The Stitched Up series looks at the real price of fast fashion – who pays for it, who is to blame for exploitation and what can be done about it?

“You think it ended but it never did,
It put the chocolate in our mouth,
The logo on our freshest kicks,
The clothes on our backs,
The coffee we drink almost everything,
There’s more slaves right now on earth than there’s ever been…”

Wake Up’, anti-slavery song by UK rapper Lowkey.

Low price clothes are everywhere, from Ôø°1 t-shirts to Ôø°8 pairs of jeans. Companies like Primark call themselves fashion democracies – making fashion available and affordable for everybody. As soon as you see a style on the catwalk or in a magazine you can buy it cheaply on the high street. The nineteenth century Parisian haute couture designers must be spinning in their impeccable graves.

This third article in the Stitched Up series looks at the real price of fast fashion – and who pays for it? Are people who shop in Primark to blame for the plight of children in sweatshops and what can be done to take the slavery and environmental devastation out of fashion?

Is our freedom of expression more important than other people’s freedom, and is being against fast fashion anti-working class? Should fashion be limited as something only for the rich?

The Human Cost

The demand for instant fashion, for a ‘6 or 7 week stock turn around’ has created millions of fashion victims. The only way for fashion to be so instantly and cheaply available is to cut the costs of production. Use cheap materials and use the cheapest possible labour.

It used to be seamstresses in London and Paris going blind stitching the dresses of rich women; now it is the turn of the poor in countries like India and China. Programmes like ‘The Devil Wears Primark’ have highlighted the crimes of familiar high street chains.

Primark is now notorious for making workers put in 80 hour weeks and for the fact that in a two month period, in 2006, over 100 workers were killed in factories that supply clothes to Primark.

But it’s not just Primark, it’s every company. All the trainers, tracksuits, jeans, suits, underwear… it all comes from factories where people work for less than $1 a day. There is a reason you can buy such cheap clothes in Tesco – the workers in Bangladesh who make them get paid Ôø°145 per year. Contrast that to the Ôø°4,700,000 in wages that Tesco Chief Executive Terry Leaky takes home each year. In addition, many ‘designer’ clothes are also made in countries like Cambodia then imported to Europe to be finished so they can get a ‘made in Italy’ label.

M&S, Gap and Next were all recently exposed as using sweatshop suppliers who pay their workers 25p an hour. Interviewed by the Observer, Jawal Hussain, a worker at one of the supplier factories, said that in June 2010 he worked 133 hours overtime on top of his normal eight-hour shifts, all at the basic single rate of pay. He was paid a total of 6,100 rupees [Ôø°83].

Starting at 9am he regularly worked until 10pm with two half-hour breaks and sometimes worked until 2am having to return again a few hours later. Anyone refusing to do overtime is either beaten up or sacked – or both.

Workers in textile factories in Third World countries also face serious health risks from the chemicals they work with. If a pair of jeans has been made to look worn in, they will have been sanded down by a worker who inhaled all the harmful blue dust from the jeans because s/he has not been given protective breathing equipment. That is what it really means to be dying for the latest jeans.

But still companies often try to defend their exploitation by declaring that they are doing destitute workers a service by providing them with factory jobs. Is that true – is it better that people have a factory job rather than no job?

The reality is that these factories are often a step backwards in terms of worker rights. Many companies, Nike being a prime example, have histories of persuading governments to let them flout the set minimum wage, or circumventing wage laws by paying workers ‘apprentice wages’ for months on end.

The Observer article recorded Indian workers explaining that once they had paid their rent, electricity, food and transport bills and sent a little money home to their families, they had nothing left and usually had to rely on credit to get through to the end of the month. Families also suffer from the parents working sixteen hour shifts as children are left to fend for themselves and school is too expensive for factory families to afford.

That is of course if the children are not also working at the factories. Child labour and cheap fashion go hand in hand. Child slavery is rife from Haiti to Uzbekistan to India, Ivory Coast to China. In 1996, UNICEF estimated that there were 352 million child workers in the world. Employers like to exploit children because they are the cheapest possible workers and are often more cowed and obedient than adults.

Children end up working for a number of reasons, the same reasons that poor people end up taking exploitative and dangerous jobs. The main reason is poverty – the need for food, shelter and clothing for the child and their family.

However other factors such as family breakdown, children having to assume an adult role after the death or loss of a parent – increasingly due to HIV/Aids. Also, sexism against girls and the discrimination against minority groups force many children to work.

Articles and programmes that blame destitute families for children working are short sighted and unhelpful. Children will be forced to work until poverty is eradicated and we have equality. This is the responsibility of those who have taken the power and resources for themselves, but it is our responsibility to demand it and force it to happen.

So until there is a decent minimum wage, regulated hours, freedom of choice for overtime, written contracts, trade union rights, decent on-site living conditions, sick pay, maternity pay and all the other things that stop people being slaves, then factories are not doing workers a favour. They are exploiting them for their own profit. We would not accept these conditions in the UK so we should not accept them for the people labouring to make our clothes in other countries.

