Earlier this month, online retailer Nasty Gal shocked fans by filing for bankruptcy. The e-commerce darling, which sold original designs, vintage pieces and items from other brands, became a social media hit thanks to innovative branding. Fellow millennial favorite American Apparel’s demise was not quite so surprising, having long been simmering in the pot despite the brand’s popularity. While both companies cited a number of reasons including legal troubles and mismanagement for their financial crashes, a major, troubling factor was also key—they kept most of their manufacturing within the United States.
The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.
The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.
Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.
“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.
With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.
Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.
“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True CostLucy Siegle said in an interview.
But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?
“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.
The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.
Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”
Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.
As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion – the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara – is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide legpants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself. I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-runfactories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be welldressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don’t want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don’t want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before – and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one. There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion — and they are not weird or ugly or any less “fashiony” than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Everlane, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing. Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles – and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can’t buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin. [Also, major revisions in terms of retailers’ and suppliers’ Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
Fast fashion is the practice of rapidly translating high fashion design trends into low-priced garments and accessories by mass-market retailers at low costs. There are a number of elements that are key to the fast fashion process, namely: the price of the garments and accessories; the method and timeline of manufacturing; the trend-based nature and disposability of the clothes themselves.
The fast fashion model has developed from a product-driven concept based on a manufacturing model referred to as “quick response,” developed in the U.S. in the 1980s. This moved to a market-based model of “fast fashion” in the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. (Wiley). It has since come to occupy a very profitable position in the market.
The fashion apparel industry has significantly evolved, particularly over the past several decades. The evolution of manufacturing and consumption has resulted in the intake of “400 percent more clothing today than we did 30 years ago. That shift from mid-market to fast fashion has also tracked a shift from domestic production to cheaper overseas locations from Hong Kong, to mainland China and now to even lower cost centers including Vietnam and Bangladesh.” (CNBC).
“The changing dynamics of the fashion industry have forced retailers to desire low cost and flexibility in design, quality, and speed to market, key strategies to maintain a profitable position in the increasingly demanding market.” (ResearchGate). Fast fashion retailers both meet and fuel this demand by marketing “apparel that may not be made with the finest quality materials to last a life-time, but that is cooler and far more affordable.” (CNN).
Elements of Fast Fashion
i. Price: The widespread availability of low-cost garments and apparel is a distinguishing factor for fast fashion retailers. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” Spain-based Zara, the world’s largest fast fashion retailer, has prices similar to those of the Gap: coats for $200, sweaters for $70, T-shirts for $30, and denim for $69. This is markedly more expensive than H&M, the Swedish-based company, which offers most coats for $69 (though some go for as low as $29), sweaters for between $29 and $34, t-shirts for $5.99, and denim for $19.99. Forever 21, the Los Angeles-based brand, is priced comparatively to H&M. It’s new concept store, Forever 21 Red, however, offers even lower prices, such as camisoles starting at $1.80, jeans at $7.80, tees at $3.80, and leggings at $5.80.
Irish retailer Primark offers some of the lowest prices in the industry. Its first U.S. store features a selection of jeans for $7, t-shirts for $3.50 and tank tops for a mere $1.60, prices that are lower than all of its fast-fashion rivals, analysts say. The retailer boasts prices that are 40% less than H&M’s and 75% less than Gap Factory stores’, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs.
Costs are largely reduced by taking advantage of lower prices in markets in developing countries. “In 2004 developing countries accounted for nearly 75 percent of all clothing exports and the removal of several import quotas has allowed companies to take advantage of the even lower cost of resources.” (Bruce, Margaret, and Lucy Daly. “Buyer behavior for fast fashion.” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management). Workers in Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the country’s exports are apparel, currently earn the lowest minimum wage in the world, taking home about $43 a month. Chinese factory workers make slightly more: $117 to $147 a month. In contrast, American garment workers earn about $9 an hour, taking home $1,660 a month. (http://bust.com).
ii. Manufacturing Timeline and Availability: A significant point of differentiation between fast fashion retailers and non-fast fashion brands is the rapid rate of manufacturing. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”)
While the fashion industry largely operates on a seasonal calendar, fast fashion retailers deliver new garments and accessories to their stores every four to six weeks, sometimes even more frequently. Inditex brand stores (including Zara), for instance, receive deliveries of new clothes twice a week. This is significantly quicker than Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, which has centralized inventory and established computer links to suppliers , cutting the design-to-delivery cycle by 20 percent, to 10 weeks – making it one of the most speed-forward houses in the upper echelon of fashion.
