“Sustainable”. “Eco-friendly”. “Made with 100% Organic Cotton”. Powerful statements leaving a powerful impact. Surely making us feel better about our choices and avoiding the guilt of indulgence. However, is this all there is to sustainability in the ever-changing fashion industry? How many of us are aware of the true state of behind the scenes action? Not being privileged enough to spend their days in swanky offices on Wall Street, factory workers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
According to a report published by Living Wage in Asia 2014, 60% of the world’s clothes were produced in countries like China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Indonesia whereas Europe and North America consumed 60% of the total production. The working conditions in these factories are less than ideal with workers underpaid, sometimes unpaid, forced to work 14-15 hours a day in dangerously cramped spaces and denied basic human rights like access to health and safety in a workplace. The lack of rights and inability to form unions leave them with no way out.
Exploitation of workers in developing countries is what allows us to get dressed to the nines. Sustainability is not only about the environment, but also about the economy and the society. Upliftment of workers, in addition to contributing to the advancement of a country’s economy, aids in the betterment of social living. It allows for financial independence, especially for women in rural areas struggling to gain autonomy. American author, Harriett Beecher Stowe once said, “Women are the real architects of society”. However, mistreating and underpaying them is not the way to equip them to take charge and brighten theirs as well as the community’s future.
Incidents like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 killing 1134 workers and desperate notes saying “I made these clothes you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it” left in garments by Zara labourers neither managed to grab the attention of the fast fashion audience nor the decision makers of the industry. Their efforts were in vain as we still do not stand up for their rights as we do for various other issues in the world. What is it that will awaken the deplorable in us to empathize with those trying to earn an honest living and pressurize those who are responsible for these conditions? This is not to say we are not equally to blame as it is us who create the demand for the innumerable garments to keep up with trends and maintain our glossy social media feeds.
The sudden and unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the unnecessary production and purchase of millions of garments every year only to end up in landfills. The unfortunate lockdown has fortunately forced us to look back and follow the teachings of our ancestors—minimalism. I found myself wearing the same few pieces from my closet on a regular basis during the circuit breaker realising the negligible need to engage in shopping frequently. Similarly, it is quality what is needed and not quantity. Keeping this in mind, let’s remind ourselves of the fact that there was still a global revenue of $1.46 Trillion in 2020 in the apparel market worldwide and is only expected to grow in the coming years, according to a report published on Statista. This is a clear indication of the trivial effect of the pandemic because of which multiple factories were shut and thousands of employees lost their jobs at garment factories owing to big brands cancelling orders.
Dire working conditions. Lack of safety and health care. Inability to form unions. Collapsing factories. Thousands of jobs lost due to COVID-19. We still choose to ignore living in bliss our advantaged and fortunate lives at the cost of thousand others.
Yes, it is true that we can enjoy the luxury of donning new outfits every single time we step out looking our best, thanks to fast fashion. But, at what cost? A call to shift from the linear to the circular model of fashion. Governments as well as companies must take responsibility for the deplorable conditions of garment workers. The public must know about the plight of the poor workers slogging away creating our dream costumes. An attitudinal change. It is high time we understand the consequences of our decisions and actions.
Ignorance is NOT bliss.
Photo Credits: Atopos