The environmental cost

The other dark side to fast fashion is its environmental impact. The textile industry is one of the worst industries in terms of pollution because of the chemicals it uses for fertilisers and dye and for the sheer volume of water that it needs. As many as 2000 different chemicals are used in the textile industry and manufactured fabrics like polyester are made in an energy-intensive, toxic emission-producing process using crude oil.

Even ‘natural’ fabrics like cotton take a huge toll on the environment when produced on the scale needed to feed fast fashion. Cotton accounts for over a quarter of all the pesticides used in the USA and is one of the most water intensive crops on the planet. It takes about 500 gallons of water to produce enough fabric to cover one sofa.

Once this water has been used it is polluted with hundreds of chemicals and unfit for consumption or use by humans. There are currently at least half a billion people living in chronic drought prone areas, with this number set to increase five fold by 2025.

Despite the huge amounts of water used in clothing production, many of the fabrics that we buy still contain residues of the chemicals that have been used to produce them, this can be anything from bleach to mercury and many are carcinogenic. These chemicals are absorbed by our skin or evaporate into the air that we breath. An article in Business Week stated that by 2020 60% of Americans will have a chemical intolerance.

What Is the Solution?

Cheap clothes that give you cancer, fall apart and are made by child slaves are not democracy. It is false emancipation that comes at a high price paid by the working class across the world. It is the working class that are held captive in sweatshops, have their unions smashed by Walmart and have their homes flooded or turned to dust by climate change.

It is the working class that end up wearing poor quality carcinogenic clothes that wear out easily and are quickly scorned as unfashionable. It’s the working class that are forced by low wages and the homogenisation of high streets into shopping or working at cheap shops like Primark or Walmart.

The much vaunted idea of consumer choice is a myth: price restrictions mean that most people have a very limited number of retail outlets they can go to. Finally, it is the working class that are driven to anxiety and feelings of inadequacy for not being able to keep up with fashion. Because of these factors, the idea that Primark-style fast fashion is pro-working class should be discarded.

At the same time, we have to keep wearing clothes especially when living on a freezing cold island like Britain. So what is the solution? How can we change the way the fashion industry works? The point is after all to change society not just to glare at catwalks and shop windows.

It can be argued that there are things you can do as a consumer: this includes not buying so much, or buying second hand (either from charity shops, car boot sales or second hand markets). Holding swap parties as fundraisers – swap clothes, shoes and bags with your friends so that all of you go shopping without actually buying anything. Setting up a ‘Free Shop’ in your local area or university – people can donate the clothes they don’t want and other people can take them when they do want them.

Recycling what you don’t need, either to a charity or free shop or to a textile recycling bank. Lobbying your local council to do textile recycling. Avoiding reading fashion magazines and, finally, when you do shop, being aware of what you are buying; where has it come from, what is it made of and who made it?

But is acting as a consumer enough? These actions can improve your own life and are a step towards a more sustainable future but they are not enough. They won’t end the environmental destruction or exploitation that go hand in hand with fashion today. As a consumer, all you do is make a choice between Product A and Product B – this does nothing to challenge the system that we live in. It is an illusion of choice. We cannot change the world as consumers.

The fashion industry is worth billions every year; it is not going to be relinquished lightly by those with a stake in the system of exploitation. So how do we do it? The first step towards change is spreading the word about what is happening. People need to know what is going on. There are some excellent campaigns being run by No Sweat and by War on Want’s ‘Love Fashion, Hate Sweatshops.’

Many companies argue that they should be left to self regulate. However, the various shop-led initiatives like the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), of which Primark is a signatory, or the Fair Labour Association have proved to be weak and ineffective. Companies are not going to impose regulations upon themselves that will cut their massive profits.

Instead, successful steps towards a fairer fashion industry have come after workers at the factories fought for their rights by going on strike whilst supported by solidarity movements in consumer countries.

An example of this is the 10,000 Indonesian workers who went on strike in the Nike factories in April 1997, to protest low and unpaid wages. Another 1,300 Nike workers in Vietnam went on strike hoping for a raise of one cent per hour.

In 1997, 3,000 Nike workers in China protested dangerous working conditions and low wages. Progress was slow and things are still far from acceptable in Nike factories, but with support from people around the world Nike was forced to change the working conditions of its employees.

Another example of this is the recent victory of Honduran trade unionists against Fruit of the Loom, the largest private employer in Honduras. Working alongside United Students Against Sweatshops, (a US student organisation) the biggest ever collegiate boycott of a single company was organised, with over 100 universities cutting ties to Fruit of the Loom until the company was forced to enter into agreements with the union.

The way we change the world is as people, as citizens, as workers- that is where our power lies. That is the power that we have over governments and companies. They still need us more than we need them and it is by forcing change that we will get it.

Here in the UK we must demand that the government legislates to ensure that UK retailers cannot use overseas sweatshop slave labour. This will have been made more difficult by Arcadia/Topshop boss Philip Green’s recent appointment as an advisor to the Tory Government. We must be working in solidarity with trade union movements across the globe and fighting our way towards a fair society where no one is enslaved by poverty.

This fight for equality is vital; it is the fight against the structural cause of slavery and environmental destruction – the capitalist system that we live in. Only when we have changed this system that puts profit over people and the planet will we see freedom for all.