The rapid speeds of delivery for which fast fashion retailer are known are largely based on the location of their manufacturers. For Zara and other similarly situated brands, “The trendiest items are made closest to home, however, so that the production process, from start to finish, takes only two to three weeks.” (NY Times). While manufacturing in local markets – such as Spain for Zara or Los Angeles for Forever 21 – may be more costly than more far-flung locations, such Bangladesh or Cambodia (which offer significantly cheaper labor), these higher labor costs are offset by greater flexibility. Items are produced in lower quantities and so, no extra inventory is left lying around and subsequently offered up at sale prices.
In addition to the widespread availability of fast fashion garments due to the brands’ rapid manufacturing turnaround times, their garments and accessories are physically widely available due to volume of goods produced and the companies’ penetration of the market both by way of e-commerce stores and brick and mortar locations. In 2012, Inditex, for instance, was making “840 million garments a year with around 5,900 stores in 85 countries, though that number is always changing – Inditex has in recent years opened more than a store a day, or about 500 stores a year. Right now there are around 4,400 stores in Europe, and almost 2,000 in Spain alone.” (NY Times, 2012).
Forever 21 “operates over 600 stores throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.” (Forbes). “H&M manufactures at least 600 million items each year and operates more than 3,200 stores in 55 countries. If you include its subsidiary brands, such as COS, that number jumps above 3,500 stores, and the company is expanding its locations by 10% to 15% each year.” (Quartz).
iii. Trend-based: As indicated above, the vast majority of fast fashion retailers stock trend-based garments and accessories, particularly those derived from the most recent runway collections at any given time. Due to the speed of manufacturing, fast fashion retailers are able to get their garments and accessories, which are commonly line-for-line copies of designer goods, to stores long before the actual designer. “Fast fashion poses a threat since its logic is based on copying the designs of high-end producers and quickly diffusing them—sometimes even before the high-end goods, which are based on a complicated and high quality supply chain, are distributed. As such, it mines the overall investment in style by design departments of high end producers.” (US News).
This model of manufacturing and marketing thrives on constant change and the frequent availability of new products. The continuous release of new, trend-drive products essentially makes the inventory a highly cost effective marketing tool that drives consumer visits, increases brand awareness, and results in higher rates of consumer purchases. One soruce reports: “Fast fashion companies have also enjoyed higher profit margins in that their markdown percentage is only 15% compared to competitors’ 30% plus.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”). To keep customers coming back, high street retailers routinely source new trends in the field, and purchase on a weekly basis to introduce new items and replenish stock (Tokatli and Kizilgun 2009).
“It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.”
iv. Disposability: Disposability plays a key role in fast fashion. “Fast fashion has paved the way for outright disposable fashion. It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.” (US News).
Labor Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
A number of tragedies have been directly connected to the production of fast fashion and its lower manufacturing and labor costs. In order to offer low cost clothing, fast fashion retailers source garments and accessories from factories in countries where labor costs are extremely low. For years, this was largely in China. However, “factory workers in China are increasingly pressing for higher wages. Companies have responded by moving production into places where wages are even lower, like Bangladesh.” (NPR).
India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey, among others, have become popular locations for the sourcing of fast fashion garments and accessories. However, such countries largely lack the sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure of China. Per Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady: “Low cost means low regulation. Governments in today’s textile producing countries have little oversight into what happens in their factories.” (CNBC).
