The global fashion industry is facing an existential crisis: after exploding across the globe in search of ever-cheaper places to manufacture its treasures, stories of worker abuses are as depressing as they are consistent: violence, brutally long hours, unpaid wages, dangerous conditions, and perpetual poverty.
Last year, workers at an Indian factory known for supplying a number of household brands said they were beaten for joining a union. Earlier this year, researchers for a civic organization found that garment workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam working for suppliers of international labels received such low pay that they were unable to feed themselves. Another report found that Vietnamese female workers faced “systemic” sexual harassment and violence at work.
In 2013, the industry became a global symbol for worker exploitation after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Some 1,134 people were killed in the accident, making it one of the worst industrial disasters of all time. The international reaction to the deaths bolstered existing civic movements calling for improved conditions along global supply chains, but they have yet to be able to eradicate the problems entirely.
Last year was our 20th anniversary, and in many ways, we haven’t seen the kind of progress that we’d like to see,” says Martin Buttle, a strategic lead for the organisation Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), “We’ve seen the same stories and the same kind of problems reoccur in various different sourcing countries since when we started working in this field.”
As a result, the ETI has commissioned an expansive study of the connections between business models in fashion and food, and the labor standards in the supply chains of these industries. According to the results of the study, the model of producing masses of volumes of clothing at the highest speed and lowest cost, through a widely flexible and opaque global supply chain, has been the key contributor to exploitation the world over.
At the same time, consumers are savvier than ever and are increasingly expecting their favorite brands to have comprehensive ethical policies. Brands, in turn, are responding: fast fashion giant H&M has been particularly outspoken about its ethical and sustainability initiatives, while also catching flack for failing to live up to its own promises.
So why hasn’t change been more forthcoming? One explanation is that brands are trying to fix systemic and structural issues through unilateral projects. Instead, it appears that what is needed is collective, industry-wide reform. Still, this is easier said than done, when any move by a brand to raise prices or reduce the speed of new collections puts it at an extremely competitive advantage with the rest of the fashion world.
It is for these reasons that fast-fashion seems to be at loggerheads with ever-growing ethical demands of consumers. Until this conflict is resolved at a systemic level, communications strategies looking to conflate cheap products and up-and-coming styles with environmental and social concerns will need to find ways to stretch their message to unbelievable levels.