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The Exploitation of Fashion Supply Chains

Ever since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, it has been common knowledge that the fashion industry exploits its workers. The Covid-19 era has brought forth these issues again in a light that shows how truly passive big brands are towards their supply chains and how these supply chains reek of colonialism.

Collage by Megan Bang

As social entrepreneur Kalkidan Legesse puts it, these fashion supply chains are based on a model that keeps workers in the role of poverty and poor conditions. Unpaid overtime is not unusual for many under-the-table third party subcontractors. It is also not uncommon for factories to appear like they have decent conditions only on the scheduled day that a third-party auditor inspects the space.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, brands have been scuffling to save money. This has led them to canceling orders with factories that have already produced the product. This leaves the factories with surplus products that will most likely be either sold for cheap or disposed of. The workers also face a similar fate as many will be laid off or not paid.

The fact that these brands continue to offer sale prices to their customers during this time is a continued slap to the face of the fact that they are willing to offer a ‘good deal’ to consumers, but not pay their workers.

As the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion Communication Sustainability Manifesto states: “The fashion industry employs one in six people on the planet, and fewer than 2% of them earn a living wage.” This systematically linear form of commerce only benefits one group whilst completely omitting the other.

This also highlights the issue of racism within the fast fashion industry. It is no secret that many of the popular styles today (and historically) have been taken from the Black and brown communities whilst not acknowledging or supporting said communities. These styles are then highly commercialized and utilize famous Black women, like Cardi B endorsing Fashion Nova, to further capitalize on Black culture. The majority of fashion factory workers are women of color, who bear the brunt of the work in creating these garments that utilize aspects of their culture for profit. Not to mention the systemic racism that can be found within company cultures, factories themselves and in consumers.

Workers all along the supply chain face challenges but so do the communities that surround the factories. These communities that rely on factory work for financial stability can find themselves in desperate situations as airways and waterways are polluted from factory waste. This ranges from pesticides used on cotton to dyes and bleaches in dyeing factories contaminating water to the intensive chemicals used on raw hides for leather.

For example, in India, there is a popular tannery in Kanpur where the chemical runoff has completely contaminated the Ganges river. This is the main source of drinking, bathing and fishing water for the sizable community. With no other options, the community remains dependent on the water source and this results in high rates of general sickliness, rashing and other health risks.

There are also psychological risks to working in factories, primarily because the majority of workers are women. Sexual harassment occurs often. As vulnerable workers with few empowerment options and pressure to put food on the table, these women are certainly not encouraged to speak up. The lack of protection for them from the brands is appalling and continues to not be an issue that is openly recognized.

Do brands greenwash? Yes. Is it annoying? Yes. Can we use our knowledge as informed consumers and pressure brands to do better? Yes!

Items these days are not planned to have a life cycle. They are planned to be purchased and then to die. This puts pressure on our consumers, brands, factories and our environment. It is a deadly cycle that has stress on resources with little reciprocal value to those most vulnerable. Our buying decisions are so focused on price and quantity, but if we slowed down the whole industry (this includes luxury fashion) we would all be in a much more manageable space.

There needs to be space in order to acknowledge the racism that is at the core of the industry, how Black and brown people are exploited to make the garments that also exploit Black and brown culture to be sold for shareholder profit. There needs to be breathing room to address wage inequality amongst the workers who barely make enough money to live.

There needs to be space to explore new structures that can actually benefit our earth instead of kill it.

It is up to us to buy less and vote with our dollar. To pay attention to movements like the recent #payup movement started by Remake and key voices in factory workers empowerment.

Let's love the things we own, buy secondhand (keep in mind the gentrification of thrift stores is an issue within itself) and focus on keeping the things we do have nicer for longer. Our system is broken and it is up to us, our legislature and the good in humanity to try to restructure it. This system does not have to be the standard any longer.


For more information here are some excellent sources:


● The True Cost (2015)

● The Patriot Act: The ugly truth of fast fashion (2019)

● The Story of Stuff (2007)

● Made in Bangladesh (2019)



● The Next Black: A Film About the Future of Clothing (2014)

● Michael Green: How We Can Make the World a Better Place by 2030? (2015)

● Li Edelkoort: An Anti-Fashion Manifesto (2017)

● Wilson Oryema: How toxic are my clothes? (2019)

● River Blue (2016)


Fashionopolis: The price of fast fashion and the future of clothes (Dana Thomas, 2019)

Rise & Resist: How to change the world (Clare Press, 2018)

Stitched Up: The anti-capitalist book of fashion (Tansy Hoskins, 2014)

Wardrobe Crisis: How we went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion (Clare Press, 2016)

To Die For (Lucy Siegle, 2008)


● Why ‘biodegradable’ isn’t what you think (The New York Times)

● Why we need to decolonise and democratise our imaginations (Will Bull)

● The troubling ethics of fashion in the age of climate change (The Washington Post)

● What fashion can learn from a decade of disasters (Business of Fashion)

● No fashion (week) on a dead planet (1 Granary)

● Fashion’s biodiversity problem (Vogue Business)

● Can fashion’s new activists make sustainability sexy? (Business of Fashion)

● Can we stop greenwashing? (Patagonia)


● Aja Barber

● And Beyond

● Fashion Revolution

● Global Fashion Agenda

● Remake

● Clean Clothes Campaign

● Labour Behind the Label

● Fashion Roundtable

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