This extends to labor conditions and wages. The health of laborers “is affected by the chemicals used to produce the cheap fabrics made into T-shirts that are snapped up for $5 in Western stores.” (BI). Moreover, “in the rush to fill the void, tragedy has sometimes ensued.” (NPR).
Most significantly, in April 2013, “the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment workers died, showed the lengths to which manufacturers will subvert zoning, labor and safety requirements to score contracts and keep inventories full of on-trend fashions at bargain-basement prices.” (Al Jazeera).
On the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse, safety problems are still extremely widespread: “A recent inspection of Bangladesh garment factories was conducted in connection with the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, Bangladesh trade unions, and international brands and retailers. The round of inspections took place at 1,106 factories used by 150 Western brands, and resulted in the identification of 80,000 safety-related problems. Per the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, safety hazards were found in every factory inspected, with nearly 20 factories being labeled as bearing a heightened risk of collapse, and 110 other factories were deemed to have notable structural issues.” (TFL).
For over two years beginning in 2011, Zara was under investigation for the use of slave labor and sweatshop conditions in factories in Argentina and Brazil. In 2011, the “Spanish high-street retailer [was] accused of allegedly accepting slave-labor working conditions supplanted by more than 30 of its outsourced plants running in Brazil.” (Forbes). Bolivian immigrant workers “were caught in slave-like conditions in garment production for the Galicia-based company, which is part of the Inditex group.” (Forbes).
Less than two years later, “immigrant workers, including children, were discovered by the workers’ rights group, La Alameda, producing clothes for Zara in ‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions, investigators claimed […] They were not registered and they were living in terrible conditions. They had no official documents and were held against their will, they were not allowed to leave their workplaces without permission.” (Telegraph).
In October 2014, textiles mills in the Tamil Nadu area of India have been accused of employing forced labor and have been linked to major fast fashion giants including H&M, Primark and C&A. According to “Flawed Fabrics,” a report from the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, which was compiled “through a mixture of desk research and interviews with workers,” an array of core labor rights are being violated. Girls and young women are “being lured from their home villages [at as young as age 15] by false promises” and are working under “appalling, prison-like conditions” in which the women are often bonded. (TFL).
In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia’s capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers. Wages in the garment-manufacturing sector in Cambodia remain low by international standards. In October 2015, Government officials in Cambodia announced that they will raise the minimum wage for clothing workers by 9.4% to $140 a month, hoping to ease tensions in the country’s main export industry. The new wages take effect at the beginning of 2016, but the increase falls short of the $160 a month wage proposed by unions. (TFL)
Environmental/Sustainability Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is, by its very nature, “a fast-response system that encourages disposability.” (Fletcher 2008). With brands like H&M “producing hundreds of millions of garments per year,” there is a growing public consensus that the mass production of so much cheap clothing is an enormous waste of resources such as fuel and water. (NPR). As an industry, “Fast fashion depletes the Earth’s resources and uses slave labor all over the world.” (Vogue).
In addition to a lack of regulation in terms of working and safety conditions and wages, environmental and related regulations stemming from the use of chemicals and pollutants are lax in low cost centers of manufacturing. As such, “textile companies just keep engines roaring, running largely on coal, while they systematically dump their chemicals untreated back into their local water. This has all added up to the apparel industry being the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil sector.” (CNBC).
And the side effects do not stop there. The increase in production of garments and accessories has lead to an increase in waste: “Inevitably, much of this excess finds its way into landfills. In the US alone more than 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in landfills each year, and even natural fibers may not break down easily.” (Quartz).
An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise
From the cotton farm to the clothing factory to the fashion show, the global apparel industry has more than its share of social and environmental problems.
Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.
No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.
Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.
To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.
But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.
Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.
Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”
Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.
Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.
“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”
Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.
Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.
Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.
In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.
But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.
Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”
He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”
A deadly collapse at the Rana Plaza factory just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed almost 1,200 garment workers in a single morning in April 2013. The tragedy shone a bright light on the country’s widespread labor-rights enforcement failures.
