethical fashion can be super overwhelming. If you are starting your journey away from fast fashion to ethical consumption, start by focusing on one aspect of ethical fashion. Maybe buying clothes from a fair trade certified brand, thrift shipping, or buying clothes made more eco-conscious materials. Whatever it is, start with that one thing and then go from there. We can’t change the world all at once, but we can make slow progress as we learn how interconnected our world is, eventually we can create a world where ethical fashion is the norm.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China. By Leslie Chang