Now, more than two years later, millions of workers continue to work in unsafe factories. Pressure to improve conditions in Bangladesh’s garment sector has largely come from outside the country—from consumers, international clothing brands, foreign governments, and development organizations. Yet finally a confluence of factors may force Bangladesh’s domestic factory owners to change.
Rise of low-cost competitors
Bangladesh lives off of its apparel manufacturing. As the world’s second largest garment producer after China, the industry comprises 18% of the nation’s GDP and 80% of its exports. But in the last year, Myanmar and Ethiopia have entered the low-wage garment market, and Vietnam will benefit from lower production costs under the newly-agreed-upon Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These nations could easily chip away at Bangladesh’s market share, threatening its dominant position.
Deteriorating security, driven by Islamic extremism
With increasing demand for “eco-” and “slow” fashion, Bangladesh is perceived as an unsustainable sourcing destination
Adding to Bangladesh’s history of anti-union activity, since the 1990s the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has lodged four separate complaints with the US government about failures to adhere to labor rights standards. Despite millions of dollars of investment after Rana Plaza, the perception remains that workers still face serious threats to their safety and dignity at work, deterring ethically-minded companies from manufacturing there.
This combination of domestic instability and external competition threatens the Bangladeshi garment industry and its broader economy unless factory owners push for meaningful reforms.
Making Bangladesh’s garment sector safe and sustainable for the long term will require significant effort in three areas:
An honest accounting of how many factories are producing for the export market. As it stands, no one is sure how many factories are manufacturing for export. The government says it has inspected “more than 80%” of 1,475 export-oriented factories. The Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU Stern estimates that the total number is closer to 7,000. Solutions to making factories safer must be based on a credible understanding of the problem’s scope.
An assessment of the true costs of upgrading, relocating, and overseeing an expanded number of factories, many of which are small enterprises. Remediation efforts to date have focused on large factories that tend to have direct relationships with foreign brands. But small factories are an essential part of the industry, and there are a lot of them. A group including international experts and local owners should assess the costs of the resources, support, and oversight that would be required to make these factories safe places to work for the approximately three million workers employed in them.
Dividing responsibility for these costs among foreign brands, leading local factories, governments, and development and aid organizations. No single actor can underwrite the significant costs of upgrading Bangladesh’s garment sector. Local and international participants should share the costs. Detroit provides a useful model, in which the public-private Blight Removal Taskforce successfully surveyed the city’s problem, developed a blueprint for addressing it, and raised public and private funds to meet the $800 million price tag of clearing blighted structures.
Bangladesh has the potential to be a good-news story about the possibility of globalization delivering benefits to low-wage workers, even in states with weak governance. Yet changes in the way the apparel supply chain works will have to come from within.
This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.
Garment factories in poor countries might look dirty and dangerous to westerners, but in fact, they are one of our best hopes for poverty reduction and human development.
The strangest thing about the debate about “fast fashion” and garment factories in poor countries is that it carries on as if there were no research on the subject. Western activists rail against “sweatshops”, but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty. All countries that have managed to industrialize its economy and combat poverty in modern times have done so by moving into such labor-intensive exports markets.
Again and again we are supplied with examples of bad working conditions and lousy wages in garment factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh. These countries are incredibly poor compared to the west, and it is easy to create a shocking impression by putting footage of poor workers side by side with footage of spoiled brats wearing their clothes. But that is just lazy sensationalism. If you want to improve the lives of the poor you must analyze how those jobs affect their situation and the economies of those countries.
In fact, few countries have seen such rapid progress as Bangladesh and Cambodia in the last decade, according to the World Bank. The number of extremely poor in Bangladesh fell from 44 to 26 million between 2000 and 2010, despite the population growing by 15 million. Since 2004, the level of poverty in Cambodia has more than halved, from 52 to just over 20 percent. It is “one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide”, according to the World Bank.
This is a stunning success in the countries that need it the most, and the export sector has been instrumental in bringing it about. It increases the workers’ productivity, and therefore also their wages and working conditions, which has been especially important for women. In a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the researchers show that the increase in Bangladeshi wages from the garment sector “dwarfed” the rise attributed to government programs.
In its report on Cambodia, the World Bank says that if more people are to benefit from this positive development, there is a solution that will make every critic of globalization think it is a typo: “Use the same working conditions that are found in the clothing factories and apply them to other industries.”
And the most important thing is that the new knowledge and technology these factories bring in facilitate the creation of new companies and industries. The garment industry in Bangladesh was kick-started in 1979 when a local entrepreneur and South Korea’s Daewoo trained 130 workers in modern production. In 1987, Bangladesh had hundreds of garment-export factories, exports had surged and 115 of the original 130 workers had left to start their own businesses.
Obviously even the best jobs in very poor countries look bad compared to what we are used to in Europe and America, but that is not the alternative in an economy at a low level of capital and education. As a worker I interviewed in Vietnam once put it, the main complaint to management was that she wanted the factories to expand so that her relatives could get the same kinds of jobs.
One may well bemoan the fact that progress is not being made even more quickly. I can understand that. I also want everything – now! But things are moving faster than ever, and it is happening because of the very industries the activists have reserved their special contempt for. The world needs more jobs like these, not fewer.
*This story first appeared on HuffPost UK Lifestyle blog here.
The ethics council that guides Norway’s $820 billion sovereign wealth fund is zeroing in on the textile industry for breaching its standards in a development that may lead to some companies being excluded from the fund’s portfolio.
In a study of about 400 textile manufacturers, about “two handfuls” have been singled out and contacted, Johan H. Andresen, the chairman of Norway’s Council on Ethics, said in an interview on Thursday at his office on the outskirts of Oslo.
“We will see whether we think that they are willing and able to make changes in their conduct,” he said.
As investors shrink away from Volkswagen AG following its emissions scandal, Andresen said hot-spots of media focus aren’t always the areas his council deems the most pressing.
Instead, he spoke of the “slavery” and other “shocking revelations” relating to how garments for western consumption are produced, “and nobody raises an eyebrow in our part of the world.”
Norway’s wealth fund isn’t the only big investor treating the textile industry with growing caution. Nordea Asset Management, a unit of Scandinavia’s biggest bank which oversees about $320 billion, said in August it has investigated textile suppliers to Hennes & Mauritz AB as part of its effort to ensure it only holds ethically sound assets.
The Norwegian fund takes into account ethical rules encompassing human rights, some weapons production, the environment and tobacco. It has excluded more than 60 companies after recommendations from the council, including global giants like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Andresen said his council’s studies of the textile industry have found “strong indications of forced labor at least in the past and we will have to judge if that will be a possibility also in the future.”
The council is unlikely to make recommendations to the wealth fund that punish a company for past misdeeds, provided it shows real evidence it has put in place processes that will lead to improvement, Andresen said.
He also said his council hasn’t started any study on the car industry since the VW scandal, and declined to comment on specific companies.
The textile manufacturing industry made global headlines in 2013 with the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people. A nationwide strike by garment workers in Cambodia last year also left three dead.
A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and workers’ rights groups released this week criticized H&M for being behind schedule in “correcting dangers” faced by Bangladeshi workers who produce its clothing. Based on public information, the analysis shows that the company “has not honored its commitments to ensure the safety” of the workers in Bangladesh, according to the report.
H&M said in an e-mailed comment on Friday that it has had “some delays” in fixing factories, which is “of great concern.” The company is one of about 200 brands that have signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety to make textile work safer.
“Our own internal follow-up data shows that the factories where we are the lead brand have completed nearly 60 percent of all required improvements and are scheduled for validation by the accord,” H&M said.
The Norwegian ethics council’s work has already had real impact, Andresen said. Agents contracted by the group in an unidentified country saw a building facing similar risks to Rana Plaza and alerted an American customer that then went in and physically fixed it, reinforcing the building, he said.
“If there are gross violations of safety that could be a gross violation of human rights, workers’ rights,” Andresen said.